Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 12:28-34 The First Commandment
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.
As I reviewed today’s reading, I was glad to be reminded by Dr. Wil Gafney’s commentary that Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question demonstrates just how good of a student of his own faith that Jesus was. This reading is part of a rigorous conversation Jesus was having with biblical scholars in the temple not too much before he went to Jerusalem for his final Passover. You may have noticed when Maryelise read it, that translation calls the conversation a dispute.... like a fight. Dr. Gafney argues that the text isn’t showing us a fight. It is showing us vigorous discussions between learned and devout people. When you get a bunch of people together who all think faith is important, like Jesus and like these scholars, you’re bound to have vigorous conversations. That’s what scribe means here... scholars, not simply people who write down things that other people say. Today’s reading is one part of this conversation. It’s a part when a new person to the conversation shows up and asks him what he thinks is the heart of Jewish religious law.
Love God and Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus says: Love God and love your neighbor. The scholar who asks the question agrees with him. This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the conversations around Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary on this text, this portion of story shows us that Jesus and the scribe alike know that the Law is intended to be a gift from God to the people, a gift that shows the people how to relate to God and, frankly, to other people. If your behavior is rooted in the covenant, it consistently demonstrates these two commitments. It’s like they are both saying, “God and neighbor are a package deal.” If you don’t love both, you aren’t living into the promises you made in the covenant. Nothing more needs to be said.
While this is the end of today’s reading, it’s not the end of the conversation in the temple. I think it’s worth talking a little more about the rest of the conversation, say, up to verse 44. While the end of our reading says that no one asked him any more questions, that doesn’t mean he stopped talking. In the verses just after today’s reading, Jesus shifts his focus from this one scholar back to the crowd that was listening. And, he asks them a question: How can the Messiah be the son of David? According to the scholar Richard Horsley, Jesus asks this question and expounds on it to indicate that he disagrees with any scholarly take on the Messiah that will lead the people to believe that the Messiah is a militaristic leader who will restore Israel through war. Jesus doesn’t think that the Messiah will be a soldier king like David was. This was perhaps a way to prepare people for the fact that Jesus was not a soldier, but a servant... a servant who was called to love God and neighbor.
With this disagreement in mind, Jesus, as a burgeoning leader, takes other leaders to task. In verse 38, he says to beware of scholars and leaders who like to appear holy and insist on being treated with a certain amount of deference in public but then fall short of the demands to love God and love neighbor. Jesus makes it clear that he has no patience for people, especially leaders, who are more concerned about their reputation and image than love and justice. He names particularly the plight of widows, many of whom, as Debie Thomas notes in her commentary, are generous with what little they have and supporting the scholars and priest of the temple with their meager amounts of money and simple offerings. Any scholar or priest who swans around town in fancy clothes and makes a show of their public prayers but ignores the care of those who give everything to support the temple has forgotten their obligations not just to the widow, but to God.
The scholar who asked Jesus the question about the greatest commandments would have likely agreed with Jesus. In the part Maryelise read, you’ll remember that he said loving God and loving neighbor was more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices... that is all the ritual obligations that also materially supported priests and scholars of the temple. Emerson Powery, in his commentary on this text, wanted readers to make sure to notice that. This scholar probably knew that people in his position took advantage of it, too. When powerful people pretend not to know that some people take advantage of that same power, it only protects abusers and manipulators. The Scribe knew that.
In verse 41, Jesus describes an example of the kind of person who is often taken advantage of: a poor and devout widow who gives what looks like very little money but is a significant amount of what she has. In her commentary, Debie Thomas argues that part of the reason that Jesus lifts up this particular example isn’t to push other poor people to give too much money but instead to describe the shameful behavior of the community leaders that would leave this woman so destitute to begin with. I think Jesus telling the people who were listening, and probably us, too, that if someone claims to have any concern for the covenant and for building a relationship with God, they can’t care more for their reputation and for the institution that supports them than for the people whom God loves. And, God particularly loves the vulnerable: the immigrant, the orphan, the widow.
Given that Christians broke off from Judaism and stopped following all the temple practices described here, it can be tempting to distance ourselves from these leaders who took advantage of the rules of their institution. Look at them, over there, back then, doing this bad thing. Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, reminds us that we can build up our own version of these hypocritical practices in our time and in the places where we are trying to live out our faith. I’m sure you’re thinking right now of some ways you’ve observed or maybe even some ways you’ve participated in this same kind of devouring, showboating faith that Jesus is calling out. For example, in her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney notes that far too often, Christians decide that some people... women, LGBTQ folks, people who don’t share our faith, poor people, immigrants... are not worthy of being considered neighbors to whom we are called to love. She even goes so far to say, “If our Gospel proclamations are not true for the most marginalized among us […] then our gospel is not true.” It is both necessary and wise to spend part of our time as the body of Christ examining how we are living and moving in the world to see if our outward manifestation of Church is actually living up to our call to love God and love our neighbor. This is the very first thing Christ asks of us. Everything else is distant second.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Sarah Henlicky Wilson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Debie Thomas- http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4
Richard Horsley's commentary is in the footnotes to the Gospel of Mark in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (ed. Michael Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2004)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 16 (Closest to August 24), Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.