November 4, 2012
William G. Carter
As the Christian Year winds up, the scripture readings take us to the end of Jesus’ life. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and the religious leaders question him relentlessly. They go at him from different directions, one day after another. And the last of their tests goes like this:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The quickest way to find out something about someone is to ask a question. Where are you from? What do you do? Who is in your family? Keep the questions open-ended, the interrogators advise us. Let your questions create a conversation.
It’s good advice if you are shy. Drop a shy person in a dinner party, and she may wish to retreat to a corner. But if she takes a deep breath, turns to somebody nearby, and asks that person a question, she will quickly discover that she was not the only shy person in the room. There is hidden treasure in that neighboring soul.
Asking questions is a great method for learning. Mr. Snyder asked questions in our sixth grade science class. Where does the rain come from? It comes from the dark clouds. Where do the dark clouds get their rain? We didn’t know, until somebody who had done the homework replied, “The ocean.” We looked with amazement at the smart kid, and then our teacher led a conversation about evaporation. Questions have that power.
Not every questioner wants a conversation, of course. Some will ask the question for which they are sure that they have the only right answer. They ask, then wait and see if the other person is as smart as they are. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? If you know, you can move ahead. If not, you get a failing grade.
But sometimes the conversation happens anyway. No sooner did Jesus go into Jerusalem and the religious leaders buzzed like hornets around his head. The chief priests, the scribes, the temple elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees – people from all these groups swarmed him, targeted him, interrogated him. Who do you think you are? Where is the source of your authority? Should we pay our taxes to Caesar? One after another, they come after Jesus, trying to trip him up, trying to get him to say something off the cuff that they can replay endlessly on cable TV.
But Jesus stands strong. He responds clearly. One by one, his opponents buzz off.
That’s when a scribe approaches. The scribes were the Bible scholars in Jerusalem. They copied the scriptures by hand, they knew the scriptures by heart. And rather than ask about some theoretical possibility, this scribe asks a Bible question. How refreshing to be asked a Bible question!
And the question goes like this: Of the 613 commandments of God that fill the Hebrew Bible, which commandment is the most important? What is the Number One Commandment? Jesus says, “Love God – and love neighbor.”
Now, I’m sure there were other people standing around, and they were ready to pounce on Jesus. The scribe asked which single commandment? and Jesus gives two. Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 5: You shall love the Lord your God with all that you have within you. Leviticus 19, verse 18: You shall love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
The guy in the back row raises his hand, ready to bark, “Which one is it, Jesus? This scribe asked you for only one, not two.” But before he can speak, he realizes the scribe is already talking. The expert in the sacred texts is complimenting Jesus. You are so right, Teacher. There is no greater commitment than to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength – and there is no greater ethical commitment than to regard the neighbor as highly as we would regard ourselves.
And Jesus compliments him in return, and says, “You are very close – as close to the Kingdom as you are standing by me.” There is a rustle in the crowd, and people start walking away. No more disputes today. No more picking of fights. No more angry rhetoric. Jesus answered well, the scribe answered wisely. In that moment, the kingdom of God is very, very close.
You may remember this story. I hadn’t remembered so clearly that the scribe’s question to Jesus creates a conversation. I hadn’t remembered that the two of them – Jesus and the scribe – were in complete agreement about the primary commitments that the Torah lays upon every person: to love God and to love neighbor. And what makes this so striking to me is that this is the only place in the sixteen chapters of the Gospel of Mark when it says something nice about any of the scribes in Jerusalem.
I mean, Mark usually says the scribes are the bad guys. The scribes are the enemies. The scribes are the schemers. As early as chapter one, Mark says, “The scribes didn’t teach with any authority.” In chapter two, the scribes were already picking at Jesus, criticizing him in their hearts. In chapter three, the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed by the devil. Get the point? Mark really hates the scribes. Jesus says repeatedly that he will be condemned to death by the scribes – and that turns out to be true.
But here, only here, Jesus and a scribe agree on the same thing. Do you know what this is like? This is like Barack Obama and Chris Christie standing together on the Jersey shore. They compliment one another, and they agree there is something more important than their divided opinions. They shake hands, and agree to put love of neighbor ahead of love of politics. Which comes first? In the middle of hurricane devastation, the love of God is expressed through the love of neighbor. Everything else is going to have to line up after that. That comes first.
I think I know why Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is so close at hand.” When opponents find common ground, when strangers pursue a higher good, the kingdom is very, very close.
As the storm stories emerge, we are going to see snapshots of what this looks like. Did you hear about the 25-year-old accountant in Manhattan? When the wall of water hit New York, the accountant looked out of his apartment window and saw a taxi driver in trouble. The cab was instantly swamped. So Jon Candelaria ran downstairs, jumped into freezing water, and pulled the cab driver to safety. “I did it on pure adrenaline,” he said. “I had to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if there was something I could do to save him and I didn’t do it.” That’s called loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself. When we commit to that kind of love, God is ruling right over us.
To love God is to commit to God. In the Bible’s way of thinking, love is not a slippery emotion. It is a flesh-and-blood, heart-and-soul, commitment to Someone. Love is something you do. You love God by doing something for God. You sing a hymn, you lift your prayers, and you make a difference. You take the work of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and you lay it on God’s altar – and you declare, “All that I am doing is my offering to you.” And in that moment, the kingdom of God is ruling over us.
Maybe, rather than spend our national time by bickering over our divisions, our country would be better suited to look above them – and then to ask, “How could we love God rather than beat up other people in God’s name?” And to ask, “What would it look like to love the neighbors around me? What would I have to do to love them?”
There are plenty of distractions, you know. I was talking to somebody the other day. She is staying logged on the internet, so she can keep monitoring the presidential polls. She has to watch them 24-7 just to be sure her favorite candidate doesn’t drop a few points or lose momentum. It’s an enormous distraction. What is she going to do on Wednesday morning, assuming that the election is over by then?
Meanwhile there are a lot of people in need right here. Right next door. All around us. All the time. Maybe sitting very close this morning. We can’t let the noise of the world distract us from the love we have to share.
So here is what I would like you to do this morning: I would like you to remember a face. Somewhere in your memory, remember the face of somebody who taught you what love is all about. Maybe it’s somebody now gone. Maybe it’s somebody still here. Can you see a face? Can you see somebody who taught you about the depth of love? Somebody who gave freely so that you might flourish. Maybe it’s somebody who made a sacrifice for you. Kept a promise to you. Did something for you. Can you see a face? Can you remember a face?
And here’s something else that I want you to do. I want you to see another face, a second face – see the face of somebody that God has placed in your life. Maybe you want them there. Or maybe they are simply a neighbor, or a stranger. Can you see that person? You have something that God has given you that can make that neighbor’s life somewhat better. Maybe you can offer them some of your time. Or the companionship of a listening ear. Or there is something that you know you can do for them. Can you see that face?
So this is what I want you to do. Ready? In your imagination, take the person that you remember, and take the person that you see, and bring them with you to the communion table. For there is a saint that you remember who taught you the love of God, and there is a neighbor nearby who needs that same love channeled through you. This is how love works: it comes to us, it is shared through us. Love will not be hoarded if it is given.
What’s the one most important thing? Love God, love neighbor. Love received, love given. The saints taught us this. Others could become saints as we pass God’s love to them.
Or to put it in the words of the earliest Christians, “Beloved, since God love us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12).
And we are “not far” from the kingdom of God. How far? Not far.
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.