Luke 2: 41-52
If you are a theologian on facebook at the moment you probably know the story of Larycia Hawkins. Larycia was stood down from her position as Professor of Political Science at the large Christian University in the US called Wheaton College. The thing the College was concerned about was her statement that she wanted to stand in solidarity with Muslims throughout the world… and one of her stated reasons was that Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God’.
And it’s this idea that Wheaton College has a problem with: Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
It has spawned a mass of theological commentary all over the internet, some arguing that we do not worship the same God, others that we do. The problem with this political controversy is that there is actually a very complex philosophical question hidden under a simple claim. But right now, it’s dynamite!
Let’s just pause over this issue for a moment. Professor Michael Rea argues that there is one belief that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have in common: they all believe that there is exactly one God. In other words if you understand the idea of God at all you understand that there cannot be more than one (by definition we might say). God our creator is the single source of all else that is.
So it really makes no sense to say that someone believes in another God. To a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim… the idea of another God is just nonsense. So what is going on here if someone says that Muslims don’t believe in the same God as us? Perhaps what they mean is that they are using the word God in some different way to refer to some thing like a human being only more powerful (something there could be more than one of) the wind or a rock, or another human being, or something , or an idea like love or truth. To do this is simply to misunderstand the meaning of the word “God”. Now, I think its possible that many Muslims might think this is in fact what Christians do and also many Christians might think this is what Muslims do. But it’s quite an extreme position to reach… and a lot more would need to be said to justify it.
If that’s not what’s going on, if we are, in fact, using this word God in basically the same way… then there is really only one other alternative – that Muslims do believe in the same God, but they understand God differently. Maybe very differently, to the point of producing a very different religion or set of practices. Much like medieval Catholics and modern Pentecostals might be said to believe in the same God, just understanding God differently. And most Christians down the ages would agree that Abraham believed in the same God as they do… we just understand that God differently.
So there are really only two alternatives… misunderstanding of the word ‘God’ or the same God understood differently.
I raise all that because today’s reading highlights an aspect of Christianity which might demonstrate these alternatives. Today’s reading highlights arguably the central aspect of Christianity which for a Muslim must seem crazy…
Today’s lesson is the follow-on to Christmas… it’s really the further implication of the incarnation. God became flesh. The single source of all that is, became flesh and lived among us. And to add insult to injury (from a Muslim and Jewish perspective). God in the flesh began to ‘grow up.’
Jesus, the 12 year old, gets left behind. Did he lose track of the time? Did his parents neglect him? They were travelling in convoy with a whole wider whanau and so it wasn’t till after a day’s travel that they realise that there’s no Jesus in the group. So they go back and look for him. Wracking their brains… What would Jesus do? Where would he be likely to go? It’s bad enough losing your wallet or your keys… but your child! Finally they find him… after three days!… In the temple, asking questions of the teachers of the law. He is curious. He wants to learn. He is totally absorbed in this desire. He says to his parents: “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”
I suspect for some of you here, that sounds a bit rude coming from a child… In the old days it might have been called ‘talking back’. Parents declared what was authoritatively the case and children simply listened and obeyed. Pretty much a one-way stream of authority. This is how many have understood what it means to honour your parents. And many of you will be saying… ‘And it’s gone too much the other way now’. Jesus is clearly challenging his parents. Does he get away with this ‘bad behaviour’ because he is the Son of God? I am reminded of this well known cartoon. [show ‘Jesus at bath time’]
Perhaps, to truly honour your parents means to honour them with a very good question. Perhaps the one-way-traffic of authority is not the best model of what ‘good behaviour’ is. What kind of culture treats a question as an insult or a threat? Jesus question is: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Did you not know that the knowledge of God my Father and the will of God is the most important thing for my life?
For our purposes today I don’t think it matters whether this is good behaviour… we are past the Christmas season. We can forget all the stupid cliches about who is naughty and who is nice. What is important here is the humanity (human nature) of the Son of God. That the Son of God is human, that God, the source of all, becomes flesh. And here we have stories of him needing to learn, submitting to the knowledge of his elders, growing in the knowledge of God, the one whom he would come to call Abba in a way that no one before him ever had. And in doing so he broke the rules about God and perhaps he broke the rules about childhood behaviour too… in order to follow this call upon his life.
