March 10 | Fourth Encounter: A Good Question

Fourth Encounter: A Good Question 
Text: Mark 12:28-34
Speaker: Joel Miller

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years since we did the Twelve Scriptures Project.  For the slightly more than half of you who weren’t around then - or for those who were, but forget the details - the Twelve Scriptures Project was something our denomination, Mennonite Church USA, encouraged congregations to do.  The idea was fairly simple.  Put in the form of question, it was something like: Which twelve scriptures are core to your congregation?  Out of all the teachings in the Bible, which are foundational? 

The way we arrived at our twelve was to invite everyone to answer this question for themselves, kids included, leaving it slightly undefined whether the list was your personal twelve scriptures, or what you perceived as the twelve scriptures defining the congregation.  Several Sunday school sessions were used to share these lists, discuss, and compile the results, with the most common mentions becoming our collective Twelve Scriptures.

We then had a worship series covering each scripture, and a colorful artistic display that filled the front of the worship space.  That installation was then translated into a poster, which displayed the Twelve Scriptures and themes they represented.  A large version was in the foyer for many years, now refreshed and moved to the fellowship hall.  Smaller versions are still in Sunday school rooms.  A page on our website is dedicated to the Twelve Scriptures.

If you haven’t seen any of these displays, or just stopped noticing, it’s worth viewing, or viewing again.    

It was a meaningful, helpful project, inspired by a meaningful, helpful question: What is the core of our faith?  If we had to boil it all down, what would it be? 

Central District Conference leadership is currently thinking about doing another version of this project tied to our current theme of wisdom.  I think it will be harder to boil down all of our most cherished wisdom sayings not limited scripture to 12 or even 100, so we’ll see what shape that project takes.

This Lent we’re highlighting different encounters Jesus has on his way to and through Jerusalem.  Today’s encounter is with someone who asks Jesus this very question about what’s most important. 

Like last week, Jesus is in the temple.  A scribe hears Jesus addressing other questions, so steps forward with his own: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Two thousand years before Mennonite Church USA conceived of the Twelve Scripture Project, this scribe proposed a One Scripture project to Jesus.  Out of all the teachings in the Torah, out of all the prophets have declared, What’s primary?  Which teaching summarizes all the others?

It’s a good question.  And it’s not unique to this scribe. 

An often-told story, recorded in the Talmud, tells of a gentile who came to Rabbi Hillel and challenged him to convert him, on the condition that Hillel recite the entire Torah – the first five books of the Bible - while the Gentile stood on one foot.  The Talmud says: “(Hillel) converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.  Go study.”  (Shabbat 31a)   Significantly, Rabbi Hillel’s time as a moral leader in Jerusalem lasted up to the year 10 CE, when he died, which means his final years overlapped with Jesus’ childhood years.  They were sort of contemporaries.  

We don’t know if Jesus knew about that story.  The question Hillel speaks to, however, was a common one, worthy of the kind of exchanges and debates that all good questions provoke: Out of the many scrolls that have been written, which piece of instruction is primary?  Asked now to Jesus by a scribe, someone dedicated to the very work of carefully replicating all those many words and phrases, stories, legal material and poetry, the full swath of text that guided not just the “religious” life of his people, but the legal, ethical, domestic and public, personal and corporate life.  This scribe has not just seen it all, not just heard it all, but has meticulously written it all, perhaps multiple times, body hunched, eyes and mind focused, perhaps pondering, day in and day out, each word he was writing.  Out of every line and arc and twist his hand had made with the ink, which ones held the key to understanding all the rest?  Which verse was the blue flame in the center of the fire, burning hottest, illuminating everything around it?   

When asked a bad or trick question, Jesus would usually counter with a better question.  But this is a beautiful question, one Jesus had likely pondered himself.  He has a ready answer.

Mark 12:29 – “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.”

It’s a passage from Deuteronomy and a passage from Leviticus, brought together into a single multi-faceted expression – technically a Two Scriptures Project, with one dense meaning. 

