Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on November 1 2009.
Psalm 146:1-10; Mark 12:28-34
Have you seen, perhaps on television, those satellite images that begin far above the earth and then zoom in closer and closer until the lens is focused on a single building, or even a person? If not, you haven’t watched NCIS, have you? They do that sort of stuff all the time. Unfortunately, such technology is often used by military forces to focus on a specific target for bombing. For our purpose today, however, I would like for us to employ it, at least in our imaginations, to locate Jesus.
Imagine that we are looking for him, and we have the capability of using this amazing technology. As our focus becomes closer and closer, we zero in on the Middle East, then more specifically on the city of Jerusalem. Finally, our satellite image is able to pinpoint the temple. It is there we find Jesus, surrounded by the Sadducees in the outer court, where it is the custom of the religious leaders to debate theological issues.
But the Sadducees were not the first group to have at it with Jesus. As the Gospel of Mark tells it, when he first arrives at the temple he is confronted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Quite a group, isn’t it? Powerful leaders of the temple, keepers of the religious life in Jerusalem and all areas surrounding it. They want to know where Jesus gets his authority to say and do all the things he has been saying and doing. He tells them that he will ask a question in return, and if they can answer his question he will tell them where he gets his authority. But they can’t give him an answer because he puts them between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The next group to have a go at Jesus is some Pharisees, together with people called the Herodians. They ask him the famous question about whether it is right and proper to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says they are to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s, their attempt to trap him runs out of gas. So, they depart and the Sadducees take over.
If all this weren’t so important it would be rather comical, when you think about it. Wave after wave of religious representatives take their best shots at Jesus, and all of them come away rather wounded from the experience. The Sadducees present Jesus with a riddle about the woman who was married to seven brothers and had no children by any of them. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection, they want to know?
Of course, the Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection. Clever, aren’t they? Jesus accuses them of not knowing the power of God to be able to do such a thing as resurrect the dead, and they don’t know scripture either… a heavy, heavy indictment against such a respected group.
Now all this time, listening in on these squabbles between the religious keepers of the kingdom and this simple Nazarene carpenter, there has been an interested, and perhaps curious, observer standing over in the corner. When the Sadducees take their leave and it is obvious that no one else is standing in line to take a pot shot at Jesus, the man comes over to Jesus and asks him yet another question. He is different from all the others, however, at least in one respect. He is not surrounded by a group, nor does it appear that he’s trying to trick anybody. He seems to be an honest searcher with an honest question. Mark identifies him as a scribe.
Scribes were responsible for maintaining issues in regard to the law, but they were not lawyers as we think of them today. Scribes held the responsibility for seeing that the law of Moses was adhered to within the group to which they were affiliated. More often than not, in the New Testament gospels, they were coupled with the Pharisees. We often see Jesus in dialogue with “the scribes and Pharisees,” to the point that sometimes we might think they are both and the same. But they are not. The role of the scribe was to make sure his affiliated group kept faith with, and was consistent with, the law of Moses. Think of the scribes, if you will, as legal advisors to those with whom they work.
Was this man a scribe of the Pharisees, was he a Sadducean scribe, or did he keep time with the Herodians? We don’t know, nor does it really matter when you think about it. What does matter is that he has been listening in on the dispute between Jesus and the religious authorities, and obviously has become interested in the Nazarene. Perhaps he finds something in Jesus that is unique and new, refreshing beyond most of what passes for theological understanding in that part of the world. So, he decides to check Jesus out for himself. Seeing, and hearing, that Jesus can definitely hold his own with these professional religious types, he decides to enter the conversation.
You can’t help but like the guy, or at least feel some affinity for him. He’s obviously overheard the chief priests, the elders, and their scribes go after Jesus to no avail. He’s listened in as the Pharisees and Herodians have given it their best shot and walked away with their tails tucked between their legs. And now he listens as the Sadducees can’t get even close to Jesus with their biblical logic. He waits until the others leave and let’s the dust settle a little bit. Then he approaches Jesus. He doesn’t try to trick Jesus or otherwise make him look bad in front of the others. Instead, he gets right down to the nuts and bolts of things and asks the basic question of life and faith…
“Which commandment,” he wants to know of Jesus, “is the first of all?”
I want you to try and picture Jesus’ face. Now remember: he is surrounded by conflict and weary from argument. He knows that all these struggles between himself and the religious leaders will result eventually in his death on a cross. He’s got all manner of professional religious folk sniping at him, ripping at him here, grabbing at him there. If you’ve ever been in a situation of conflict, then you are aware of how physically and emotionally draining it can be. Surely, the same had to be true with Jesus. And then this scribe asks a question which Jesus really and truly appreciates, can sink his teeth into. It gives him an opportunity to affirm his faith conviction and to give witness to what he considers to be the most important issue of life and faith.
