First of all | 13 July 2014


Twelve Scriptures project

Text #4: Mark 12:28-34           

Unless you are just back from a very long summer vacation, which I know a few of you are, you know that we have been focusing on the 12 Scriptures that we have selected as a congregation as being most significant for us.  This is a project being encouraged across our denomination, Mennonite Church USA.  The idea is that we are able to get a window into what we, together, hold as most valuable, of central importance, or, to use a little more lofty theological language, what is our congregational hermeneutical center out of which we interpret not only scripture, but also lived experience.  The question we will be speaking to throughout the summer is “Which scriptures are the first of all?”

One of the unique aspects of today’s scripture is that it isn’t just one scripture.  It appears three different times, in the gospels with Matthew, Mark, and Luke each having their own version of this exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders.  Luke’s version includes the telling of the story of the Good Samaritan, the only place the parable appears in the Bible.  Even more, this exchange itself, each time it is told in the gospels, involves Jesus quoting two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, one from Deuteronomy, and one from Leviticus.  So, technically, this “scripture” includes five different scriptures, and if anyone chose just one of those scriptures in their twelve, we took the liberty of combining then together into this one, using Mark’s version as a reading.  I’m thinking this five for the price of one bargain basement deal is a healthy sign that Mennonite frugality is alive and well.  It’s just too good to pass up.

Another way that this passage stands out, which I tried to hint at already, and which I find quite significant, is that this question we’ve been asking ourselves – which scriptures are the first of all? Or, which commandments are the greatest? is the very question that Jesus is asked in this passage.  Although it’s worded a little different in each of the gospels – which we’ll get to in a little bit – Jesus is essentially asked the same thing we’ve been asking.  Rather than a 12 scriptures project, he is asked by his fellow teachers to name his number one top scripture, the one that provides the framework, the lens, the interpretive key which unlocks the meaning of all the other scriptures.  And Jesus, being the good proto-Mennonite that he was, answers with not just one, but with two scriptures, which he combines – loving God with all one’s being, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself – and then states in a grammatically creative sentence: “There is no commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).” (Mark 12:31).  Two for the price of one.

Our twelve scriptures project was designed to be an open-ended inquiry without any correct or incorrect answers, but I think a measure of congratulations is in order to our congregation for including in our top scriptures the one that records Jesus naming his top scriptures.  So whether or not you would have previously considered this as an important passage, I invite you to let this one move into the center of your consciousness.

Since this is presented three different times in the gospels, I’d like to look at those different versions of the story and highlight some of the similarities and differences that show up there.  And then, after doing that I’ll make a number of brief observations about this “scripture”.

So, we’ve included a three column printout in the bulletin that includes this exchange as it occurs in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, this passage is part of a lengthy series of teachings and conversations that happen in the temple over the course of one day during the final week of Jesus’ life.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey through that piece of street theater that we call The Triumphal Entry, has done a symbolic exorcism of the temple by driving out those more concerned with profit than worship, and, after sleeping overnight in nearby Bethany, is back in that contested space of the temple, teaching.  In half a week’s time he’ll be dead.

One of the first observations about this Matthew passage, without even reading it, is that it is the shortest of the three.  And then, getting into the text, we’re picking up from a previous exchange because the Pharisees hear that he has silenced one of their rival groups, the Sadducees, and they huddle together, and one of them, someone educated in the law, is selected as their spokesperson – maybe he had lost the rock, scissors, paper – and he asks Jesus a question with the purpose of testing Jesus, which has connotations of rivaly and challenge to one’s honor.  “Teacher, Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  So, that’s the test.  Jesus is asked to select out of all of the 613 commandments that had been discerned in the Torah to choose one as the greatest.

This was actually a fairly common question that would have been debated, and it must have been something Jesus had pondered throughout his life – which commandment is the greatest? because he’s ready with an answer.  He begins by citing from Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the Shema, which every devoted Jew would have memorized and prayed twice a day.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  And then, as Jesus was wont to do, he never quite answers the question just as it’s asked, and adds another comment.  “And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19.  Loving God is like loving your neighbor.  Loving your neighbor is like loving God.

So for any of you who worked on this 12 scriptures project and you had trouble narrowing it down to just 12, because one kept reminding you of another, you’re in good company.  Jesus stretches the bounds of his homework assignment and expands one into two.  And from my reading of the commentaries, it looks like as far as scholars are able to tell from ancient literature that we have available to us, this would have been an innovation.  There would have been wide agreement that both of these passages, Deuteronomy and Leviticus were key commandments, but to combine them in this way was something new.

And then Jesus ends with a great image, which only Matthew records.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  It’s not that these two commandments are at the top of a list, with others following behind – that’s a different kind of image – but it’s as if all the other commandments hang on these two, like a coat on a hook, such that if you take away these commandments, if you somehow leave them out, or relegate them to a lesser position, then the whole thing falls apart.  The coat falls to the floor.  But if you have these two hooks solidly secured, then everything can find its proper place, you know what to do with all the other commandments.

