Sadly, there’s more than a few folks who read the Christian New Testament and come away with a clear-cut, black-or-white understanding that goes something like this:
Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious scribes–bad! Jesus–good! [Jesus’ disciples–good, but dumb, or at least clueless most of the time.]
Jews–wrong. Christians–right. [Everybody else–particularly Muslims–is, apparently, simply way beyond “wrong.”]
Such utter nonsense!
In attempting to unravel all this, let’s begin with this week’s Gospel passage from Mark:
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. –Mark 12:28-34 NRSV
A bit of full disclosure is probably in order up front. For most of my adult life I was a book and magazine editor for a church denomination, so that qualifies me as a (modern-day) religious scribe. And so you can probably understand why, for me at least, it’s refreshing to come across a Gospel passage where a scribe is presented as something other than a sneaky, conniving, out-to-get-Jesus-to-slip-up jerk.
Now, I understand how people can come to the conclusion that those religious professionals in Jesus’ day were simply a bunch of bad guys. And when you leave the Synoptic Gospels and head over to John’s Gospel, it gets worse: the bad-guy tag is more often than not reduced simply to “the Jews.” That’s especially pertinent when you get to the part about who was really responsible for Jesus’ arrest and death by crucifixion. For reasons that are more complex than I want to get into here, the creators of the lectionary (following centuries of church tradition) always use John’s Gospel for Good Friday readings. If nothing else, that’s made for difficulties in Jewish/Christian relations for two thousand years. In most of Europe during those long centuries Jews typically hid at home on the day Christians observed Good Friday–it was open season for physical abuse under the guise of religious fanaticism.
To get back to Mark’s storyline for this week, however, let’s focus on the core argument. A scribe asked Jesus to identify the most important of all the commandments of God. Jesus, being a devout and observant Jew, responded first with a variation of the Hebrew scripture known as the Shema: The Lord is one and there are no other gods before him. (See Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.) Jesus takes the next step: “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.” Note some of what’s not in there: no mention of accepting doctrines or belief statements, no campaigns to point out the errors of other religionists, and no requirements of ritual sacrifices.
Jesus then takes it a step further: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Pretty simple, straightforward stuff, eh?
Here’s the part that warms this scribe’s heart and soul:
“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.”
This, it should be pointed out, is far from the first time such an idea was expressed within Judaism. Consider, for starters, the words of Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream–Amos 5:21-24
And the words of Micah:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 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? –Micah 6:6-8
Love God; love your neighbor.
This is not simply about an emotion we humans call “love.” It’s about becoming fully human in response to our Creator. It encompasses the entirety of those two familiar words: social justice.
Part of our problem as Christians is our tendency and desire to generalize. Just as there is really no such thing as one expression of Christianity there was in Jesus’ time no such thing as “one Judaism”; more appropriately, there were many. And so to generalize about “the Jews” or even the Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious scribes as united in opposition to Jesus is inappropriate and misguided.
To do so leads away from the core teaching of Jesus here in Mark’s twelfth chapter: Love God, love your neighbor. Do that and we will come closer to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
*Adapted from 2012 ForeWords blog posting
- Hear, O Israel! (pegconway.com)
- I Want to Start Sharing the Gospel, Part 3 (defendingcontending.com)
- What is the most important thing? (maryharristodd.wordpress.com)
- The Highest Mystical Truth: We and Our Neighbors Are Identical with God (mikerivageseul.wordpress.com)
- Sunday (November 4): ” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (shechina.wordpress.com