To be the Son of God doesn’t mean you know everything … like you are sitting above the earth looking down … no it means you have a brain like everyone else, but one which is formed in a way that no brain before has ever been formed. In one sense completely like you and I. In another sense completely different. Jesus is, according to Christianity, a revolution in the making.
Already there is a form of civil disobedience going on in his young life (challenging his parents). He goes home to Nazareth and Luke tells us he was obedient to his parents. But here we have a glimpse of the fact that his obedience to his parents is limited by his obedience to the way of his Father. His ‘father’s house’ will be his home, even when he is living with Joseph and Mary. Render unto God what is God’s, and to Joseph and Mary what is theirs.
Everything changes with Jesus… politically and theologically Jesus is a threat. For Islam (and Judaism) he represents a threat to how the whole relationship between God and the world is to be understood. As the incarnate Son of God he embodies the dance of divine love in the world. It is not separate. The love of God moves in and grows up. It heals the world from within. Grace and Truth are not just ideas… they become flesh as God (the one creator of all) becomes flesh.
For us… to worship the same God as Muslims and Jews… is to pay close attention to this life and its growing up in history.
To worship the same God is also to worship very differently.
His Name Shall be Called Emmanuel, which means God with Us.
In a sense the meaning of Christmas is very simple. You are not alone! A group of people… Christians… have come to believe that God is with us.
Some will tell you that ultimately you die alone. You must abandon your community with others and go on alone. Is this true?
For all of us someone has died this year. And not only is there this haunting thought that they are cut off … but also the deep sense of being alone ourselves, left behind.
Sure there are people around. But without that one … often we feel totally alone, even in a crowd.
We are faced with a dilemma… Is the vast emptiness of space between planets and galaxies a good metaphor for our personal situation?
Or is the love we have known with the one who died this year, in fact a sign of the truth about the created world? Is the universe itself moved by love? Will we trust the love that we have experienced in our relationships with those we have lost? Will we trust it as a sign of a deeper truth?
There is a terrible aloneness that we enact each year at Christmas time. It’s the aloneness of the shopping season, the aloneness of the commercialism, the mass produced jingoism of jingle bells. It’s the season where those who measure the world in dollars and cents come out to play. The corporations and franchises (and individual consumers seeking a bargain) do battle. There are moments of humanness in the midst of it all. But ultimately it is a noisy aloneness in a world based on competition for scarce resources between individuals whom the economists call ‘self-interest maximisers’ (a certain kind of model citizen). It is a celebration of an economic system in which God is basically absent. In place of redemption, economic growth is our best shot, even if the physical parameters of our planet start to suffer and collapse under our weight.
Christmas is full of irony. Hidden away in this aloneness of the shopping season… is the story of God with us. The love that moves the universe, has determined to intertwine God’s self with our fragile human condition and build a new creation. A child is born, to a refugee family in the middle of nowhere. Violence and aloneness will not have the final say. Thanks be to God.
The ODT published the following piece from me today. I was a bit disappointed with the title they substituted, as I thought it would put people off by being over the top and potentially a caricature. They entitled it: “Ascendancy of Market Capitalism a Recipe for Doom” with the subtitle “Climate change represents a crisis of faith, writes Bruce Hamill”
The People’s Climate March (29th November) is not just about whether ‘the people’ or our corporate overlords will get to determine our future (or lack thereof). It is also a matter of faith.
With unprecedented clarity Naomi Klein in her 2014 book This Changes Everything, articulates a moment of truth: ‘…our economic and planetary systems are now at war. Or more accurately, our economy is at war with the many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.’ The principle reason we have completely failed to address this crisis is a matter of bad timing. At precisely the time when scientists diagnosed our climate crisis politicians and economists and other such ‘high priests’ of deregulated capitalism reached a position of global ascendancy and have maintained this ever since.
