All day long on this very busy Tuesday Jesus is engaged in confrontation. The priests, Pharisees, and scribes and even the Sadducees have been bombarding Jesus with theological questions in both hypothetical situations and very real, politically charged situations. All day long Jesus has been confounding them, telling parables that point out their failings and cleverly evading their attempts to discredit him. And somewhere in the middle of the day a scribe, an educated man employed by the priests or Pharisees, asks a question and agrees with Jesus’ answer. There is no confrontation, no test, no effort to make Jesus look bad or to incriminate himself. This is the only such situation all day.
Even though I know the story, just as you all know this story, this really is something I hadn’t noticed until Borg and Crossan pointed it out. Probably because I usually look at manageable pieces of the Gospel – a chapter or a short passage selected by the lectionary committee for preachers. I usually don’t look at the entire day the way Borg and Crossan do in their book The Last Week. But when we do look at the entire day we see something way bigger and much more radical than the juxtaposition of two passages into the commandments that Christians quote in every possible situation; Deuteronomy 6:5-6 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength: and Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And look – the scribe not only agrees with Jesus but adds another statement that sounds like what we’ve heard from prophets like Micah. He says “You are right teacher . . this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This educated man who served the Temple stood in front of the Temple and said love of God and neighbor is more important than the Temple and what happens inside it.
What does all this mean, exactly? That is, what does that mean when we look at it in relation to the confrontations and teachings of the entire day?
For one thing it means that not all the Jewish scholars and leaders agreed theologically or politically. I know, we tend to believe that all the priests and Pharisees and scribes and nobles were opposed to Jesus. That would be because not much attention is given to folks who agreed with Jesus, only to those who disagreed. Just as in John’s Gospel, where he often speaks against “the Jews” but is actually only referring to those who opposed and persecuted the Christ followers some 60 years later when that Gospel was being written. This probably shouldn’t surprise us, really. How many times have we heard people say all Christians believe this or act that way or whatever and we get frustrated because we don’t believe that or act like that or whatever. Just as not all Christians have agreed from the beginning of the movement, so too not all Jews agreed in Jesus’ time – or now or any other time for that matter. This passage serves to remind us to avoid stereotyping folks, for here is one example of a member of the ruling elite who agrees with Jesus’ teachings.
But Jesus’ long day doesn’t stop there. Even though no one dares question him any further, he goes on to attack some of the most dearly held traditions of the time. He wants to know why the scribes teach that the Messiah is the son of David when David spoke of the Messiah as Lord? You usually don’t call your son Lord, he said, but David calls the Messiah in the psalms. Jesus rejects the tradition that the Messiah would be a military and political leader like David. He goes on to attack the practice of some scribes of foreclosing on loans made to widows, leaving them homeless and destitute with no one to stand up for them or care for them, even though treatment of the widow is the primary test of whether or not justice is being practiced in the land. He follows this with the story of the widow putting everything she has into the temple treasury, encouraged by the religious leaders to give her all to the service God while those who have much more just give a small portion of their wealth.
And when his disciples admire the great stone buildings of the temple, he predicts their destruction. It is a fact that the destruction of the Temple would have been pretty easy for almost anyone living at the time to predict. Rebellion was in the air in Judah. Bands of rebels and bandits lived in the hills waiting for the right time to strike against Rome. Fear of a large rebellion that would trigger Roman retaliation was one of the primary reasons the leadership in Jerusalem were so afraid of Jesus’ popularity. And we must keep in mind that this gospel was written after the great rebellion of 66 ce took place, after the Roman retaliation and conquest of Judah, after the Roman troops had offered a sacrifice to Caesar in the Temple in just the same way that Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had some two centuries earlier and then, torn the Temple down. After, in fact, most of the things predicted here took place. Jesus tells his followers that when these things happen they must not let themselves be drawn into the war, not even in defense of home or family. They must not be part of the violence, for to do so would make them part of the problem instead of part of the kingdom. And after all those things, then would come the end of days with the arrival of the Son of Man.
Mark, Matthew, Paul and other early Christian leaders believed that Jesus would return soon – next month, a year from now, in their lifetimes for sure. It didn’t happen, at least it didn’t happen in the way they way expected. But it is certain that Jesus came into the world, his message scattered to the four corners of the earth even as the Jews themselves were scattered after the Roman conquest of their land. It is certain that what was begun in Jesus will triumph, that one day God’s justice, compassion and mercy will rule the world in the place of the greed and power hungry machinations of the powers and principalities. It is what all Christians are called to teach and to do – to love each other as we love ourselves. We are the ones left in charge while our Lord is on a journey – we are the ones who are supposed to spread the Word and the love throughout the world.
Jesus said to the scribe, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” He was close because he believed what he was saying, that love of God and neighbor was more important than Temple practice. But he wasn’t quite there because he wasn’t living what he believed.
What does it mean to live what we believe? What does it mean to love God? It means always putting God first. Giving God what belongs to God, ourselves. We belong to God and not to Caesar. This is really radical, because if God is Lord then the other lords - the Caesars and Emperors and Presidents and Queens and Kings - are not. They may have power over our bodies. They may have power over our money, or over where we can live or work. But we don’t belong to those powers. We belong to God. We answer to God first.
And what does it mean to love the neighbor? To love one’s neighbor as we love ourselves means that all the differences society would place between us really don’t exist – there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no straight or gay, no righteous or sinner, no friend or enemy. There are just people, all our neighbors, all beloved children of God, equally valued in the eyes of God. Let us go and love one another. Let everyone know we are Christian by our love.