This story that Verna read for us today takes place in a particular context in Mark’s gospel. It’s part of a series of controversy stories—conflicts—that occur between Jesus and the various authorities: the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, along with the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. These conflicts take place in the temple, in Jerusalem. And this should remind us of something.
Remember we had those three passion predictions—Jesus’ predicting in chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Mark’s gospel that he would be handed over to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders; that they would kill him; and that, after three days he would rise again. And that all this would happen in Jerusalem.
So now we’re in Jerusalem, and Jesus is arguing, over and over again, with different sets of opponents, but all from these categories that he has previously named.
In other words, Jesus is now in face to face conversation with those who will hand him over to be killed. Earlier in chapter 11 he overturned the tables in the temple and the story tells us that the chief priests and scribes kept looking for a way to kill him. And from that point on, Jesus is subjected to a series of short debates, as different groups challenge him with questions about authority, and about allegiance, and about theology.
The story tells us that, for the most part, these questions are really just set ups; they are traps, meant to expose Jesus to ridicule, to damage his credibility, to question his sincerity. Jesus has become very popular; the crowds are moved by his teaching. And all of that is making the establishment folks, the authorities, nervous.
So these different groups of authority figures approach him, with their “gotcha” questions. And you can imagine the bystanders watching this, and thinking, Ha – that’s a good question! Now they’ve got him! And each time, Jesus calmly and clearly bats the question away, with an answer that exposes the machinations of his questioners.
The kinds of questions that the authorities ask Jesus reveal the ways that they are compromised, the ways that they are embedded in the power structures of their time. There’s a question about paying taxes, because the chief priests are essentially in league with the Roman Empire. There is a question about a particular point of belief—what happens after we die—that’s meant to test if Jesus has the right kind of theology.
They are questions asked by religious leaders who have a very strong interest in maintaining the status quo. They have power—social, economic, religious, and political power—and they want to keep it. They see themselves as God’s official, authorized representatives; they claim to speak for God. And in response to all their complicated, compromised questions, Jesus responds with clear and simple truth.
Jesus isn’t invested in maintaining the institutions of his time: far from it—he’s just overturned the tables in the temple. So he’s able to speak with directness and frankness and, in the circumstances, great courage, about what God wants for us.
The question that is asked of Jesus in our reading today marks a shift from the earlier questions. The questioner is a scribe, but the text suggests that he is sincere, and that he is drawn to Jesus because he has answered the other questions well. He asks Jesus, Which commandment is the first of all?
And Jesus responds with a central text from Judaism, the shema, 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. He adds, The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
Jesus is saying that there is one God, the central claim of the Abrahamic faiths. He then says that our love for God involves a total commitment: all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then he pairs that with the commandment to love our neighbor, to have the same regard for our neighbor as for ourselves. And the scribe welcomes his response! And he adds to it: this is much more important than offerings and sacrifices.
A response for which Jesus commends the scribe: You are not far from the kingdom of God. And then the questions stop, because Jesus has so comprehensively answered his opponents.
So the setup in this story is the conflict between the official religious authorities and the radically new, fresh teachings of Jesus. Those who hold authority, those who claim to speak for God, are more caught up in politics and in policing institutional rules. They are so embedded in the institution and its preservation that they have stopped listening to God.
And when God’s messenger comes along, in the form of Jesus, and says, Really, the most important things are to love God and love our neighbors, all they can think to do is plot how to get rid of this nuisance! What he’s saying is too disruptive for them. There is a tendency for religious institutions to follow this kind of pattern. To become more conventional and more settled over time. To become more embedded in the surrounding culture; to become compromised, in terms of our beliefs and practices.
The church started out as this radical, countercultural community that brought people together around a common table, people who didn’t normally mix. The church challenged all the rules of the surrounding culture by bringing together rich and poor, and women and men, and slaves and freeborn people. Into a community based on these norms of love of God and love of neighbor.
They were inspired by what they saw in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to believe that God was doing a new thing, and that a whole new way of living was possible.
And then, over time, as the church became more established, it started to look more and more like the surrounding culture. Women were put in their place, as were poor people and slaves. The church began to look more and more like any other social group. The church began to modify its teachings so that they didn’t challenge the status quo.
The wind and fire of Pentecost in which the church was born—all of that disruption—was toned down.
And so over and over again, across the centuries, the church has been stirred up by movements of reform, attempts to reinvigorate it and recall it to its origins in Jesus’ teachings.
In the early centuries, men and women went off into the desert to found monastic communities. Later, saints like Saint Francis of Assisi called the church to humility and simplicity and poverty. Today, Saint Francis’ namesake, Pope Francis, is issuing the same call to the church, to return to its roots.
I’ve been reading a lot of Pope Francis’ writings lately, and this is a theme he returns to again and again. He says that we have become “sacristy Christians,” shut up inside of our churches, focused on the internal workings of the church, and keeping ourselves comfortable. He says that there is a danger to this: that we will go bad, that our faith will spoil. He uses the metaphor of a jar of precious, fragrant, ointment; the kind that we might imagine the woman used to anoint Jesus. He says that we have this precious ointment in the church. It’s what Jesus has given us—the Gospel, the Good News.
But if we don’t crack open the jar, and pour it out freely, offering it to all those in need—then there is a risk it will go rancid.
The pope calls us to come out of our churches. He calls us to break out of our traditional formulations—the ways we’ve always done things—and to ground everything we do in an experience of the love of God.
That’s where it starts: it starts with loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and discovering that God has been loving you with all God’s heart, soul, mind, and strength all along. Knowing ourselves as deeply loved by God, we cannot help but recognize that all of our neighbors, and all of creation, are also precious in God’s sight.
That’s where the love of neighbor comes in; Pope Francis calls it solidarity—the removal of the barriers that separate us, one from another. Solidarity, the willingness to recognize that we are all connected, then opens us up to the possibility of encounter, of meeting our neighbors and finding Jesus.
I spoke last week of Pope Francis’ call to allow ourselves to be evangelized by those who are poor, of allowing those on the margins to introduce us, or reintroduce us, to Jesus. And then we had some examples of that. A guest, Vicki, came up to the microphone to make her confession of faith. And then she, along with dozens of other guests, gathered at table with us to share a meal.
The jar of ointment broke open in the Fellowship Hall last Sunday. The room was filled with the sweet fragrance of fellowship, as Trinitarians shared themselves with our guests, and invited our guests to share their stories. The air was filled with music, too, as from the Fireside Room emerged the sound of beautiful music, played on the piano by one of our guests. The jar was broken open, and we remembered together what it means to be church.
I reflected afterwards that we seem to spend a lot of money in the church on things that don’t seem to move the needle very much. And that simple meal—which didn’t cost us very much—achieved so much. I know I met Jesus last Sunday.
I received a letter from one of our guests, a fellow named Guy. He wrote:
I am writing to thank all of your for the BBQ you held today and were kind enough to invite the homeless and less fortunate people of our community to.
What I found most impressive is that the members of your church sat down and ate with me, and also allowed me to enjoy conversation with them. There is a saying, “Practice what you preach,” and you showed that you agree, “All men are created equal.”
Never underestimate the power of an act of kindness, or prayer.
And it’s signed by Guy. Friends, we are about to gather around another table together, to share the Communion meal. Take and eat the bread and the cup; the body of Christ, the cup of God’s blessing. Taste and know the mercy of God. And may this meal strengthen us and equip us to love God and to truly love our neighbor. Amen.
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