As I read her, Klein is diagnosing a crisis of faith. A particular faith tradition and way of life has dominated our world in the twentieth century and has gone global during the last quarter of that century. Klein calls it ‘market fundamentalism’. This faith tradition puts its trust in the saving power of deregulated markets. Such markets will produce economic growth and this in turn, its propagandists tell us, brings ‘prosperity’ for all. The moment of truth which ‘changes everything’ is the realisation that this faith doesn’t merely destroy human community; it also destroys the future of life on this planet. Practical solutions are possible but they are hopeless without a change of faith and thus of culture.
My own faith tradition arose out of a ‘this changes everything’ moment. It occurred some time in the first century when a group of Palestinian peasants were living within an empire dominated by the faith of Rome – essentially a ‘global’ faith in the saving power of the threat and use of violence. For these peasants the moment of truth came with the realisation that the real power undergirding the universe was not violence (dominating through the fear of death) but love and its corresponding willingness to suffer for the welfare of the other. In the choice by Jesus of Nazareth to undergo crucifixion they experienced the clash between the ‘kingdom of God’ and the dominant socio-political and spiritual forces of their time. In his resurrection they saw the vindication of his way and hope for the material world. God is love, they said, and so, in the end by the Spirit’s grace, we will be also. So they lived in small communities and began to subvert the empire. Initially they quietly persevered with some success and then the empire began to subvert them, but that’s a long story.
Two faiths. Two stories. Two possible lifestyles. The choice to live in the life of God is a choice made by those who experience the love of God binding them both to one another and to the planet our ecosystem. The universe is held together by love, as is this planet and its human community. As Pope Francis has been reminding us, the call to love our weakest neighbour is also the call to love our latest victim – the magnificent creation we so egocentrically call our ‘environment’. This changes everything.
by John M. G. Barclay
If you think you know what ‘grace’ means you probably need to read this book. Top New Testament scholars are raving about it. It opens up a whole new approach to the language of gift in Paul and in the literature of First Temple Judaism. It also provides a powerful tool to analyse the tradition of theological interpretation of Paul down the ages.
My own summary of John Barclay’s conclusions will probably fall far short of the beautiful precision and clarity with which Barclay himself summarises his arguments as he goes along. This clarity means that, although the book draws on an immense depth of scholarship, it will also be very accessible to a lay audience.
New Testament scholars will no doubt argue over particular points, but I suspect that the framework Barclay offers will provide the terminology for debate for some time to come.
Some of the key conclusions are as follows.
The idea of grace finds expression in Paul and in First Temple Judaism in range of terms associated with gift giving. One key aspect of this language is that it arises within a culture in which gift giving is normally and normatively reciprocal. A return is expected and this does not undermine the fact that it is a gift. Hence the cultural world of gift giving is very different from the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ untainted with expectations of reciprocity.
There is no uniform notion of ‘grace’. Barclay’s close analysis of the literature shows a family resemblance between the various ways the terms are used but also clear differences. He distinguishes six ‘perfections’ of grace. By this he means six ways in which the notion of grace is stretched towards an idealised notion of perfect grace. Many writers use several of these ‘perfections’ in their understanding of grace, but there is interesting diversity which means that debates between different writers which do not pay attention to these differences end up falling into considerable confusion.
Barclay’s six perfections are: maximizing the abundance of grace; absolutizing the priority of grace; emphasising the efficacy of grace; stressing the incongruity of grace with the worth or character of the recipient; emphasising the singularity of grace as the unique characteristic of the giver, and finally defining grace as unconditional or non-reciprocal with ‘no strings attached. This last perfection, Barclay argues, is a peculiarly modern perfection.
It strikes me that singularity is a little of an oddball in the list as it is a descriptor of the giver rather than the mode of giving. Moreover Barclay spends little time discussing this perfection with its suggestion that God only gives and does not take.
The perfection of priority provides a backdrop to Barclay’s devastating engagement with E P Sanders ‘new perspective’. For Sanders grace, understood almost exclusively in terms of the notion of priority, does not distinguish Paul from his Jewish counterparts. Barclay shows that Paul’s account of the gift is highly distinctive once you pay attention to the many different ways First Temple writers perfect the understanding of grace.