And then that’s all.  No rebuttal from the lawyer.  No response from the group.  Jesus has given his answer, and Matthew moves on to the next topic.

Mark has the same context as Matthew.  In the temple, final week of Jesus’ life, a similar series of teachings and confrontations.  Mark’s is a shorter book, so that’s why it is chapter 12 rather than 22 for Matthew.

Here it’s a scribe, a member of the educated, literate class, so often butting heads with Jesus, who is kind of eavesdropping on a previous exchange in the temple, and he hears Jesus’ response in that case, and he likes it.  He thinks Jesus has “answered them well,” and so he has a question for this wise teacher.  There’s no mention that this is meant as a test, or a trap.  We can take it as an honest question, a curious inquiry from a teaching colleague.  “Which commandment is the first of all?” A little different wording than Matthew, but basically the same idea.  And Jesus again answers him by combining the Deuteronomy 6 passage of the Shema and the Leviticus passage, only Mark has Jesus back up a little further in Deuteronomy and quote an extra verse: “Hear, Listen, (Shema in Hebrew) O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: and then “you shall love God” with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  “There is no commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”

That’s where Matthew cuts it off, but here the scribe is still engaged in the conversation.  “You are right, Teacher.”  “Brilliant. Yes, I think you’ve nailed it.  I agree.”  And this scribe has obviously been trained in the art of active listening because he begins to paraphrase back to Jesus what he has just said, with a bit of added commentary of his own. “You have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other” and what I hear you saying is “to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and what I’m also hearing you saying is that “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”-  if I’m hearing that correctly then you’re basically saying that this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  These moral commandments top out any of the ceremonial commandments.  Have I heard you correctly Jesus?

And then Jesus comes back in verse 34.  “When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”  You, scribe, rival, member of that group that has harassed me at every turn – we’re on this road together.  We see eye to eye on this.  You’re on your way with me into God’s beloved community.  Which kind of freaks everybody out.  After that no one dared ask Jesus any question.

In Luke this exchange is placed in an entirely different setting, more the middle of Jesus’ ministry than that final week leading up to the cross, not in the temple.  A different place, at a different time.  On the page here it is the longest of the three, although if you leave out the parable of the Good Samaritan it is the shortest.

Like Mark it is a singular character who questions Jesus, and like Matthew, it is a lawyer, and again the question is asked as a test.  Although the question is a little different.  “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  It’s the same question that will be asked later in Luke’s gospel by the rich young ruler.  To that inquiry, Jesus says that he must sell everything he owns, and follow him.  To this inquiry, Jesus says, “Hmmmm.  Good question.  What you think?”  “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  So in this passage, unlike Mark and Matthew, it is actually the original questioner who quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and he does it in such a way that makes for one seamless commandment.  And, like in Mark, after that scribe had named those commandments, Jesus agrees with him.  “You have given the right answer, do this and you will live.”

The message of Luke’s story, however is just starting to take focus.  The main point here isn’t the combining of these two commandments to make one. That’s one of the points, but the bulk of this exchange goes on to be dedicated to defining, or redefining, the meaning of one part of one of those commandments.  “Who is my neighbor?”  This time Jesus doesn’t turn the question back around.  What do you think?  Jesus has a parable he’s been saving up for just an occasion like this.  “Who is your neighbor?”  I’m so glad you asked.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and got robbed and left for dead.  He was seen and passed over by folks who should have known better, but he was assisted, his life was saved, by a foreigner, a Samaritan, who happened to be passing that way.  If you’re looking for an exemplar of neighborly love, if you’re really open to it, then watch out, because it could come from anyone, even a Samaritan.  Sometimes the neighbor is not from your neighborhood, not from your tribe, not even from your religion, not from your political persuasion.  Your neighbor could be anyone anywhere who demonstrates kindness, hospitality.

The parable ends up shifting the discussion.  The original question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life, a somewhat abstract question, morphs into “Who is my neighbor,” which has a painfully practical answer.  Consider this Samaritan, who had compassion on someone in this life, and “Go and do likewise.”

So those are the three different ways that gospels present the Greatest Commandment.

In closing, I want to give seven brief thoughts coming out of this 5 in 1 scripture package in front of us.  And by brief, I mean one sentence each, except for one that is two sentences.

It’s important to have a hook, or two, to hang your coat on.
Your actual neighbor, the one who lives next door, at times could very well be the hardest person in the world to love.
The gospels show very little interest in matching the details of their accounts.
The Good Samaritan might now go by the name The Good Muslim. Or, the Good Immigrant.
The greatest commandment, the new revelation, was already contained within the old.
Truth is much more subtle, dynamic, and mysterious than mere factual reporting: He said this, then he said that, at this exact place, at this exact time.  There are a hundred ways to tell the truth of an exchange between two souls.
When in doubt, Love.