It’s the morning and evening prayer recited by every observant Jew to this day, the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One - Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, followed by the appeal to love the

Eternal One with all one’s being, followed by a clarification that what this looks like is loving one’s neighbor as if it were one’s own self one is honoring.

It’s another way of summarizing all of scripture while standing on one leg.

It’s a beautiful answer to a beautiful question.

And incidentally, this passage from Mark was the top vote getter in our Twelve Scriptures project. Which was not only a very frugal two for the price of one selection, but when your top scripture is the one where Jesus names his top scriptures, you’re probably on to something.

The scribe affirms Jesus’s response - perhaps had come to the same conclusion in his countless hours of prayerful labor.  And Jesus tells him he is not far from the kingdom of God.  A rare affirmation for a scribe in the gospels. 

There’s something very powerful and necessary going on in this story that translates directly into our time.  The amount of “content” - as we now call it – the amount of content available to us is so vast it’s hard to calculate.  Terabytes and Terabytes of text and image, information, entertainment, and persuasion.  Far more than the many scrolls this scribe had at his fingertips, although, interestingly, after several centuries of books replacing scrolls, we seem to be back to scrolling.  And there are so many scribes, so many content creators, and content sharing.  We are not lacking for teachings and instruction, told from every angle. 

Which makes the question all the more important.  What of this is important?  What’s the signal in the noise?  What’s most important? 

There’s a project for you. 

As a project, it involves a lot of sifting and sorting out.  And funneling down, narrowing. 

Sometimes life will give us a big nudge or push into this project.  A few weeks ago Jon Lucas gave us a window into what this is looking like for him.  He brought his young son Henry up with him to lead the Children’s Time, sharing about how having Henry has caused him to rethink all his priorities, especially in relation to work.  Yeah, kids will do that.

And good work can do that too.  If and when one finds the place where one’s skills and passions intersect with something the world needs, there can be a clarity of purpose about the small but focused part one has to play in a much larger whole.

If you have ever had a near death experience, or walked alongside someone facing a terminal illness, you know how clarifying that can be, where the non-essential things fall away, and the good gift that rests at the center of your life becomes the gravitational point around which everything else must now orbit. 

Sometimes our spiritual practices can help us gain clarity without life having to clobber us across the head. There’s a grace, even a joy, in this narrowing.  When you ask the question – which commandment is first of all – and you actually get an answer, one that you know is as true an answer you’ll ever get in this lifetime, you are indeed not far from the kingdom of God.

Whatever the specifics of that answer – the faces, the tasks or non-tasks, the use of time – we are on the right track if it tracks with the answer Jesus gave to the same question.  It involves our entire being – heart, soul, mind, and strength, no part left out - in service to the Eternal One.  And it involves the good of our neighbor, which as Jesus illustrates elsewhere, might not actually be your friendly Mr Rogers type neighbor.  And it involves the good of ourself.  How can we love our neighbor as ourself if we don’t know how to love ourself?  Even better, you recognize that your selfhood doesn’t end at the borders of your skin.  The other is an extended part of our self, and in loving the other, we are loving and honoring the self that is greater than our small self,  We could call it the baby Henry revelation, the moment you realize a part of your self is looking back at you through a different set of eyes.  Love you neighbor as your self.

With so many options, so much content to scroll, so many demands on our time, it’s a beautiful thing to narrow things down to what is first of all.

And, paradoxically - because we’re talking about God here so of course there’s paradox involved – paradoxically, the great narrowing leads to a great expansiveness. 

Matthew and Luke also record this exchange but Mark is only one to include the Shema at the beginning – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  And I love that Mark does this.  Because the one thing, the one command, is what the scribe is after.  Which narrows things down and leaves a lot of other things out.  But the Oneness of God is vast and expansive and all-encompassing.  Being grounded in the one thing, puts us in union with the undivided oneness of God, the Spirit and Energy that pervades all things.    

Narrowing leads to broadening.  It becomes less about what we do, and more about how we are in whatever we’re doing.  Love takes countless forms.  It’s the one thing that can become all things.  It’s the closest human expression we have to participating in the oneness of God.  Love is the ultimate encounter.