Monday, November 5, 2012

First Things

Mark 12: 28-34
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?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘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.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After then no one dared to ask him any question.

About six or seven years ago I spent a few months helping my parents- who were living in Arizona at the time. My aunt and grandfather passed away suddenly and there was a lot of family business to take care of- so the kids and I went down and helped as needed. During this time I found a local Disciples church in Tempe to attend. 

One sunday while I was there I went to a sunday school class where they were discussing the light topic of ‘sin’. The question of the day was ‘Is divorce a sin?’... Now this was before I had any formal theological education- but still... the question brought me some discomfort. As a child of divorce- I sat back and listened to the varied responses. Some people wanted to name divorce as a ‘sin’ and condemn those who had gone through divorce-- and others in the room wanted wash away the ‘old law’ against divorce as no longer relevant.....

For me at the time-- the whole question seemed to miss the point. Being the fearless questioner that I am-- and perhaps ignoring the appropriate etiquette of simply listening as a guest in someone else’s home- I asked “Well- it seems that the bigger question is- what do you mean by ‘sin’-- because if you see ‘sin’ as a means to judge and condemn others - or to perpetuate guilt-, or to move someone to stay in a broken marriage .... then I guess I would challenge that.

However-  if ‘sin’ is understood as brokenness, disconnection, and pain... then yes. Divorce does bring hurt and pain all around. As a child of divorce-- even a ‘healthy’ divorce where all were cared for and loved in the best way possible- Divorce is by definition a broken relationship. This is not to say the process is hopeless- or irreconcilable, or without possibility healing-- but it is to name the reality of the pain- and to avoid brushing it under the rug.

Have you ever been a part of- or even overheard these kind of conversations? 
We often seek to understand the ‘law’ and what it means to break the law- what we often call sin- .... or to rank ‘laws’ in order of importance- We constantly try to work our way through what is right or wrong- to try to determine what the Bible says about any particular topic. 

In the chapters proceeding todays text- Jesus is being challenged with questions about how the law plays out in people’s lives. 

First century Jewish scribes and rabbis had identified 613 commands in the Law. Yes- that’s right- 613 -  248 of these were viewed as being positive in nature, while 365 were viewed as negative. This is a lot of commands! Far more than the 10 we memorize in sunday school.

These commands were then subdivided into two groups: heavy and light. Jewish scribes of the time loved to debate the Law and to determine which laws were more or less binding.. 

Most often this process of examining the laws was for the purpose of exclusion. To deem who was ‘clean’ and who was ‘unclean’. Who was allowed in the temple, and who was not allowed in the temple. ‘Choose your own adventure’ style arguments went on for hours regarding how to follow or not follow particular laws.

Religious leaders were constantly trying to figure out which commandment- out of all 613 was the most important.-- and in this process it seems that quite often they missed the point.


In our text today- as Jesus enters Jerusalem- the religious leaders try to rope him into this conversation.

Pharisees and Herodians are sent to him to challenge him- to trap him with questions about the law, taxes, and teachings about scriptures. 

A scribe, who overhears Jesus’s answers to all of the questions being tossed at him- is impressed and curious. So he comes to Jesus and asks this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

And Jesus responds clearly and boldly: “ 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.” 

Now this is not a new idea.... this is an answer that would be familiar to the scribe since Jesus is building on his own Jewish tradition- repeating what is known as the Shema-  a reading from the book of Deuteronomy-- as a follower of the Jewish tradition- the scribe would have repeated this verse daily upon rising in the morning, through each of his daily prayers, and finally as he laid down for the night. 

Jewish people today have this scripture written on a small scroll and placed in a little box called a mezuzuh which is placed in door ways. Prayers are practiced with this scripture on a scroll placed in a box and wrapped around the forehead and the arm- this is called Tefillin. 

This is a central Jewish prayer to this day. 

Jesus combines this text from Deuteronomy with Leviticus 19:18 :You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Forever linking the love of God, with the love of neighbor. 

So- this was not radically new information-- these were primary texts- just as they are today. However-  Despite the fact that this was a verse and teaching that people recited regularly-- religious leaders were still continuously caught up in picking apart the laws and commandments to name who’s in and who’s out. Still involved in in-fighting over the details of how to execute the laws.

To divide people into holy and unholy- to exclude, condemn, and marginalize. 

Despite the centrality of these teachings- they still missed the point. 

Does this sound familiar?


This week a woman I know was asked to leave her church because she decided to leave her broken marriage.

A man was told by his father that he was ‘dead in his eyes’ because ‘a gay son was no son to him’.

A woman can’t lift her head and walk to take communion at the park by the capital - where communion is served daily at noon- because she sees herself as ‘unworthy’ to come to the table. Too disgraced to speak to God in prayer.

I believe that too often we use the law as a means to condemn, to exclude and to judge, rather than to connect us to God and to our neighbors.... To this day we rank laws, and pull some out to condemn, while completely ignoring some.

Further we internalize this understanding of the law to heap guilt on ourselves. 
To think that we are not ‘good enough’ to be a part of society, to be a part of church-- because our sins are so many.  We judge ourselves as unworthy of God’s love- and disconnect from a relationship with God...

Jesus tells us that this is missing the point. This is not the intent of ‘the law’.

Jesus answers the scribe: 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.’ ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

There is no other commandment greater than these.

After Jesus responds to the question of the Scribe all stand speechless. The questions stop. What more is there to say?

This is the first, the last, and the always of the commands. This is the law that grounds all others- this is the lens by which we are called to interpret our understanding of the law. 

The underlying role of all laws is to bring us into relationship--  A relationship which by the way- includes constant grace and healing. This is not a list of do’s and don’ts but a constant process of seeking, learning, failing, and trying again.

The purpose of the law is to remind us that we are God’s- which means we are loved- always. The law is meant to point us to God- to help us let go of notions that we are the center of the world, and to point toward our creator. To draw us into relationship with the One who created us- who loves us, who longs for us to experience life fully.

Just as important, all the law reminds us that we are called to Love our Neighbor. We are called first and foremost to care for one another- to love one another- not judge one another. This includes the challenge of loving our ‘neighbor’ even when they seem ‘unlovable’-- especially when they seem ‘unlovable’!

As quite often happens with the lectionary- It seems to me that this is a message that is especially timely this week as we go into a political election of choosing our leaders who set, discern, and enforce our civic law-- a process which too often serves to divide and disconnect us from each other- 

In the heat of political adds, and half-truths we can easily get wrapped up in the black and white nature of naming which laws are most important- which leader is ‘in’ and which leader is ‘unlovable’. In my own neighborhood rival signs for or Obama or Romney pit one neighbor against another ...

Through it all we can miss the point. We can get caught up in the heat of it and forget our central identity as creatures of the one God. All are created in the image of God, and all are loved. Even Democrats. Even Republicans. All are created to love and give love.

Our laws matter- the laws of God, and the laws of our country certainly guide and impact our lives - so make sure you vote- however you vote - vote-- 

But as you vote, and after you vote remember that no other law matters more than the first-- to Love God with all you are - and to love each other just as you love yourself.

This week, may we let go of divisive bickering about which laws matter most, about who’s in and who’s out.

May we remember the grounding principle of all -- 
May we feel deeply our connection to all people
May we feel deeply our connection to God. 
May we look to God, 
may we love God- 
and may we love each other.