To show this Barclay offers comparative readings of The Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, The Hoyadot (Thanksgiving Hymns) from the sectarian Qumran community, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Bibicarum and 4 Ezra. As a newcomer to these writings I found this section particularly fascinating.
From here Barclay offers his own readings of Galatian and Romans (in turn) as representative of Paul’s distinctive use of the language of gift. Although there are interesting differences between Galatians and Romans – the latter offering a fuller account and developed account of the relationship between this history of Israel and the gift that is the event of Jesus Christ – both letters demonstrate how Paul emphasised the perfection of the incongruity of grace (to the undeserving) because of his focus on the Christ-event as divine gift and because of his concern for and experience of Gentile mission. It is not that Paul does not perfect the idea of grace in other ways (he does) but it is the radical incongruity of the gift of grace in the Christ event which reshapes the life of the communities Paul writes to, most importantly in relativizing the authority of the Torah in a novel and revolutionary manner. Significantly, Paul does not perfect the non-reciprocity of God. Grace to the undeserving does indeed have strings attached. For Paul incongruous grace is unconditioned (by the recipient) but not unconditional. This incongruous Grace is, however, also efficacious and in Paul eschatological framework is effective to render some kind of final congruity.
Another interesting aspect of this book is Barclay’s comparative readings of significant interpreters of Paul. He uses his ‘six perfections’ as a grid to look at the assumptions about grace present a long line of thinkers. The following summary hardly does justice to the distinctive takes that each of the thinkers has on the various ways of perfecting grace, however, this chapter is well worth the price of the book. Barclay discusses, in order: Marcion (emphasising singularity and incongruity), Augustine (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Luther (superabundance, tendency to singularity, priority, permanent incongruity, non-reciprocity), Calvin (priority, incongruity, efficacy), Barth (strong emphasis on incongruity, grappling with efficacy), Bultmann (incongruity, priority, reticent about efficacy), Kasemann (incongruity, not inclined to perfect efficacy, opposed to non-reciprocal ‘cheap’ grace), Martyn (incongruity, priority, efficacy) and more (including a range of ‘new perspective’ and ‘post new perspective scholars’)
I struggle to recommend this book highly enough. It is must read, especially for students of the New Testament and for preachers and teachers in the church.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Today the lectionary sends us to the gospel of John to a very important passage.
To understand the story of Jesus you have to understand that first century Judaea was a hot bed of revolution. The Jewish people had been nurturing hopes of divine justice and revenge for many years. Revolutionaries had come and gone and still the people were kept under brutal military rule. The Romans did their best to keep onside with the locals where they could and Pilate is the Roman ruler on the scene. He has the power to kill any suspected terrorist and there are many potential suspects. The whole population really. No point in getting them to wear Star of David badges, or the kind of badges Donald Trump wants Muslims to wear. There’s just too many of them. Pilate also has a finely tuned politicians instinct to what is least likely to provoke Jewish rebellion. He will avoid it if he can.
So his opening question is straight to the point. Are you the King of the Jews? Are you the leader of the rebellion? It’s an interesting dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Each time someone asks a question the other person doesn’t quite answer the question. They just seem to avoid it. It feels very much like real life. But the common themes come back.
So rather than saying yes or no to “king of the Jews”, Jesus asks a question back. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate in turn doesn’t answer this question directly. “I am not a Jew” he replies. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me, what have you done?” Pilate plays ignorant. Clearly he has heard something from the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus in, hence his opening question. Again Jesus doesn’t answer the question ‘What have you done?’ Instead he circles back to the original question about being a king. But his answer is one of the most interesting and important statements he makes. It’s where he begins to nail his colours to the mast (so to speak).
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’.
Some of you might have translations which say “My kingdom is not of this world” but this is not an accurate translation. The more accurate translations say ‘My kingdom is not from this world’. That’s what the Greek says (ek = from). And its different.
There’s no suggestion in Jesus’ life and teaching that is kingdom is not about this world or for this world, that its all about an afterlife. Throughout Jesus teaching the kingdom of God is invading this world. But it comes from elsewhere. It has everything to do with this world. It just has a source from beyond this world. It is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. Both terms are about where the kingdom is from. Jesus announces the arrival of God’s kingdom in this world.
