Thirty-First Sunday: The Heart of the Matter

Deuteronomy 6:2-6, Psalm 18, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 12:28b-34

As we begin the last month of the liturgical year, our Gospel leaps ahead.  We had read a few consecutive stories leading up to the triumphant entry at the beginning of Mark, chapter 11.  Now we leap ahead to the middle of chapter twelve, where Jesus and a scribe agree that the “first of all the commandments” is to love God and neighbor.

File:Bernardino Luini. Christ among Doctors.jpgJesus is affirming the Old Testament.  Here, at the culmination of his teaching, in answer to the most basic, ultimate question, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, the culmination of the five books of Moses.  First he quotes the Sh’ma, the most fundamental Jewish prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone.”  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is not as obviously central, but it is a quotation from Leviticus (19:18), and it does indeed summarize much of the Old Law, the two poles of which are worship of God and love of neighbor, especially the poor neighbor, the one most in need of our mercy.

The scribe agrees with Jesus.  “Pharisee” and “Sadducee” are names of two particular interpretations of the Law (Pharisees looked for ways to maximize their religious life away from the Temple, Sadducees deemphasized everything but the Temple).  But “scribe” names not an interpretation, but an expert.  We don’t know what this guy thought, only that he knew his stuff.  The learned Israelite agrees with Jesus.

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Neither Jesus nor the scribe quotes Deuteronomy exactly.  As our first reading shows, Moses says (both in the Hebrew original and in the classic Greek translation that Jesus often quotes), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Jesus expands “all your soul” to “with all your soul, with all your mind.”  The scribe says “with all your understanding.”

These are friendly amendments: not changes, just interpretations.  But it shows that they are thinking about the meaning of Scripture, not just quoting mindlessly.

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This is another story where the first and last words are important.  Now, the reference begins 12:28b—partway into the verse—and the English translation just dives in: “One of the scribes came.”  The Latin (the official version of the Lectionary) adds “In illo tempore: At that time, one of the scribes came.”  But both leave out the key words of the first verse: “Hearing them disputing with one another.”  There is a context for the scribe’s conversation with Jesus.

File:Domenico Fetti - Christ and the Tribute Money - Walters 37582.jpgIn the stories the Lectionary skipped over, since Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has “disputed” about the cleansing of the temple (which Mark “sandwiches” with the strange story of the cursed fig tree), Jesus’ authority and the authority of John, the parable of the tenants who do not pay their master, paying taxes to Caesar, and the reality of the resurrection.

It’s worth reading through that list carefully.  What our story this week highlights is that in all of these things—in all of the “disputes” of Jesus with the Jewish authorities—his real principle is just the primacy of God.

This week’s scribe helps us focus.  What are you really talking about, Jesus?  Loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as our self.  That’s it.  There’s lots of disputes where that word takes flesh—but the central word is to love God and neighbor.

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File:Antonio Arias La moneda del César Museo del Prado.jpgAnd so in the other direction, our reading ends, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”  In fact, they don’t.  In the rest of Mark’s Gospel, the only question about doctrine that remains is when the disciples ask, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We have reached the culmination of Jesus’ teaching.

It’s that simple: love—a demanding love, a total love, of God alone, and thus of our neighbor.

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The scribe adds one key point.  He repeats Jesus’s teaching on love but adds, “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This too is a summary of the Old Testament.  In a sense, Jesus has summarized the Law, in response to the question about “the commandments.”  But the scribe has added a summary of the prophets: after Moses gives the Law, the prophets add, in a hundred ways, that God isn’t looking for the sacrifices themselves.  The sacrifices are there for the love.  (My concordance names Samuel, the Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah as places you can find that point, though we could multiply further.)

We could add that, just as this central teaching on love of God and neighbor summarizes all of Jesus’s disputes with the Pharisees and Sadducees, so it summarizes what all the prophets have taught: you don’t understand anything till you understand it is all about love.

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File:'sacrifice'. Study for the painting in Ottawa. Art.IWMART5581.jpgOur reading from Hebrews shows how that teaching culminates in the death of Christ.  Hebrews is a complicated meditation on various Old Testament passages; this week’s reading, for example, ends with “the word of the oath,” because it is meditating on the profundity of Psalm 110’s saying, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” For the Lord to “swear” suggests there’s something important about this priestly order of Melchizedek, something greater and more fundamental than the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.

The key line from this reading in Hebrews, though, is “he offered himself . . . a son.”  The perfect sacrifice is not Temple worship, but the pure worship of life and death as a loving son.

That is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets: Christ on the Cross, the perfect act of love.

Are there parts of your religious life that get detached from simple love of God?

eric.m.johnston

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