Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Mark 12:28-34
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘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.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
As mentioned earlier in the service, I spent the last few days at Bethany Theological Seminary for their Presidential Forum which focused on the just peace, the theology and practice of justice and peacemaking. During this meeting we heard talks on the history and theology of just peace through the World Council of Churches, about the situation of Syrian refugees, and a number of other related topics. After the lectures there was a time for discussion. In this time questions and comments were posed and responded to. While some of these questions challenged the speaker or respondent mostly these we were moving toward a common understanding.
In the Gospel text Jesus is questioned by a scribe. Typically when we see Jesus is questioned by religious leaders in the Gospels it is a challenge to his authority—perhaps testing his wits and knowledge—seeing if he is able to stand up under pressure as a teacher. Often this questioning is an active attempt to trap him in a misstep or in blasphemy. In this town, DC, this tactic is quite common, think of the recent Presidential primary debates. Sometimes there is an active seeking of the truth or better understanding but often the questioning is more of an attack, an attempt to malign one’s opponent—to get some dirt on them. In this situation, however, the scribe seems genuinely interested. Additionally, the scribe affirms what is said rather than agreeing and then trying to outdo Jesus.
Who, however, is a scribe? Scribes began as “recorders or copyists of official data” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 732) and then organized themselves. Because writing was prized and rare in the Ancient Near East, these writers and copyists of documents became advisors and religious leaders. [Perhaps like the monks and the preservation of documents in the Middle Ages in Europe]. In the Gospels the scribes are often listed with the Pharisees—Typically “the scribes and Pharisees” are seen as a pair. In this pairing the scribes may have been the elite more learned religious leaders. They served to preserve the law, as teachers of the law, as lawyers, theologians (DJG, 733).
This is a good and important role for this community. As a community under military occupation the maintenance of history and religious institutions is important. In the Gospels, however, including the Gospel of Mark, scribes are consistently seen as Jesus’ opponent. (The positive role should be noted in part because these negative portrayals have, historically, often fueled Christian anti-Semitism). There are 21 mentions of scribes and in every case except this one they are opposing Jesus or referred to in a negative way by Jesus (DJG, 734). Mark is the shortest Gospel, coming in at 16 not particularly long chapters. So for there to be 21 mentions of scribes makes them a major component for Mark. These scribes often Jesus and his disciples about, for example, unclean hands. Jesus often responds assertively and at times even calls them hypocrites. Indeed less than two chapters after this passage we read that they are plotting to have him arrested.
But this scribe seems to be different. This scribe heard them “disputing” and noticed that Jesus answered well. Hearing this he got a question in. The question is, “Which commandment is first of all?” This isn’t a question of chronology but of importance and priority. What is the foundational commandment upon which all others rest? The Old Testament scholars among us will know there are a lot of commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed there are 613 laws. If I were to do some sort of test of what is the first thing that comes across you mind when I say a word and if I said “commandments” most likely you would say “10.” And then maybe Charles Heston as Moses. Indeed, the 10 commandments were what I got when I Googled simply “commandments.”
When the scribe asked Jesus about which was the first commandment this was a test of scholarship not a question of which was Jesus’ favorite or his opinion on the most interesting commandment. He was asking Jesus—out of all the commandments which is the most important. Jesus answers with both the first and the second—love God and love neighbor. Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy 6 and the shema and Leviticus 19:18b. The shema is the central affirmation of the Jewish faith. “4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
Could the scribe really have thought Jesus wouldn’t know this answer? I puzzled over this. It feels like testing if an American were truly patriotic by asking who the current President is…Or perhaps determining the legitimacy of a Philadelphia football team fan by asking what the mascot is…Perhaps it was more a test of if Jesus, with all his new teaching, was still a good Jew—a true follower of Yahweh. This would make a little more sense. So instead of asking Jerry if he knows the Philadelphia’s team is the Eagles it is like asking him if he knows the next game is on November 8th at 8:30pm against the Cowboys and if he is going to watch it. (I didn’t know that…I had to look it up). Whatever the case the scribe asks and Jesus answers well.
The passage he refers to is a combination of the Deuteronomy passage we read earlier and Leviticus.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
In the New International Version and several other translations this verse is translated. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (NIV) As compared to the NRSV The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. As I studied, reflected and reread this all sorts of philosophical questions arose. This statement includes some base level definition of God. It indicates a priority over other gods (which would be problematic for classic formulations of monotheism ). It also suggests “oneness” which is a deep philosophical hole—and becomes even more so with the emergence of Trinitarian thinking.