And how can you tell it is not from here?
“If it were my followers would fight to defend me from being taken…”
Because it comes from God, its members are learning not to participate in the violence of the world and the modes of kingdom-building that happen in this world. Jesus disciples do not fight back in defence… even in defence of their greatest treasure, their beloved teacher, Jesus. Their instinct was to fight and to defend with violence. Peter pulls his sword and cuts off the ear of the soldier. Jesus tells him to put his sword away. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. Believe it or not, says Jesus, the world will not be redeemed by violence.
I say ‘believe it or not’ because our lives are surrounded by the idea that the solution to violence must be violent. Almost all our movies and books seem to be build around this idea that some call ‘the myth of redemptive violence’. In the end the hero will have to use violence and that will solve the problem.
Into this world comes a man who comes from ‘somewhere else’. His whole heart and being has been formed elsewhere. He totally believes and commits himself to the kingdom of God from elsewhere.
And Pilate says, aha, so you are a King. You’re admitting it. His political mind is on one track. It’s as if that idea of a leader with followers who didn’t fight back was so crazy that it just flew past without him noticing.
Jesus says, ‘You say that I am a King’. A philosopher might say, ‘it depends what you mean by King.’ If the kingdom looks nothing like anything anyone would call a kingdom, is the leader really a king?
All Jesus can do is stretch their imagination. And when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King we come to have our imaginations stretched. The politician works to get things done. Jesus is more interested in stretching imaginations about what can and should be done.
“For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” There is a truth from outside the world. Jesus is living that truth.
Pilate is living a different kind of truth… it might not even be about truth… What Pilate the politician is all about is power and control. All that matters is that Rome remains in control. You stay in power so that you can stay in power. You say what you need to say in order to stay in power. Life is a battle. The meaning of life is ‘winning’.
All Pilate can do is dismiss this talk of truth. His last word is ‘What is truth?’ In his world that means ‘what good is truth?’, ‘who needs truth?’ In the world of cultural diversity, Jewish Roman, Greek, whatever … everyone has their own truth. There are truths but not truth. What matters for Pilate then is power.
In Jesus world God’s truth comes from elsewhere. Because, of course, truth is inseparable from love. In Jesus world, truth lies in the call to submit his own power to the good of his neighbour. To love God with all his power and being, and to love his neighbour as himself. To do so is to testify to the truth, to do so is to live in a defenceless kingdom, a kingdom whose only hope lies not in borders or armies but in a love that comes from elsewhere.
Such talk can be easily dismissed. Such a life can be easily dismissed… by crucifixion. But God does not dismiss it. God restores it through resurrection. God still restores it.
Let me finish with a quote (its becoming a habit of mine). This one is from Stanley Hauerwas:
Christians are called to live nonviolently not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but in a world of war, as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent
This changes everything! It’s the title of an amazing book by Naomi Klein (which I will say more about in a minute). Jesus didn’t exactly say ‘This Changes Everything’. It was more like ‘Everything will change’ … He looks around: “Do you see these great buildings… not one stone will be left on another. All will be thrown down.” he is talking about the temple, which for a Jew in 30 ad was the centre of the universe, the centre of the economy, the centre of their identity as a people. Everything will change… but also there’s more than a hint of ‘everything must change’. This is a time to speak out! This is a prophetic moment!
So the first thing I want to say is: This is not just a prediction this is a judgement on the temple. In the immediate prior story in Mark’s gospel Jesus is sitting in the temple, watching a poor widow give all she has to the coffers… and denouncing the religious leaders who keep the place running on hypocrisy. That’s the context in Mark. What’s more Jesus not only talked about the temple falling down. He acted. He protested. He went into the temple and performed public protests and dramas. He tipped over the tables of the money-changers. He took a stock whip and chased the animals for the sacrificial system out of the temple. He put his body where his mouth was. Jesus is a critic of the temple. The temple is failing. The temple is perverted from its purpose.
