Herb Montgomery | October 29, 2021
“The closest I will ever come to meeting God in this life is you . . . No one should be excluded from our core practice of loving our neighbor as ourself. We are, after all, connected. We are extensions of each other, and part of the same human family. What affects one, impacts all. You are part of me and I’m a part of you.”
Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark. The Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney translates this passage in her A Woman’s Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W:
Now, one of the biblical scholars came near and heard them [the other biblical scholars, the chief priests, and the elders] discussing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scholar asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is: Hear, O Israel: The Holy One our God, the Holy is one; you shall love the Holy One 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 biblical scholar said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that, ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and to love God 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 the scholar answered wisely he said, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question. (Mark 12:28-34, page 271)
This week’s story comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges between Jesus and others (see 11:27, 12:13, 12:18). By contrast, this interaction is friendly, and I’ll explain why I think so in a moment.
First, let’s unpack what the narrative says is happening.
A scholar who overhears Jesus’ discussions is impressed with him. He then asks his own question of Jesus, and Jesus’ answer in Mark is squarely in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Rabbi Hillel reportedly once answered a similar question with the response, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole law. everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!”
So the scholar’s question was not only common among Jewish scholars by Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ responses in Mark are also the core confessions of Judaism::
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Many scholars have noticed that Mark’s Jesus replaces “all your soul” with “all your mind,” a signal that Mark’s audience was influenced by the Hellenized world.
Jesus also quotes Leviticus in his reply:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)
This passage has an interesting context itself. It comes at the end of a list of prohibitions regarding oppression and exploitation of the poor and/or economically vulnerable:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.”
“Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.”
“Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.”
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:9-15)
Many today tout loving your neighbor as a religious tenet, but Leviticus shows it originally had very real world economic, social and political implications.
So, again, our story in Mark comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges, but we get a picture from this exchange of a Jesus who was challenging a system within Judaism, not Judaism itself. Jesus is faithful to Judaism’ core religious beliefs in this story, and at the same time he is also hotly engaged in calls to return to his interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to Torah as he witnessed people being harmed by the system. This is not a Christianity versus Judaism story, then. This is a story that says, yes, Jesus is challenging those in power within his society, but he is doing this as a Jewish man himself and out of concern for what it means to be a faithful Jewish follower of the Torah, not as someone who is anti-Jewish.
Lastly, the scholar talking with Jesus quotes two passages from the Hebrew scriptures that affirm Jesus’ response:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
“With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)
For these writers, love of neighbor is greater than ritual adherence and/or forms of worship.
This exchange between Jesus and the scholar brings to my mind an extended passage from Karen Armstrong that I read years ago and that I believe captures the spirit of Judaism and what early Jesus followers were trying to become. I offer this passage both to affirm Judaism and to critique more regressive and fundamentalist forms of Christianity, which seem to me to making a comeback in our culture.
“In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:
It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’
Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Kindle Locations 7507-7540)
I love this way of defining what it means to be faithful to one’s own spiritual journey. As I’ve often said, the closest I will ever come to meeting God in this life is you, whomever you are, for you, like everyone else I meet, are all unique and yet in this one way alike: you bear the image of God.
I have to ask why our story ends with Jesus saying this scholar was only close to or not far from the reign of God? Why was he deemed close yet not there? Was it because he was interpreting his scriptures in life-giving ways, but was still committed to a system Jesus felt was damaging marginalized and vulnerable people in his own society? Was his scholarship correct, but his employment or survival somehow complicit in harm? Why did Jesus say he was only close? We can’t know because the story doesn’t say. But it is something to ponder.
And that leads me back to the words of Rev. Dr. Gafney one more time. I love this statement from her lectionary comments about this week’s passage. She rightly states:
“If our gospel proclamations are not true for the most marginalized among us—women, nonbinary folk, trans folk, gender non-conforming folk, and LGBTQIA folk—then our gospel is not true.” (p. 273)
We could add more communities to Rev. Dr. Gafney’s list here. The point, though, is that no one should be excluded from our core practice of loving our neighbor as ourself. We are, after all, connected. We are extensions of each other, and part of the same human family. What affects one, impacts all. You are part of me and I’m a part of you. Together, we get to determine what kind of people (no pun intended) we will be.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. How does seeing others as part of ourselves impact our work for societal justice as well as how we relate to one another within our various faith communities? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
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