First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 23

William Loader

Pentecost 23: 1 November Mark 12:28-34

The lectionary sweeps over Mark 11 and most of 12, landing us into just two of the Jerusalem encounters before taking us to the temple and its destruction. Today’s is the most positive encounter with a so-called adversary in the whole gospel. It ends with a declaration by Jesus that the scribe is not far from the kingdom - only a little way to go. The scribe has voiced central, common concerns.

When we scratch the surface of the text, we find cracks and notice that the story is built on a very particular structure. Why is loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength more important than sacrifices? Surely loving God means obeying God’s commandments. So if God commands sacrifices, loving God means offering sacrifices. Has history not been full of men and women wanting to love the Lord their God in this way? Thoroughgoing and conscientious obedience to biblical commands from God is foundational according to this view. We know that the result is sometimes wonderful and sometimes disastrous. Our story assumes that such a logic of obedience is flawed.

It is a matter of perspective. Our passage is assuming a certain hierarchy of values: some things are more important than others or may override others. That also applies among commands attributed to God. The scribe stands in this tradition. It reaches back to the prophets who heard God say such things as, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6), to the Psalmists who could speak of God’s preference for genuine repentance and contrite spirituality above cultic acts, and to Jeremiah and the authors of Deuteronomy who insisted on circumcision of the heart. Even the strict communities reflected in the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls declared that real prayer and devotion could outweigh sacrifices.

None of them envisaged abandoning the rites of sacrifice. Their point was to assert priorities, God’s priorities. In doing so they were already making a major theological decision. They were making a decision about God, namely, that these were God’s priorities. Blind obedience to all God’s commands, equally, reflects a certain way of thinking about God, which is not the way of Jesus, nor the way of this scribe.

The second command is in that sense the crucial qualification. At one level it is nonsense to say there can be any other command than to love God, because that must entail obeying all God’s commandments, including the command to love one’s neighbour. But clearly Jesus and the scribe do not espouse that kind of totalitarian God. God is not the obsessive tyrant to be obeyed without question, the projection of our worst fantasies of violence and domination over others. God cannot be the inspiration for the hatred and violations committed out of love for God and religion - and still inspiring war and division. Instead, by citing the second command, Jesus is making a profound theological move which seriously defines the first command and reveals his theology. The God to be obeyed is the God of love and compassion and, by implication, that understanding will determine what loving God and keeping God’s commandments means. There is no room for a tension or opposition between the two, no divided loyalties. Where love and law conflict, law gives way, or, better, love always goes beyond and, in that sense, fulfils the law. It controls law and not vice versa.

In its origins the anecdote would have celebrated a level of common understanding which affirmed the centrality of love in the interpretation and application of law. It is a thoroughly Jewish tradition. Mark now stands in a strand of Christianity which has taken the next step: sometimes love may even mean abandoning the law, even biblical law. Mark shows that in 7:1-23 where he portrays Jesus as showing that food laws are irrelevant, for the only purity that matters. Mark would probably see the contrast in our story between love and sacrifices also in an exclusive sense: only love matters; sacrifices do not matter and can now be discarded. That is a much more radical step, but not one without precedent.

It appears that a majority of early Christians persuaded themselves that circumcision could be abandoned. Paul could take up circumcision of the heart as now implying, unlike Deuteronomy, that literal circumcision may fall. More radically still, he could declare: we are no longer under the law. Of course, he can only do so by arguing, at the same time, that all that is good in the law is more than fulfilled if people walk according to the Spirit (Gal 5; Rom 8).

Mark retains the ethical commandments more directly than Paul. Jesus used them to show the rich man the way to eternal life in 10:17-21. It is these that he will see summarised in these two greatest commandments. So the scribe is right there with Jesus, not far from the kingdom. The distance to travel? Perhaps just joining the Jesus movement.

People are always going to need guidance about ethics. Some need help in unscrambling how we understand the authority of scripture. Much religious devotion both within and beyond Christianity assumes we are to do things, ‘because the Bible says so’ or because some authority so declares. People need help to see that this was one of the stances which felt most threatened by Jesus and which later (in the name of Christ) plagued Paul. Many people are closer to the kingdom of God out there in the world than those inside the church are, because they have grasped at least some of the perspective present in this anecdote. Christians need to be encouraged to own this theology as a fundamental that much fundamentalism denies.

These commandments easily slip down the list of priorities, wherever claims to absolute authority about the Bible or the Church or rite and order and their protection ride high. For then, God is usurped by something else, religious or otherwise. The will to power enthrones absolutes, creates other gods and people become obsessed with control. This story runs against that trend. Jesus and the scribe are bearers of good news. They shift the focus, ultimately, from obedience to love. That makes all the difference.

Epistle: Pentecost 23: 1 November  Hebrews 9:11-14