Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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.
The Question about David’s Son
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ” David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
The Widow’s Offering
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
The Jesus we meet in scripture is an interesting teacher. He seems to understand that sometimes you need can hear an explanation and immediately understand it. He also seems to understand that sometimes you need some examples to make the meaning clear. While he rarely wants to clarify himself to people who are questioning him in bad faith, he will clarify for his disciples and for people who genuinely seem interested in growing closer to God. Last week, we heard some of Jesus’ most contentious arguments with the religious elite of his community. This week, we shift into the final session of those “interrogations,” as some scholars call them. This one is not nearly so contentious. In fact, this one shows us how Jesus is clearly situated in the best of his tradition and this scribe is right there with him.
Pastor Intern Becky already gave us a good introduction to the text, so I’ll only talk about it a little. Jesus is clear about what he thinks is the heart of Jewish law. Love God and Love your neighbor. I’ve even heard of the 10 Commandments being lumped together, with the first tablet the “love God” tablet and the second tablet being the “love your neighbor” tablet. It probably doesn’t surprise those of us who have been hearing and reading Jesus’ words for a long time. We know that he is the foundation of the covenant between Israel and God. What might surprise us, if we’ve heard lots of sermons about how terrible scribes and pharisees are, is to hear this scribe agree with him.
The scholar Sarah Henlicky Wilson is the one who reminded me what a gift this wise scribe is to Christian readers. Too many sermons, probably even ones I’ve preached, have developed interpretations that put our Jewish neighbors in a bad light, misunderstanding their traditions of interpretation and the culture both of ancient Jewish people and our contemporary Jewish neighbors. Given how often Jesus is arguing with Pharisees and the fact that Pharisees were Jewish religious authorities, people will shortcut the arguments into Jesus disagreed with Jewish people. That is a poor reading. The stronger reading, according to Wilson, and I agree with her, is to say that Jesus is a Jewish teacher who argued with Jewish authorities. And, sometimes, we see those same authorities agree with Jesus’ interpretation of their shared religious tradition.
This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the most contentious interrogations of Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says, 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. The rest of today’s reading shows how hard it can be to consistently demonstrate love of God and love of neighbor. Those priorities can get lost in love of self.
The story has shifted. Jesus is teaching a large crowd in the temple. And, he begins with a question about the Messiah. How can the Messiah be the son of David? Richard Horsley, in his commentary on this portion, says we should read this question as being directed to the people who thought the Messiah would restore a true king to Israel through a leader from the line of King David. Jesus didn’t believe the Messiah, or his role as Messiah, was to be a military or royal leader who brought back the Good Old Days. Instead, the Messiah will harken back to the root of the covenant, love and justice, and reorient the people back towards God. You remember that cornerstone image? Jesus said the Messiah isn’t a king but a foundation for building covenant with God and with other people.
With that in mind, Jesus looks towards current leaders who should be pointing towards God and neighbor, and, instead, are just shining a big ol’ light on their own holiness. Jesus has little patience for hypocrites, who want to look good before other people but fall down in their adherence to the covenant. In this last part of Mark 12, it seems like there are few things that anger Jesus more than hypocrisy. I think it’s because the hypocrite loses sight of both God and neighbor while being concerned about their reputation and image.
What exactly makes one a hypocrite? Jesus' gives a pretty succinct run-down in verses 38-40. You wear your nicest ritual garments around town to show off how holy you are. You use your education and privileged position to get positions of honor and the best seats in the synagogue. You make a show of your faith without actually living out the core tenets of that faith. And, most damningly, you take advantage of the poor. Debie Thomas, in her commentary on this scripture, points out that some of the people in the greatest need in Jesus’ community were the widows, that is, women who had not simply lost their husbands, but who likely had no family at all to call upon for help. Care for the widow and the orphan was embedded in scripture and in the practice of the law. In her commentary, Thomas reminds us that when the Psalmist wanted to describe God's capacity for grace, they called God the parent to the orphans and the protector of widows. The law even made allowances for poor people to avoid giving to the temple if they could not afford it, a fact that the scribes in this story seem to have forgotten.
The scholars that I have read this week argue that what Jesus is really doing in this text is calling out his religious community for forgetting God's priorities. He is not using a poor woman to guilt people into giving more. He is calling out a temple system that consumed every last dime of the poor but does not seem to be offering the support for them that was demanded by the law. Remember, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God and neighbor are a package deal. If you missed either one of these things, you missed out on living the life God called you to.
Thomas argues that Jesus may actually believe that it is an actual shame that she has so little. Her faith leaders should be bound by their faith to help her and make sure that she has something beyond her last coins that she tithes out of faith. What Jesus finds galling is that it seems as though caring for her has been forgotten in favor with fancy clothes and fancy dinners and keeping up the system that gives them power. Jesus is clear. If we have any concern for the covenant, for building a relationship with God, we should not be like these religious leaders who care more for their reputation and institution than for the people whom God loves.
The next part of the scripture, just after today’s reading, is ominous. But, I think it needs to be noted. After noting that some scribes are wise and upholding the covenant well and after noting that too many powerful religious people are disregarding love of neighbor for love of power, Jesus says that the institution that they are investing in will fall. In chapter 13, vs 2, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here up on another; all will be thrown down.” A few decades after Mark was compiled as a Gospel, the temple would be destroyed by Rome. I don’t think that’s what Jesus was predicting though. He never preached as though God was using Rome to punish Israel. But, I do think he was critical of the religious institution built up around the use of the temple, an institution, that several times before this, he preached lost sight of the heart of scripture, which was love and justice, in favor of rigid and sometimes hypocritical practices that harmed actual people.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, wonders if this is actually the hardest and most important question this Gospel asks of modern readers. We are long disconnected from the temple practices that Jesus critiqued. But, we, being humans, can build up our own version of the hypocritical practices in our time. Part of being the body of Christ means being willing to look inward to see if our outward manifestation of Church is really about love of God and neighbor or has morphed in something more selfish or self-aggrandizing or self-protective. Jesus warns us that any institution that claims to be built on love of God and neighbor but doesn’t actually practice that love can crumble long before it helps to enact the kindom of God in this world. As we consider a return, hopefully in the next few months, to our building and our more typical gatherings as a community, we would do well to make sure that all that we have and all that we are points to love of God and neighbor. For, this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
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.