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
With the others who come and question Jesus, Jesus is a bit coy. He answers the first group’s question with a question of his own and follows that up with a parable. He responds to the next bunch with a logic they simply can’t overcome. The next group has their ears pinned back with his theological understanding. Now, because this scribe asks an honest and direct question, Jesus does not play it coy or offer a parable or provide an indirect answer. The question put forth to him by this unnamed scribe is an honest question worthy of a direct and honest answer. So perhaps even with a smile on his face Jesus says:
“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.”
Straight out of the book of Deuteronomy, straight out of Jesus’ heart. No room for misunderstanding, no room for argument. It just doesn’t get any more simple or direct than that.
In fact, Jesus’ answer is so good, the scribe immediately endorses it. “You are right, Teacher… this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
How refreshing! Jesus has encountered group after group attempting to test him and trap him and make him look bad so that maybe he’ll go back to Galilee and never come to the HolyCity again. And now he finds a religious representative who not only does not try to trap him, but wholeheartedly agrees with him and the answer he provides to his question. There are nineteen – count !em, nineteen – references in the Gospel of Mark to the scribes, and this is the only one that portrays a scribe in a positive light.1 So they shake hands, smile at one another, and decide to go have dinner together, right?
Well, no. Jesus has one more thing to say. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” he tells the scribe. “You are not far…” And then Mark says, “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” I guess not! If this honest scribe, who fully endorses what Jesus says to him, has still not gotten his foot into the door of Jesus’ kingdom, what does it take? Maybe it is this… agreeing with Jesus is not enough.2
Remember the man we have come to call the Rich Young Ruler? He got close, didn’t he? But in his case close wasn’t enough. He still lacked something. Does this scribe lack something as well? Evidently. It appears that Jesus wants more than a nod of the head and an agreement on points of theology, even something as important as the greatest commandment. What Jesus wants is unadulterated commitment to him and his kingdom.
It will not be long before Jesus reveals what he is willing to do to show us the love of God and the love of neighbor, when he yields himself to the cross. Until and unless we are willing to go there with him, we will be only like the scribe… not far from the kingdom. The question is, is “not far” enough? Honestly now, what do you think?
On the cross Jesus re-defines what this commandment means, especially when it comes to the definition of one’s neighbor. When the scribe is thinking of his neighbor, the neighborhood is probably confined to his fellow Jews. But Jesus would not have such a narrow interpretation. This story is also told in Luke’s gospel as a prelude to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, and for the most part the Jews hated the Samaritans. To Jesus, all people are our neighbors, all people are God’s children. That was a radical and outrageous idea, and it got him into trouble as much or more than anything else he said.
Our neighborhood, as we know it in the 21st century, is much larger than in Jesus’ day. So there’s a sense in which this commandment has gotten harder and harder for us to obey. The Jews had a few enemies, to be sure, but not as many as we do, if for no other reason than our awareness of the other peoples of the world is so much bigger. To follow Jesus’ way of thinking, those we consider our greatest enemies are our neighbors, and we are to love them as we love ourselves and as we love God. Tough to do, isn’t it? Tough enough, that when we fail to do it, we find ourselves – even with the best of Christian intentions – not far from the kingdom.
So how do we get beyond “not far” with Jesus? If there’s something else, what is it? The clue may be found in something Jesus said to his disciples in another time and place. “I give you a new commandment…” A new commandment? How can there be anything else? Hasn’t this conversation between Jesus and the scribe settled things? They agreed, remember? To love God and neighbor, that’s it. Everything else comes out of that.
Yes, it does. But let’s let Jesus finish his sentence, shall we?“I give you a new commandment,”he says,“that you love one another just as I have loved you.” That’s where the water hits the wheel, isn’t it? And how does Jesus love us? Selflessly, courageously, faithfully, unconditionally. Until we are able to love like that – like Jesus loved – it may just be that we will get no farther than “not far” from the kingdom.
My friend John Killinger once said, “The wisest man who ever lived walked among us in complete poverty, asking nothing for himself, and died in nakedness and disgrace on a cross for our salvation. All he asked in return was that we love one another. Nothing for himself, everything for us.”
So let’s ask the question again, shall we? “Jesus, which commandment is first of all?” As we wait in anticipation of what he might say in response to that question, he looks at us and says nothing. Slowly he points upward to the cross and it is then we know that is all the answer we need.
Lord, give us the faith to go with you to the cross, knowing that until we do we will only be “not far” from your kingdom. Love, real love, your kind of love, is hard to do. Give us the strength to do it in your name, Amen.