Some folks would have you believe I’m a bit of a storyteller. And I suppose I am. I love good stories… and I love passing them on. I’ve got some great stories about my childhood, the years I spent policing and in the military, family adventures and travel. But the story that’s most responsible for Philippa and me being here with y’all today… is the Gospel story of Jesus Messiah that began a couple of millennia ago in Roman-occupied Palestine, and that’s been handed down to us by apostles, saints and martyrs, past and present, to help show us the way to the kingdom of God. Now that’s a great story… some would say it’s the greatest story ever told. And I get to relate bits of it to you, along with some reflective commentary, each week as we work our way through the liturgical year. What joy. I love hearing the story unfold along with you, Sunday to Sunday, as I continue to discern God’s movement and purpose in my life… and wonder if it helps you do the same.
And the Gospel story goes on… Last week, we read about blind Bartimaeus, who called out to Jesus… and regained his sight. His faith had made him well. Today, we hear of a scribe who asked a relatively simple, straightforward question of Jesus… and got a little more than he bargained for in the answer. First, some context… Some of you might have noticed that the story of Bartimaeus took place at the end of Mark, Chapter 10… and that today’s story occurs a little over halfway through Chapter 12. What do you suppose has transpired in between? Only this: Jesus has made his final, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and greeted by throngs of people waving palm branches, shouting loud “hosannas!” He’s cleansed the Temple and taken on the Jewish religious elites, calling them out as thieves and hypocrites, to the point where they now want him dead. Things have reached a boiling point: corrupt scribes, pharisees and Sadducees continue their attempts at subterfuge… trying to trick Jesus into saying something actionable… something executable… but Jesus keeps outsmarting them.
And then a faithful scribe stepped forward, crossed the picket line and offered a non-trick question, a question which, for any faithful Jew, there was only one right answer… “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus responded by quoting from the Torah (Hebrew Law)… from Deuteronomy, the words of the Shema… the central prayer of the Jewish morning and evening services in the Temple since the end of the Babylonian captivity: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (vv. 6:4-5). And Jesus could have stopped there, but he didn’t. Quoting again from Torah, this time from Leviticus, he added, [and] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 19:18). Once, when confronted with a similar question about the Law, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, one of Jesus’ first-century Jewish contemporaries famously quipped, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah; the rest is its interpretation” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). It’s the Golden Rule, right? And it tracks very closely with the bit from Leviticus about how we’re to love our neighbors. So, the scribe asked Jesus for one thing… and ended up getting a “two-fer:” the first commandment to love God above all else, and then the Golden Rule about how we’re to love one another. [Mic drop] Boom! That’s it… the whole Law… everything else is commentary. And as for all of those burnt offerings and sacrifices? Yes, it’s good and proper for us to pay our blessings forward through tithes and taxes but, in the end, what we’ll be judged on is how well we’ve loved.
It’s been a rough couple of years, hasn’t it? We’ve all been touched, in one way or another, by the current public health emergency… some of us have gotten the bug, others have lost friends and family members, whether to COVID or to something else… it doesn’t really matter. The ways in which we’ve been able to support and care for the sick and dying among us, in the hospital or at home, have changed—and not for the better, I’m thinking—for fear of infecting ourselves or others. None of us has escaped the disruption of our personal and work lives. We’ve been isolated from colleagues and people we care about. We’ve suffered losses to our oncome and productivity. We’ve deferred long-anticipated vacations and avoided in-person gatherings of any size. We’ve been forced to make do with Zoom meetings… and our own cooking… and put up with these vile masks to mitigate the risk! And yet… we’ve managed to hold it together. Mostly. And I believe whatever success we’ve had in holding it together has been on account of how we’ve loved. God and neighbor. Think about it for a moment—without love, without bearing one another’s burdens and bearing with each other (cf. Ephesians 4:2)—everything would have fallen apart… families, faith communities, government and even civil society… everything. I’m not saying we’ve done a perfect job of loving… not by a long shot! It’s been a near thing: some days “two steps forward and one step back.” Like the Jews in antiquity, we’re a stubborn, stiff-necked people! But we keep on trying. Mostly. And in that trying… lies our hope of salvation.
So, we must stay the course, and keep on loving. God and neighbor. One day at a time. Something the past year-and-a-half has shown us is that we never really know what tomorrow will bring, do we? The current season of death and despair seems to be receding, but new threats to our health and happiness could (and probably will) emerge in the future to test us. There will be moments of hope, and others when we are tempted to retreat into fear. But the greatest story ever told—the Gospel of Jesus Messiah—tells us everything we need to know about how to weather these storms. It teaches us, in no uncertain terms, that the only path to eternal life… the way to the kingdom of God… is through the quality of our love for God and each other, and of God’s enduring and unchangeable love for us. Keep believing in the power of love and you, like the faithful scribe in today’s Gospel story, may come to find that you, yourself, are not all that far from God’s kingdom… it’s closer than you think.