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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Our story in Mark comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges, but we get a picture from this exchange of a Jesus who was challenging a system within Judaism, not Judaism itself. Jesus is faithful to Judaism’ core religious beliefs in this story, and at the same time he is also hotly engaged in calls to return to his interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to Torah as he witnessed people being harmed by the system. This is not a Christianity versus Judaism story, then. This is a story that says, yes, Jesus is challenging those in power within his society, but he is doing this as a Jewish man himself and out of concern for what it means to be a faithful Jewish follower of the Torah, not as someone who is anti-Jewish.
Lastly, the scholar talking with Jesus quotes two passages from the Hebrew scriptures that affirm Jesus’ response:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
“With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)
For these writers, love of neighbor is greater than ritual adherence and/or forms of worship.
This exchange between Jesus and the scholar brings to my mind an extended passage from Karen Armstrong that I read years ago and that I believe captures the spirit of Judaism and what early Jesus followers were trying to become. I offer this passage both to affirm Judaism and to critique more regressive and fundamentalist forms of Christianity, which seem to me to making a comeback in our culture.
“In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear:
It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’
Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Kindle Locations 7507-7540)
We’ll ponder this passage from Armstrong more in Part 3.