Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The great summary of the law. The great ethic of love that lies at the foundation of the moral vision of both Judaism and Christianity. These powerful words have echoed across history and thousands upon thousands of sermons have been preached on the seemingly simple commandment to love God and love neighbor. In fact, at our 10:00 AM service, our Youth Group will be sharing their own interpretation of these famous words of Jesus. But for us gathered right now, I would invite us to explore a dimension of this story that can easily be overlooked. And that is the fact that this encounter between a particular scribe and Jesus is a remarkable story about unity in the midst of division. It’s a story about agreement where you might least expect it.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, let’s just say Jesus and the scribes don’t exactly get along. In fact, not getting along might a gross understatement. It all begins back in chapter one, when Jesus is hailed by the crowds as one who teaches with authority, not like those scribes. Then things begin to really heat up in chapter two, where the scribes are the ones who first accuse Jesus of teaching blasphemy. In chapter three, the scribes make the allegation that Jesus is actually being controlled by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In chapter seven, the scribes pass judgement against Jesus because he doesn’t wash his hands according to their custom. In chapter nine, the scribes attempt to undermine and weaken the relationship between Jesus and his followers. And in chapter eleven, when Jesus finally enters into the Temple in Jerusalem, the scribes are among the first to begin developing a plot to kill Jesus. Of all the groups that oppose the ministry of Jesus, the scribes are the ones who get the most airtime in the gospel of Mark. The scribes – members of the ruling religious class. The scribes – the ones responsible for drafting legal documents. The scribes – the ones charged with interpreting of the law. What we can say with confidence is that the relationship between the scribes and Jesus was strained at best. With one notable exception in today’s gospel reading.
In today’s reading, one of the scribes approaches Jesus. The exchange begins much like the other exchanges that have taken place in the gospel thus far. The scribe asks Jesus a question. And Jesus gives a response. But in this particular case, the scribe agrees with Jesus. In fact, he takes the response from Jesus and he goes one step further by saying that the command to love God and neighbor is more important the whole sacrificial system taking place in the Temple, in which they were standing by the way. Jesus then responds with a commendation, you might even say a blessing, when he says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Now we have no reason to believe that this particular scribe was somehow set apart from the rest of his colleagues. He most assuredly would have been aware of the accusations being made against Jesus and the plot to take his life. He most assuredly would have had his own misgivings about Jesus. And yet, on this particular day, in this particular moment, with this particular scribe, we witness the remarkable surprise of unity in the midst of division. There is agreement and even blessing where we would least expect it! This is a story that breaks down the paradigm of “us” versus “them.” And if it breaks down the paradigm of “us” versus “them” in the ministry of Jesus, perhaps it can help us breakdown that paradigm in our own contemporary context as well. So, this morning, notice with me what is NOT present in this story.
First of all, there is no animosity. Unlike other encounters in the gospel of Mark, this encounter appears to be characterized by mutual respect and acceptance. At the very beginning of the story, we are told that the scribe goes to Jesus because he has noticed how well Jesus has been answering other questions. In other words, the scribe is drawn by curiosity. He is intrigued by the wisdom of Jesus, and as a result, there is an authentic human connection.
Secondly, there is no suspicion. In other encounters with the religious leaders, we get the sense that neither side is quite convinced of the integrity of the other. In these other encounters, there is an underlying distrust and distance between those involved. But not in this story. There is no hint of distrust. There is no hint of suspicion. Instead, there is an openness and willingness to engage and learn from one another.
Finally, there is no ulterior motive. And that’s important, because in the two encounters with religious leaders immediately preceding this one, the ulterior motive is explicitly stated. The religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus in his own words. They wanted to catch him on a theological or ethical technicality. But in this encounter between this scribe and Jesus, there seem to be no ulterior motives. Just an authentic human encounter between two people from very different ideological positions who are both seeking the kingdom of God. There is no animosity. No suspicion. No ulterior motive. In many ways, the character of this exchange between the scribe and Jesus embodies the content of their exchange: love God and love neighbor.
Imagine with me for a moment the various political and ideological factions that are present in our own contemporary cultural context. Perhaps you can even imagine a particular person in your own life with whom you disagree. Imagine what would happen if we could approach one another without animosity, without suspicion, and without ulterior motives. Imagine what would happen if we could authentically embody the ethic of love that Jesus calls us to follow. This is a story that challenges us to break down the paradigm of “us” versus “them.” It challenges us to be open to authentic human connections. To be open to be surprised by unity in the midst of division. To be open to find that even those with whom we disagree might not be far from the kingdom of God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”