Mark 12 – The Great Commandment
The Great Commandment to love God and neighbor is central to my spirituality. The affirmation of both inward spirituality and outward compassion and justice grounds me. My soul is inspired by contemplatives like Thomas Merton, St. Benedict and St. Theresa of Avila; as well as Social Gospel preachers ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., abolitionists like the Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family of clergy, to Rev. William Barber today. It may seem quiet contemplates and noisy activists are polar opposites, but this is what moves my soul, and I think this is true for Jesus too. I won’t give either side up, especially in a week like this.
As we near two short weeks till an election that feels like it has been going on for four years, the din is relentless. I lose track of emails because I get so many fundraisers. “Todd, we need $5 right now or Mitch McConnel will still be Senate Majority Leader.” The news is insane. Militants are arrested for plotting to capture, try and put to death Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. And the President of the United States responds not with clarity and empathy to calm things down, but gets crowds to chant “Lock her up.” The New York Times keeps pumping out Pulitzer worthy pieces nearly weekly of financial corruption, tax evasion and debts owed by Trump’s businesses. But much of the country thinks it is all fake news, and believe QAnon, that there is a deranged Democrat cabal operating a child sex ring. Meanwhile the pandemic is running rampant. To stay sane (and informed) I stop to recite, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
It turns out Jesus was having an insane week when he said these words, in fact, within 48 hours he will be taken hostage, falsely convicted, and hear chants of “Crucify him!” These verses occur after Palm Sunday. He spends his final week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday preaching and debating theology. He told parables, condemned excesses of wealth and power and injustice, cleared the Temple, denounced false theology and answered questions.
A scribe comes to ask Jesus a question. He has had so many challenging questions. “Should you pay taxes to Caeser? Is divorce allowed? Who gave you the authority to attack the temple?” Was the young scribe hoping for a gritty argument about Roman imperial policy? “Are taxes too high, should crucifixion be abolished, should we strive for more civility in our discussions about Rome? Instead, he asks, ‘What is the greatest commandment?” What would you pick, out of the top 10? Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Keep the Sabbath. Don’t covet your neighbor’s spouse?
Jesus gives a fairly standard answer. First, he recites a line from the schema, the daily Jewish prayer, from Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This was Moses’s prayer before giving the ten commandments. Next, Jesus quotes straight from Leviticus 19:18, which is also a of commentary on the Ten Commandments. Leviticus says to be holy, don’t take vengeance on others, don’t hold a grudge, don’t profit by the blood of your neighbor, don’t slander people, don’t tweet about them, but love your neighbor as yourself. Why? Because you are all one, and if you hurt each other, you have damaged the fabric of life itself. Love is having a great passion for the well-being for others, for of all life, for God and all creation, and acting in accordance.
The scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; …‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Translation: “Wait a minute, loving is more important than the offering? More important than serving on a committee, more important than all the stuff we do to make ourselves look good to God, to make ourselves feel better rather than solving our real spiritual hungers?” This scribe gets it. This is true religion, not just self-gratification or institutional advancement.
Jesus says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Not far from Beloved Community. How often do debates end this way? Each party says, “You know, you are right….you are right too. We are not far from the Kingdom of God! ”
So why does Jesus say this? Is the reign of God any closer just because one scribe agrees with him about what is most important? All the other religious leaders still hate him, Rome is still in power, the poor are still hungry and none of this stops Jesus from being executed after an unjust legal proceeding. Close to the Kingdom of God? Seems unlikely. Remember too, the synoptic Gospels are written a generation after Jesus, and Jerusalem had just been destroyed by the Roman Legions, and Nero was Emperor.
Why am I telling you this? It may sound like I’m preparing you to be disappointed. Maybe I am. I’m a pessimistic optimist. I am always hopeful things can be better, and always mindful of the imperfection of it all. We won’t be disillusioned unless we believe in illusions. Here are two big ones. #1 “If we do the right thing, we will be successful.” Honestly, the results are out of our hands. #2 “We keep looking for the perfect solution – the right person, party, policy or moment-that will change everything, perhaps even usher in the Kingdom of God.”
Christianity was not spreading throughout the world because it was winning the political battles of the day. Jesus’s political strategy was universally disappointing to people. Christianity spread because people found meaning, hope and value as human beings. People found a way to live, to heal and to belong in a community. despite the continued inhumanity, violence and onward march of Roman legions to crush all resistance.
We can make ourselves crazy wondering: What should we be doing right now, when it seems that racism, sexism, and homophobia is on the march? How can we be most effective? How can we use our scarce time, energy and resources for the greatest good? Do our sermons matter? Did all those letters we wrote to Florida voters matter? These are all important questions, but are they the right questions?
One pastor whom I coach said, “I feel like this is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment.” I asked her what that meant in practical terms. She talked about needing to take a strong stand against undemocratic forces and racist speeches and policies and that we cannot be silent in the face of what is happening. I agreed, and also said, “You know Bonhoeffer was not very successful. He saw the true nature of evil as Hitler took power. Despite challenging the Nazi takeover of the church, at best he only convinced one-third of the German clergy to join him in signing the Barmen Declaration. And the majority of people who did support Barmen did so not to protect Jews, but to protect the authority of the church. The Nazi regime rolled right over the church, and Bonhoeffer died in prison. So what do we mean when we say it is a Bonhoeffer moment?
My friend said, “Well, whether we are successful or not, we are called to be faithful, and we are called to do the right thing. I guess success is out of our hands and that is really hard for me because I like to win.” So true. And she is not far from the Kingdom of God.
Neither Bonhoeffer or Jesus enjoyed worldly success in their lifetimes. No Nobel Prizes. Both were executed as enemies of the state. Yet we don’t remember the names of the “successful” religious leaders from the Nazi era. Who was a Lutheran or Catholic Bishop in Germany in the 1930s? Anyone know?
And yet Bonhoeffer was not far from the Kingdom of God, though he lived in the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer actually did some of his best writing in prison. He came to the conclusion that the only God that made sense amidst the Holocaust was a suffering God, a loving God who is with us, not an all-powerful God. His writing inspired many theologians in the post-war period, including Martin Luther King, Jr., liberationist theology, and movements to emphasize the role of discipleship in the life of the church. He is one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.
How do we be faithful now? I think it is much like the 12 steps of AA. It is impossible to figure out the whole process, as we work at changing our lives or our world. We just keep doing the next right thing, whatever is in front of us. Then, no matter what, you are not far from the Beloved Community, because you are living it.
I would love it if the reign of God was revealed in one grand moment, like a decisive election. But I think the Kingdom of God comes in inches, and we must learn to recognize and celebrate every inch. That inch might be newly elected leadership or supporting the homeless shelter. The inch might be protecting transgender rights or helping one person love themselves as they are. The real goal is to pay attention and recognize that when we are loving with all of who we are, then we are not far from the Kin-dom of God.