Secondly, Jesus is not talking about the distant future this is about to happen. He is not talking of the end of the physical universe, let alone the end of life on the planet. He is talking about something much closer to hand and yet for his audience, something just as devastating. How do I know he’s not talking about some future event we are still waiting for? Because he says so (later in Mark 13…v 30). “Truly I tell you this generation shall not pass away until these things have taken place.” … until the temple is destroyed. Modern readers are fooled into thinking that Jesus is talking about the end of the world by the fact that Jesus speaks like an apocalyptic prophet. He quotes images from apocalyptic literature. Images of cosmic disaster, stars falling from the heaven, the sun darkening. And modern readers who don’t know this kind of literature, and don’t “get it”, think he is literally describing the end of the world. In fact, as I have explained from this pulpit before, the most straightforward reading is that he is dramatising, in a poetic way, the disaster that he clearly sees coming.
In 70 ad Jerusalem and its temple were sacked and destroyed by Rome. Not one stone was left on another. Jesus was right. ‘This generation’ didn’t pass away. Messiahs came and went. Plenty of people stood up to fight Rome in the name of the God of Israel. Followers of Jesus were persecuted. All of this Jesus could see coming. Everything was going to change. And it did… in 70 ad.
But 70 ad was a long time ago. Ancient history for us. What does this event from the distant past, say to us today? Is there a temple that Jesus would look at today and say. Everything. Must. Change. Not one stone will be left upon another. If you were Jesus, what would you predict was about to collapse? What would you say must change?
In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein wrote:
‘…our economic and planetary systems are now at war. Or more accurately, our economy is at war with the many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.’
Implication: the economic model must change. The basic way we organise our society must change.
Jesus went to the centre of faith in his day. What does that mean? What is faith? Let me suggest a definition of faith. Faith is a fundamental commitment which shapes the way we live our life. If I have faith in human nature… I will go around trusting people. If I have faith in education… I will believe that educating people will make them better people. If I have faith in the Key government… I will vote for them (or take an interest in flags😉. If I have faith in money… I will evaluate the progress of our society in terms of GDP.
So we can talk about my faith. But we can also talk about our faith. Naomi Klein says that our society has been built around faith in free markets… The powerful in our world now operate on the faith that if you free up the markets, there will be economic growth, this will result in financial prosperity for all, and the world will be a better place. And so governments have structured our society accordingly. We have learnt to become good citizens by consuming more and more in order to grow the economy.
I want to suggest that this is our faith. This is the common faith of our society
And now says Klein, our faith is approaching a head-on collision with the basic structures of our planet. Not only will greed not save us. It will destroy us. Suddenly our warming globe is going to force us to face up to our neighbours again (loving our neighbours as ourselves, that little detail that gets sidelined in the economic culture we live in) … we are forced to face up to our neighbours again, including the non-human neighbours and the natural world beloved of God. If Jesus were here he would say again. Everything must change.
Our reading concludes “This is but the beginning of birthpangs”
Anyone here given birth? Pleasant experience?
Facing change is not easy… there are always ‘birth pangs’… especially if its your whole world that is changing. Especially if it is your most basic commitments that shape your everyday life. Especially if the large stones of the temple represent your memories and childhood. The trouble coming is like the pain of childbirth.
There is a peculiar quality to the pains of birth because the future is so much better, if only we can go through the transition. If only we can live into this future. Alert not to the way things have been, but alert to the coming of Christ. Christ who comes to us in the disguise of the poor. Christ who comes to us in our neighbour. Christ who ultimately comes to us in a new and renewed world…
We are at a tipping point. We live in dangerous times, but in all of this we live in hopeful times.
I always thought of Wendell Berry as an environmentalist and a poet. But I didn’t think of him as a Christian until I read this quote from him:
“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love”
So we enter the gospel in the middle of a big debate. This is the inquisition section of Mark’s gospel. The religious leaders have been asking Jesus tricky questions for a while now. They have been asking him about taxes. They have been asking him about the resurrection. Now a scribe comes in with the big one: What is the greatest commandment? It is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian question: what is the heart of the gospel? When all is said and done what is at the core of your faith? … that kind of thing.
