Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Great Invitation To Love

To understand Mark’s passage in today’s Gospel (12:28-34), recall the closing verses of Chapter 11 just before this. There the chief priests, Scribes, and the elders challenge Jesus regarding his authority as a teacher. Refusing to answer Jesus’ question about the baptism of John, they find Jesus declining to answer their query about his authority. Add to this Jesus’ rather pointed parable of the vineyard, on which Mark comments: “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.

Jesus’ adversaries then send Pharisees and Herodians, all sycophants of the Roman emperor, in order to trap Jesus in a dispute over the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar or not. No sooner has Jesus sidestepped them, leaving their jaws gaping, when the Sadducees start bombarding him. These were priestly aristocrats, descendants of the priest, Zadok, of David’s time. They were exclusively focused on the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, refused to accept the oral Law, and were adamant in denying the resurrection of the body. They present Jesus with a tricky question about a family dilemma, hoping to embarrass him, but he dispatches them forthwith, noting that God is God of the living, not of the dead, and that they are “quite wrong”.

At this point a Scribe, probably a Pharisee, comes forward, obviously impressed with how Jesus has handled the Sadducees. He echoes his own, perhaps Pharisaic, beliefs, since there was no love lost between Sadducees and Scribes. As a Scribe this man would’ve been an expert in the Law, knowing it and applying it. Since Jesus was a rabi (later, rabbi), lit., “my teacher”, it’s understandable that the man would ask Jesus such a hot-topic question as he did. In later rabbinic schools which developed in the 1st century, there were frequent discussions of such topics. Since there were many Mosaic commands, naturally one would ask which one took precedence over all. 

The rabbis often tried to summarize the Law in a sentence or two.  For example, Simon the Righteous, a high priest who predated Jesus by several centuries, left this summary: “On three things stands the world: on the Law, on the worship, and on works of love.” Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE), responding to someone who asked him to explain the whole Law while standing on one leg said: “What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbor. This is the whole Law: the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph (c. 40-137 CE) proclaimed:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself -- this is the greatest general principle of the Law.” 

The Law of Moses counted some 612 (give or take) precepts. The writer of Psalm 15 reduces these to eleven: “1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; 3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; 4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; 5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.

The author of Isaiah 33 further reduced the precepts to six: “...‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting flames?’ 15 Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, 16 they will live on the heights...

Not to be outdone, the prophet Micah (6:8) gets them down to three: “8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

An even further reduction, to two precepts, is found in Isaiah 66, the work of the author whom we call “2nd Isaiah”: keeping judgment and doing justice.

Finally, perhaps the prize goes to the prophet Habbakuk (2:4) who puts it as simply as possible: “...the righteous live by their faith.

The Scribe’s question to Jesus. “Which commandment is the first of all?”, isn’t just academic. This was a very real issue for Jews of that day. As a native Jew himself, Jesus, without hesitation, quotes the “Great Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “4 Hear, O Israel [Shema Yisrael]: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” He restates Deuteronomy’s precept that one must love this one Lord, sovereign and unique, the only God to whom all one’s loyalty belongs. The heart, soul, and “all your might” encompass the entirety of one’s being.

Jesus would naturally quote this passage since the Shema was and is the creed of Judaism. Every orthodox Jew begins and ends the day with the Shema. The synagogue service always begins with it. It’s the basic belief, the foundation of Jewish faith. In Deuteronomy God provides for this basic belief to be passed on to succeeding generations. God says that the faithful Jew is to think of these words always: sitting in the house, when traveling, lying down, and upon rising. They’re to be bound on one’s wrist and on the forehead while at prayer. They’re to be written on the doorposts of one’s home. All these instructions show that throughout one’s whole life one is to be absorbed in these words of God, for they sum up the Covenant of love which exists between God and this people. Judaism eventually interpreted the words of Deuteronomy quite literally, so that pious Jews wore phylacteries, small square leather boxes containing the Shema, on their left wrist and on their forehead. Jewish homes, even today, have a mezuzah, a small tube containing a scroll of the Shema, on the doorpost of homes and rooms.

An interesting side-note is that only here in Mark’s passage and in Luke 11, where Jesus charges the Pharisees with neglect of justice and the love of God, do the Christian Scriptures speak explicitly of the love of God. John’s Gospel speaks of love of the Son and only indirectly of the Father.

In the story Jesus then quotes Leviticus 19:18: “18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Originally, “neighbor” meant a fellow Jew. Jesus’ quote itself isn’t new: what is new is that Jesus combines the two commands and applies them without qualification or limits, thus making one commandment, something no rabbi had ever done. The Scribe responds by paraphrasing Jesus and reemphasizing how brotherly love is above ritual sacrifice, not on a par with it. The point of all this is really very simple: true religion means loving God and loving all fellow humans. The only genuine proof that one loves God is by showing love for all people.

Think of all the sermons you and I have heard on the subject of love. But when it comes down to it, what does love really mean? It’s very hard to summarize because it’s such an awesomely huge reality. Each of us can surely think of many individuals among our families and friends in whom we recognize genuine love embodied. We recognize love there because we see it in action, we experience it firsthand. 

In the end, only you and I can determine for ourselves what this great commandment of love means for our life. One thing is certain: you and I can’t be neutral about it. Love is the basis for being a follower of Jesus or not being a follower. How often have we said “Amen” to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and yet have, in essence, said “Go to hell!” to a member of Christ’s Body? Jesus told the Scribe that because he really came to terms with and grasped this basic belief, he wasn’t “far from the kingdom of God”. He wasn’t there yet, but he wasn’t far.

Someone has written: 
I sought my soul; my soul I could not see.
I sought my God; but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother/sister, and I found all three.

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