Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Commandments and the Kingdom - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B

Mark 12:28-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

28 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?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;30 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.’31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 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’; 33 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.” 34 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.
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           As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem he found himself engaged in a number of disputations. He had begun to draw large crowds along the way. People were looking to him for answers to their social, cultural, and theological questions. They came to him to be healed as well. If you’re part of the religious establishment (or the political elite) you might be a bit concerned. Insiders are always concerned about outsiders. We’re seeing this right now in the political scene. Without making any judgments on the qualifications of the outsiders in both political parties, they appear to be making life difficult for the establishment.  This situation may give us some insight into how the elite perceived Jesus. Here he is, a Galilean peasant. He lacks proper rabbinic training. He might even be illiterate (most peasants were illiterate, but that didn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have a good background in the Jewish scriptures just because he couldn’t read. Remember that this was a predominantly oral culture). Out of concern for proper order in their society (including the religious side of things), the elite had been testing him and would continue testing him up to the time of his arrest. 

            A scribe, a person familiar with the biblical text, overhears some of these disputes and decides to get involved. He asks a question of interpretation. All conversations about the bible are interpretive ones, which is why people of faith can claim adherence to the Bible and disagree mightily about what it means. We all read the text with a contextual set of lenses or presuppositions. We choose to focus on certain elements and emphasize them. In this case the Scribe decides to ask about the Commandments. Which is the first commandment? he asks. Jesus answers with the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5). Every religiously inclined Jew would know that this is the first and foremost commandment of the Jewish faith. It is their creedal statement: “Here O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone . . . .” Jews were to recite it, teach it to their children, and meditate upon it, much as we do with the Lord’s Prayer. Everything flowed out of this confession. It summarizes the first table of the Law. If you keep it then you won’t make idols or worship them. You also won’t make unlawful use of the name either. You also will want to keep the Sabbath because to do so is a sign of one’s covenant loyalty to God (Deut. 5:6-15).

            Then Jesus adds another commandment. This time he draws from Leviticus 19:18. When we think of this commandment we usually think in terms of Jesus’ use, without much reference to the use of the phrase in Leviticus. Perhaps hearing the phrase in context will broaden our understanding. Verse 18 of chapter 19 reads: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” In its immediate context it is simply one statement among many dealing with kinship relationships. But when Jesus repurposes it, it becomes a summary of the second Table of the Ten Commandments, which speak of interpersonal relationships. 

            What is important to remember when considering these verses is that the second commandment, which many Christians emphasize, has little meaning for if not read in relationship to the first commandment. Loving of one’s neighbor flows out of one’s love of God. At the same time, if we say we love God and yet don’t love our neighbor, then our claim to love God is meaningless. One’s neighbor is, after all, created in the image of God. To not love one whom God created and loves, contradicts God’s intentions. So, it makes sense that Jesus would draw the two together for they form the backbone of the gospel. Loving God and loving neighbor ultimately serve as two sides of the same coin. A similar point is made, I think in James, who connects faith and works (James 2:14-18). The Scribe recognizes this truth, for he notes that loving one’s neighbor is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. In other words, ritual is not enough.  You can offer all the sacrifices you want or go to church every time the doors are opened, but if you don’t love your neighbor your religious observances are meaningless.

            This conversation leads to a most interesting statement. Jesus tells the Scribe that in affirming his interpretation of the Commandments the Scribe had answered wisely. Then Jesus tells him: “You are not far from the Kingdom.” I find this statement interesting because I’m left with the impression that kingdom values require both love of God and love of neighbor. One without the other doesn’t represent the kingdom or realm of God.

Now the question that always seems to arise concerns the identity of the neighbor. As a kingdom person, am I required only to love those within my community? Or does it extend beyond the community to include all people? Reading Leviticus 19 one is left with the impression that it is the community of Israel that is in mind. Love your neighbor who shares religion, tribe, etc. There is an argument that is made by some, and it has some support in the biblical record, that when Jesus speaks of the “least of these” in Matthew 25 he means the church. In other words, our responsibility is to the church and its residents, but not necessarily to those outside the community. That is, Jesus isn’t speaking of a missional calling to care for those living on the margins of society, but refers to the way the church is treated by those outside. As for me, this interpretation doesn’t resonate, but it is one that finds a lot of support from those who wish to focus on building the church as an expression of building the kingdom.

Of course, here is where interpretation enters into the conversation. I understand why some wish to interpret this calling narrowly. I’m just not sure that this is the way I understand the kingdom. I’m not sure that the kingdom (at least this side of the eschaton) is limited to the church. There is an argument for an exclusive vision, but I have chosen to throw my lot in with those who believe that God is at work outside the walls of the church. I believe that my involvement in work such as community organizing can be expressive of the second commandment. At the same time, I believe that my engagement with the world, including world transforming work, is rooted in my prior commitment to loving God with my entire being.


What is required of those who embrace the message of God’s realm? It is to love God with one’s entire being and love one’s neighbor as one’s self.   

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