This reminds me of an interesting contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Because they are quite different questions (the greatest commandment and the core of the gospel). When a Jew looks back at the ancient writings that we call ‘the Old Testament’ he or she thinks of them as ‘The Law’ (and calls them ‘The Law’) . It’s all about commandments. The stories fit around the commands. When a Christian looks back at these same writings. He or she sees firstly the story. It’s the story of the covenant love of God. So we call it the Old Covenant or Old Testament. The commands fit within the story rather than the other way round.
So when Judaism split in two later in the first century between those Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah and those Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus, the Christians (the ones who did believe in Jesus) gathered together their writings as New Testament. And the other Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus gathered writings together as Mishnah – the writings of the rabbis about how to order their lives.
So here’s the point. Both groups look back at the same books from their past. They each have a right to those books as their common past. But both have different ways of looking at the same books. For Jews the Commands or the Law is at the centre and the story fits around it – so they call them ‘the Law’. For Christians the story and the covenant is at the centre – so the call them the ‘Old Testament/Covenant’ (or at least that’s what Robert Jenson argues)
So what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers the question. And he answers it in a way that is completely acceptable to the Scribe. He gives a standard Jewish answer. Love God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love your neighbour. Both are there as individual commandments in their own right. You can look up Deuteronomy and read about loving God and Leviticus has a commands love of neighbour as the alternative to vengeance (that’s an important context) [“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev 19:18]
They exist as individual commandments. Jesus puts them together in one commandment. And that one command is not just the greatest command. It is also a summary of all the 10 commandments. Its a summary of this vision of a life with two dimensions which can never be separated. Love God (verticle) and love your neighbour (horizontal).
Jesus says together these make up the single ‘greatest command’ and yet within the greatest commandment there are two parts. Love for God comes first. And neighbour love follows.
The greatest commandment turns out to be a big call, a kind of perfection. We could very easily dismiss it… as beyond us… impossible even, and move on. That’s one response. It’s just depressingly aspirational.
Another response: We might also be concerned about the emphasis on first loving God. If you love God too much you’ll end up with not enough love for your neighbour. Like the suicide bomber who loves God so much that he kills his neighbour. … But Jesus says love is not a finite quantity like water. If you use too much of it you run out. For Jesus it works the other way. The more you love God, the more you love your neighbour. We are changed. We lose any exclusiveness that might be associated with our love of our self. We lose any selfishness about our love for our self … and we love our neighbour with the same love that we have for our self. Love of God encompasses and shapes everything else we do. It has everything to do with the nature and reality of the God we love.
That’s nice, you might say … in theory… So the conversation ends in agreement. They all agree. All you need is love. Great! All religions are the same. They all believe in love (in some sense)… we’re happily ever after.
But Jesus has the last word. He saw that the scribe had answered thoughtfully, and he says to him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. Close… but no cigar. What did he get wrong?
He is thoughtful. Jesus and he both agree on the commandments. But the commandments are not enough. The kingdom of God does not come to us as a commandment. We do not enter the kingdom of God by commandments. If you have lived all your life trying to follow the principles and commandments that your parents and the church has taught you, with all the best intentions in the world, it is quite possible that Jesus will look at you and say ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. Close … but no cigar.
To put it another way. You cannot love God because God commands you to love God. Even the greatest commandment is not enough. You will love God because: God. is. lovely! It is because all the loveliness of God, the kingdom of God comes to you that you will enter the kingdom of God. And if that is not your experience, you will probably not love God, even if you try to love God.
Jesus comes bringing the kingdom, announcing the kingdom, demonstrating all the loveliness of God’s life… and the man standing in front of him… doesn’t enter the kingdom. Because ultimately it’s not about commands, it’s about something that happens to us. God’s story… the Old Testament… is still happening as New Testament. The two tablets of the law – total love for God (vertical) and love for neighbour (horizontal) are being lived out in the shape of a cross, a cross shaped life of the loveliness of God. God is loving us. God is drawing us in. ….
In the end its not a matter of commands or principles or ideas (common to all religions). It’s a matter of receiving that story and that life and participating in that life and being changed.
The gospel is not a command. It is something that happens to you. It’s the thing that causes you to love God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself.
It’s when I survey the wondrous cross… the cross-shaped life of Jesus and of his Abba … that love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Let’s sing that hymn together…