Jesus Changes How I Love
After two full days of sitting glued to the television watching news of the weather this week, I have called a personal moratorium on television viewing, at least until after the election. The weather news was pretty bad, but the political advertisements were terrible…are terrible. I am so very tired of hearing them run over and over again. I guess there’s no avoiding political ads these days, especially since the election is right around the corner, this week. But by this time in the cycle the rhetoric has ramped up and the bickering has reached new levels of ridiculousness.
How ironic for us, currently living through this political season, to be following along in a part of the Gospel of Mark where the political rhetoric and infighting in Galilee has also reached new levels of ridiculousness. In these next few weeks we’re reading from the part of the Gospel of Mark that reports on the weeks leading up to the dark days of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. During this time period, there was extreme jockeying for position and heated arguments between Jesus and the temple leaders.
In fact, this week I’ve been listening to these chapters—Mark 9-12—in my car on my way to and from work. I usually like to listen to the text in different ways as I think about it during the week, but I finally had to turn off the CD on Thursday…I was so very exhausted by all the arguing and frustrating situations that were being recounted between Jesus, his disciples, the temple authorities…it was like listening to even more political rhetoric and posturing.
Basically, that left me in a personal state of electronic hiatus this week; I had to read a book.
Just to jog your memory, here are some of the things that were happening during this time period in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus heals a boy with an unclean spirit; Jesus talks about the fact that his death and resurrection are imminent; the disciples argued behind Jesus’ back about which of them was the greatest and Jesus told them if they want to be first, they should be last; Jesus ran into the rich young ruler, who wanted so much to follow but couldn’t bear to give up his possessions; there was more foretelling of his death and more requests for position from the disciples.
Then things got really heated.
Jesus cursed a fig tree and turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple; the temple authorities tried to question Jesus’ qualifications for teaching; Jesus told a terrible, horrible parable about tenants in a vineyard who killed the owner’s son; there was even more political posturing when the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus into talking against the Roman government; Jesus was critical of the temple leadership and the way they exploited the poor; there were more arguments about marriage and divorce and resurrection and all sorts of other nit-picky things.
On and on and on again…it was like a long-running political ad campaign out of control, and the tension was getting higher and higher because Jesus kept tricking the Pharisees at their own game and gaining popularity among the people. In modern parlance we would say that Jesus’ poll numbers were going through the roof, and it was making the temple leaders mad, really mad.
But right in the middle of all of this stress and controversy, an unusual exchange happened between Jesus and one of the scribes who had been listening in on all the various back and forth that had been going on. It seems this scribe, after hearing all the arguments, approached Jesus from the side of the crowd and asked him about the greatest commandment.
What was different about this exchange than all the others swirling around Jesus was that there was no animosity, trickery, or dishonesty in the scribe’s question. It was even, you could say, less of a question and more of an attempt to open conversation, to maybe light the spark of a friendship.
The scribe asks Jesus which commandment was the first of all. Well, any good and faithful Jew would know the answer to this question. It’s the Shema, found in Deuteronomy, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul, with your mind and your strength.” Jesus went on to add in the next commandment—you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The funny thing is what happens next. The scribe agrees…he agrees with Jesus. In fact, he repeats what Jesus said and everybody is on the same page…for once.
Unlike any of the other exchanges Mark tells us about in these chapters, there was no arguing or political posturing in this situation. Instead, the scribe repeats to Jesus what Jesus had said and AGREES with him! Can you imagine, two opposite sides agreeing? I know, it’s hard to envision these days.
The whole situation must have rattled Jesus a little bit. Here he was being attacked on all sides, sometimes even by his own disciples. He’s asked a question and this little exchange I just described happened. I can imagine Jesus shaking his head, wondering if he had heard right. Then Jesus looked out at this scribe, one who has been part of a group of enemies up until this point, and he affirmed him. He told the scribe “You’ve almost got it…you are so very close to the Kingdom of God.”
For Jesus we have to understand that this conversation must have been like a little oasis, an island of hope in a sea of confused, arrogant, combative people who seemed unable to get their minds around what Jesus was saying, most of the time.
Remember that the temple leaders and scribes spent their entire lives studying the scripture. From that study they had extracted 613 laws that a good, observant Jew should follow to the letter. A whole list. And in asking this question of Jesus the scribe showed that he understood Jesus’ frustration with the constant arguing and infighting about the letter of those laws. He understood there was a bigger picture to see. Finally, Jesus seemed to be getting through to somebody.
It must have been like the time I took my kids to visit the Mt. Rushmore visitor’s center in Rapid City, South Dakota. The kids were little at the time, maybe 2, 3 and 5. On the way up to the center we’d stopped for ice cream, so everyone’s hands were sticky when we got to the visitor’s center. Turns out the best part of the entire center is a wall made completely of glass that looks out over Mt.Rushmore. There were so many tourists standing and gaping at the monument, all the while my kids were busy smearing their sticky ice-creamy hands all over the glass. I was doing my best to chase them down, wipe their hands, clean off the glass, ask them not to touch, etc., that when we finally left and got down the hill, back to the car, where I’d gotten everyone appropriately strapped into their car seats, I realized I had spent the entire visit looking at the smears on the glass. I spent hardly any time at all looking at the carved monument. I could only see the problem right in front of me.
It was frustratingly like that for the people surrounding Jesus. He kept trying to teach the people that obedience, while worthwhile, is not the same as love. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus expressed his frustration by saying that the Scribes and Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens” and place them on the peoples’ back. Who can possibly follow 613 laws successfully every single day? What lies underneath, what is the purpose of those laws, what was the thing that Jesus was trying so hard to get them to see? It was love. Love for God and love for your neighbor…in these is summed up all the law you could possibly need.
See…Jesus’ message totally changes the way we love…it frees our lives from the bondage of rules and regulations, from infighting and disagreement, and it allows us to practice his law of love over and over again until it becomes instinctual to us.
For those of you who will probably never take a class in biblical Hebrew, I tell you now…if you ever did the professor would make some scurrilous claim that Hebrew language is instinctual…that you learn it by studying characters and markings and then…suddenly, it becomes part of your psyche. Yeah, right.
The professor will tell you to study, study, study…vocabulary and vowel markings and anything else he thinks of to suggest. And he will say that sometime, maybe mid semester…you will just know it. You will know it.
I hear this happens for some people.
But learning to live a life of love will surely become instinctual if we follow the most important laws of all: loving God and loving our neighbor.
This is how Jesus came to change the way we love: while the people around him misunderstanding him bound up burdens too heavy to bear, Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light. Sure, practice the laws, keep the commandments. But don’t worry too much about all the little things you need to get exactly right.
Worry instead about loving God and loving your neighbor, because Jesus changes the way we love. And because he has changed the way we love, he also changes the way we do most everything in life, with our priority first to love God and second to love our neighbor, there’s nothing that won’t change…and, if we try it Jesus’ way, some days we may even find ourselves not all that far at all from the kingdom of God. Amen.