By Ellen Sims
Text: Mark 12: 28-34
Our Gospel story begins with people “disputing” over the hot topics of the day. Public speakers then and now sometimes play to prejudices and fears and focus on minor matters.
Immediately prior to the discussion recalled in today’s lection, Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus fielding a silly “gotcha” question about to whom a woman will be married in heaven if, during her life, she was the wife of seven brothers, having married each one after the previous husband died (Mark 12:18-23). Really? That was a burning issue for someone? I suspect the question was as inconsequential then as most of the religious topics people obsess over today. Jesus gave an evasive response about marriage in heaven and concluded this way: “God is God not of the dead, but of the living” (12:23a).
Bottom line: “Who cares whether or not there’s something like marriage in an afterlife we can’t fathom?” Jesus emphasized that God is focused on the right now and the right here. God cares about how we are living.
Maybe people hope that if we are scrupulous about the little things, we can ignore the big demands of true religion. If we Christians, for example, can determine whom we should allow to be married or ordained or admitted to the communion table, or if we develop intricate doctrines everyone must agree upon so we can confidently sort others into the in-group or the out-group, or if we concoct a blueprint for heaven, then we can distract ourselves from the heart of the Gospel. Which Jesus is just about to disclose—thanks to one scribe, an expert in Jewish law, who stood by listening to rather than testing Jesus and so determined that Jesus was “answer[ing] them well”(28). This scribe, well-versed in the many laws within the Torah, then ventured a substantive question at last: “What’s the most important commandment?”
Boil it down for us, Jesus.
Now you know the answer. It’s recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (see also Matt. 22:35-40; Luke 10:25-28). Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—and love your neighbor even as you love yourself. That’s what Jesus says, cheating somewhat as he answers. Jesus actually names two commandments. By combining them in his answer, he shows that venerating that which we call God is not possible apart from our love and care for all that God loves. These two commandments cannot be obeyed apart from one another. They must be understood as one command, Jesus implies.
Again, as in his earlier response to a question about how marriage will work in heaven, Jesus expresses his conviction that what really matters is not the theoretical possibilities but the practical applications. In this case, he spells out for the scribe that loving God is done by loving neighbor and self. And that’s the work we do here and now, not in some faraway heaven.
And then the listening scribe, a foil to all those trying to stump Jesus, demonstrates the true disciple’s ability to master the teacher’s lesson and extend it and imagine how to put it into practice. The scribe explains what loving God does not mean. Loving God, he adds, is not best demonstrated through religious rituals—like the burnt offerings made at the Temple. Well-versed in Hebrew scripture, this scribe is perhaps recalling the book of Amos, which imagines Yahweh declaring:
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; . . .
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24).
Friends, the hallmark of Progressive Christianity is our emphasis on how we love rather that what we believe. We care more about a life of compassion than religious doctrine. We think how we behave toward others outweighs what we say we believe about God. Although we honor the ancient creeds of the Church, we don’t have to affirm certain words to be admitted to this church or this open table. Although we follow in the way of Jesus, we don’t think all the saints who have been Light in this world named themselves as Christian. I confess I do care about the finer points of theology. Just ask me about soteriology or the Trinity or incarnation, and I will talk for a week. But I think what God cares about is how we care for each other. And the funny thing is, this hallmark of the Emerging Church and its progressive theology—has been at the heart of Christianity from its beginning. That’s clear in today’s story. Which we return to now.
The scribe recognizes that the rules of religion are cheap ways to appease a false god. He professes, instead, the role of loving others as the means of obeying the great commandment to love God.
And here’s the clincher I often overlook in this story. Return to verse 34:
“When Jesus saw that [the scribe] answered wisely, [Jesus] said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”
The recurring theme in the Marcan Gospel is this: the kingdom of God can be made manifest here on earth. And thanks to a scribe with an authentic and meaningful question, we realize how the kingdom of God will be brought among us. Not through religious rites. Not through the portal of death into a heaven far away. No. The kingdom can be ushered in whenever we love God, neighbor, and self.
Today’s familiar text illustrates that Jesus, who did believe in the resurrection, refused to focus on a mythology of the afterlife. He denied that God cares only about your “eternal destination” and rejected the distraction that a far off heaven could be. Remember, Jesus had previously explained, “God is not God of the dead but God of the living.” He was about the business of ushering in the Kingdom of God here and now, a kingdom that was the antidote to the earthly kingdoms of power and might. Which is one reason some Christians today translate the Greek phrase basileia tou Theou, formerly the “kingdom of God,” into a new coinage: “the kin*dom of God—a realm of proper relatedness where we’re all kin, not a realm of power and might where we’re under subjugation.
Although Jesus, like the scribes and Pharisees, believed in resurrection, his idea of the coming kingdom of God when God’s ways would finally hold sway, was a commitment to bringing that kingdom into existence on this earth, an idea that runs through other scripture.
Jesus never held out images of the pearly gates of heaven. And certainly he would not have posted Saint Peter, at that time a very flawed disciple, for sentry duty at those gates. Jesus trusted in God’s eternal love and did speak of returning to God. But he also believed he was already one with God. Union with God was not tied to a new time and space for Jesus. And it need not be for us.
On All Saints’ Sunday, Open Table’s tradition is to count ordinary folks, nonChristians, and people still alive on this earth among those we want to honor for their saintliness. Because saintliness doesn’t start after you die. We have a chance right now, right here, to shine the light of Christ in this world and, in doing so, bring God’s kin*dom nearer.
We speak a kind word—and we bring the kin*dom closer, closer.
We act out of fear or anger—and the kin*dom feels farther and farther away.
After the scribe’s question allowed Jesus to authoritatively ended the silly speculations about what happens after we die—who can possibly know?—the story concludes:
“After that no one dared to ask him any question.”
The scribe had asked Jesus to name the most important law—of all the big and little laws the scribe was responsible for transmitting and interpreting and maintaining. What’s at the heart of our religion? he might just as well have said.
The disputing was put on hold. When you ask and answer the really big questions, the hairsplitting halts, the self-serving posturing stops, the divisive discourse ends. This is what it all boils down to. Jesus’s answer is not so much about if we BELIEVE it but if we can LIVE it.
Rev. Lawrence Richardson, a friend and fellow UCC pastor, shared this story online recently:
Each year on Mother’s Day, the church we attended handed out single red roses for us to give to the moms in our lives. My mother was always my grandmother, so when the church gave us roses, I always gave mine to her. For the first few years of living with my grandmother, she took the roses I gave her. Around the time I entered junior high, she told me to give the roses to someone else.
When I asked my grandmother why she no longer wanted to receive the single red rose on Mother’s Day, she said because they die. She shared with me that she wanted to be honored by something that lived on forever. I thought long and hard about what I could give my grandmother to honor her life that lived on continuously.
The following Mother’s Day, I presented my grandmother with a silk rose with a card attached. In the note, I wrote all the goals I had for my life and thanked her for inspiring me to dream. After she read the card, she said to me, “You got it! Honor me with your life. That way, everything you do, even when I’m gone, I get to do through you.”
We each meet people who inspire us to live, grow, and become better versions of ourselves. History is filled with so many examples of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. As we approach All [Saints’] Day, may we honor those who blessed the world by being blessings in the world. (http://www.extravaganceucc.org/spirit-saturday/celebrating-all-souls/)
PRAYER: O God, how we long to hear you say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Grant us the kind of love that will usher in your peaceful, loving reign. Amen