Notes on the lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page.
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32–34, ESV)
The Scribe’s Question
Our reading begins after Jesus has finished answering testing questions from the Pharisees and Sadducees, who intend to trap him. Jesus isn’t trapped, and instead turns each question against the questioner. After all this, one of the scribes asks a question that seems to be apiece with those that came before, asking “Which is the most important Commandment?”
We of course know Jesus’ answer, since we hear it each week at the beginning of the service of Holy Eucharist. Quoted from Matthew’s Gospel. However, this was the first time the scribe and the onlookers heard the Summary of the Law. The scribe’s follow-up, quoted above, shows that unlike his colleagues he may have actually been interested in Jesus’ response.
He wasn’t interested as a means of putting him to the test, in an effort to trap Jesus. His interest was what should have guided all of the scribes and pharisees from the start. This scribe saw Jesus not as a threat to his authority, but as the realization of his life’s work to understand the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Lord is One
As a church body that professes the doctrine of the undivided Church laid down at Nicea, that Jesus Christ is of the same substance as God the Father, and is a person in the Holy Trinity, the affirmation of the one-ness of God can seem jarring. Indeed, those who doubt the Trinity sometimes turn to this as a reason for rejecting the doctrine. As we have seen throughout Mark’s Gospel, however, Jesus is shown to in fact be divine.
How can this be? Is Jesus actually God the Father walking around on Earth, like some of the heretics opine? Of course not. Jesus himself directs worship to the Father in Heaven while he himself walks on Earth among the creation. This would be play-acting and insincere if the throne in Heaven were empty while Jesus was on Earth. The key to understanding this mystery is to know that the word for “one” used in Greek can also be translated as “unity.”
“Unity” is a perfect expression for how we understand the Trinity. For the godhead is not three separate godly beings (“not three gods but one God” says the Athanasian Creed), but three Persons united in one Being. The best picture we have on earth is a marriage – except that in a marriage two become one, whereas the Trinity has been One since before all worlds were made.
Much more than all sacrifices
The scribe notes that the love of neighbor is greater than the system of ritual purification from sin that the people of Israel had worked within for centuries. Unknown to him, he provides another foreshadowing of the full work that Jesus will soon perform in his passion and death.
Jesus shows the perfect love of neighbor in his self-giving sacrifice. He also shows who his neighbors are – all of humanity. In doing so, he calls us to the same love at the same scale. No one is beyond the love of God even though they mistreat and abuse him, nailing him on a tree. No one is to be beyond our love, even if they ridicule, persecute, or even kill us.
This week we observe the great feast of All Saint’s. The famous heroes of our faith all show similar acts of love not just for Our Lord, but for those who persecuted and martyred them. In the hour of abuse and trial, they did not buckle but accepted suffering and death. By their blood the Church spread and even some of those who persecuted them eventually became siblings in Christ.
Not far from the Kingdom
The reading closes with a rare note of praise and encouragement for one of the scribes from Jesus. This should remind us that the Scribes and Pharisees are not monolithic Jesus hating villains. The scribes and Pharisees are Jesus’ neighbors whom he came to love and save.
In the Gospel accounts, the only time Jesus addresses the Sadducees is regarding the question of the resurrection. In contrast, almost every teaching exchange throughout the Gospels involves the Pharisees. We see later in Acts of the Apostles that many scribes and Pharisees actually became followers of The Way. Yes, Jesus was hard on the Pharisees and often condemns them for hypocrisy. And yet, again and again we see him reasoning with them.
By and large, the Pharisees were closer to “getting it” than the Sadducees. Their stumbling blocks were similar – they both loved their authority. When they laid aside that love in favor of listening to the Author of Love, men like the scribe in this reading received encouragement from their Lord.
To Love things Heavenly
The Collect for this week asks God to grant us the ability to be free from earthly anxieties and desire to “love things heavenly.” As someone who struggles with anxiety, I need these Collects where the urge to worry about life is met head-on. It reminds me about the reality of life – that all things are passing away, and the only security is in Heaven with my Lord and my God.
Think about this prayer in relation to the Summary of the Law we’ve heard in the reading. How do your personal anxieties keep you from loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength? How does loving your neighbor tie into loving “things heavenly”?
As we get closer to the end of Liturgical Year B, I’d like to invite any suggestions for ways to improve these posts you might have. Please feel free to comment with any questions or ideas to make this work more beneficial!