While Jenn and I were working in Nigeria with the Church of the Brethren one of my main tasks was developing and teaching classes on peace theology and practice at Kulp Bible College. I really liked this. I had at a number of points during college and graduate school been very interested—maybe a little enthralled—with the idea of teaching theology—probably in a seminary—and hopefully internationally. So this was a great, somewhat unexpected, opportunity. I had every class—the students moved in cohorts—once a week for peace. Which wasn’t full time and I started to think about trying to teach another subject.
I looked through the courses to be offered with our friend and dean Vandi Kasu and we decided I would take a philosophy of religion class. So I began to prepare, buying a few introductory books via Amazon to download to my Kindle. I began reading—and thinking—and planning my structure. And it was nigh a disaster. There are likely a number of reasons for this but I believe the main one was a linguistic one.
Classes were to be taught in English but often lecturers would fill in or explain in Hausa to clarify. My Hausa was not remotely up to this and without the possibility of Hausa commentary to fill in the gaps their English listening to my accent was not up to the task (at least when dealing with this subject matter). As a result I struggled weekly to find ways to explain using concrete examples and analogues and drawings and hand wavings. I used material examples in an attempt to explain very abstract ideas.
When you re-look at the text these sorts of abstract questions aren’t present or at least obvious. Questions about God were not abstract. Or at least they were answered concretely. Rather than abstract these commands and the knowledge of God are very concrete. They are found in the life of the community—rescued from slavery, led across a wilderness, served food from heaven. This is the God who divided the sea, showed up in a pillar of fire, led ancestors out to a new land. These are also the sort of statements that we often find hard to believe. How would we know this anyway? The Potomac River doesn’t, of course, regularly stop flowing with the water piling up and the river bed becoming dry enough to walk across.
Look how this enormous theological statement is framed. It begins—
“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Moses says—I am supposed to teach you this command once we get to our destination. Of course they are crossing and occupying—read militarily invading and taking—a particular land. The purpose—“so that” your children’s, children’s children keep fearing the Lord. Moses is to teach so that once they are a settled people and not a wandering or enslaved people they will “fear” –or honor—God. This “fearing,” which is not the same as being afraid, will result in keeping commandments and observing diligently but this is not just so God feels good but so that all may be well, have babies, and live in a good land (of milk and honey)—basically so that they will flourish.
Now all this doesn’t really answer all the philosophical questions I have.
Keep the commands, recite them, bind them to your arm and forehead, teach them to your children. This passage, and the Mark passage as well don’t seem to even consider the questions I have tended to ask. Is it possible that I am asking the wrong questions? Now I know at least one of you is also interested in philosophy and that most of you have had variations of my questions at times—I am certainly not here to bash philosophy or suggest these questions are unimportant but I do find it interesting that these writers and communities seem to have a much more material engagement with God and how this relates to living as part of the community of faith.
I will suggest 3 implications of what I have observed from these texts.
- Jesus and Moses assume that a theological belief is understood and responded to materially. The knowledge of God is to be written down—indeed on doors and bodies—taught to children, and lived. Not only are these material practices but the knowledge of God is based in historical presence and manifestation. We learn of God through stories and community practices. This is in part why we meet together to worship, why we break bread and drink juice as part of communion. This is why we tell of joys, sorrows, and experiences of God in our lives as part of our Sunday service.
- God is one. God is and God is one. (I hesitate not to comment on this but will try to leave this statement stand on its own).
- The implications of this “theological” statement about God are that the 1st best commandment is to love God but this cannot be separated from the second—to love others. Indeed if you take #1 seriously (Jesus and Moses assume that a theological belief is understood and responded to materially) it would be better to say that the way we demonstrate love for God is through loving our neighbors. Remember that the theologically assertion about God was through an array of material practices and through God’s work in history through until today and into the future.
Back to Bethany Theological Seminary. In order to make it back to DC in time for this sermon I had to miss part of the afternoon. The one speaker I missed was Dr. James Logan. Dr. Logan spoke on the “moral significance of peace churches as a political force confronting the tragedy at Ferguson” and #BlackLivesMatter movement. Another speaker, Carol Rose, a pastor and former director of Christian Peace Maker Teams, began her talk reminding us that the land on which we met was taken from Native American communities. She urged us to get to know the people from these tribes that still live in the area. It is in these and our many other relationships or potential relationships that we demonstrate love of God through love for our neighbor.