Gospel: Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’
29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Holiness and Love
When I left home at the end of school, I lived in a coeducational college. Even then, I could see that some of us men had bad attitudes towards the women residents; I remember conversations about how things might be improved. But I now understand that even we nicer boys still thought we were naturally superior to women. We would have denied this; it was so much a part of our formation that we could not see it. It's all very well to see a problem, but it can't be fixed until we see the whole problem, especially if we are the problem.
Here is the point: If we do not see that all humanity— us too— is involved in and formed by sacrificial practice, then what we say about the Gospel, and what we say about the lectionary gospel for this week, is compromised just like my early college efforts. We will fail to see we are the problem. We have assumed that "they" did sacrifices "back then in Jesus' time," but that we don't. That skews everything we say and do.
Let us look at the text, which will lead us back to this point.
From the end of Mark Chapter 8, the journey to Jerusalem begins. If we look at the teaching of Jesus from Mark 8:27 to 10:52 we could say Jesus is teaching us what it means to be Messiah and what it means to follow the Messiah. We might also characterise this section of the gospel as Jesus teaching us how to love.
Mark then makes it clear "although "the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching," (Mark 11:18) [Jesus] was attacked by the entire religious establishment." This included the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (11:27) who "sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians... (12:13) and also included Sadducees. (12:18) The people, the victims of society, the losers, could hear him while the religious establishment and the winners seemed only able to oppose him.
Until a scribe, who "heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well," asks a genuine question. He hears and sees, unlike his contemporaries who are much more in the mould of those who “indeed look, but [do] not perceive... and ... indeed listen, but [do] not understand." (Mark 412).
There is some variation of the quotation of the Old Testament scripture by each man; Jesus adds "with all your mind," in to the words from Deuteronomy 6, which the scribe affirms, and the scribe leaves out "with all your soul," as he restates Jesus' words. By having the scribe repeat what Jesus says, Mark reinforces the teaching.
Jesus answer about the first commandment — first means the foundational commandment —is not at all controversial. No one would have disagreed. When he says there is a second commandment, the scribe affirms his answer: "Good! Teacher." (Καλῶς, διδάσκαλε) It is already a powerful rhetorical ploy to have one of his opponents agrees with him and praises him; we could translate the Καλῶς, διδάσκαλε as "Well said, Teacher! But then, Mark increases the surprise: One of the scribes, who have so far been against Jesus, says these two commandments together are more important than all sacrifices and burnt offerings; much more important. The text implies (12:34) that he says this in the temple, the place of sacrifices and burnt offerings.
The statement is not new. As I say in The Interpretation of Love, "Hosea 6:6 has already said, "‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Micah 6:8 has already said, "the Lord require[s] of you… to do justice, and to love kindness..." What is controversial is that Jesus privileges love over religious ritual and sacrifice. Love, says the Scribe, is much more important. Not holiness, but love. Indeed, says Jesus. To see this is to be "not far from the Kingdom of God."
People would not be upset that Jesus was teaching love. They would be upset that love was being put before being holy by observing the local shibboleths about holiness. I put it that way because even in Jesus' situation holiness is situational. People argued over which behaviours and observances were imperative or optional.
There is an unfortunate translation of some following verses in NRSV:
38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
There should be no comma after the scribes, for it implies all scribes are like this, and we have just seen they are not. The sense is "Beware of those scribes who..." And what they do is not love; they seek praise and honour, and they steal.
So, it is not that Jesus is condemning all the scribes; he is drawing the contrast between this scribe and others, and between the privileging of holiness over love. It has consequences!
Like many readers, I have seen that to
"love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" is the same as "loving one’s neighbour as oneself."
If I do not love my neighbour as myself then I cannot love God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength.
These two commandments are the two sides of the same coin. As 1 John 4 says,
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
In our context it may take a while for the penny to drop so that we can see that love of God and neighbour are on the same coin. In the context of scribes and rabbis debating, I suspect the implications of what Jesus and the scribe say were instantly obvious.
What does it mean to love? Amy Lindeman Allen says, "At its heart, what [love] really means, is simply putting the ‘other’ first." But today we say this from a very individualistic perspective which fails to see how all-embracing the biblical demand for love is— we seem able to say we love without really doing any putting at all. In fact, I think we often confuse love with sympathy, or with some disembodied feeling of good will, which has no concrete result or requirement.
Malina and Rohrbaugh say that in Jesus' time
Persons had little concern for things ... [which] we would call psychological states ... words referring to internal states always connoted a corresponding external expression as well.
Two words nearly always assigned to internal states in our society are "love" and "hate." To understand what they meant in the first-century Mediterranean world, it is necessary to understand their group orientation. The term "love," for example, is best translated "group attachment" or "attachment to some person." Thus, in the traditional Israelite reading of Deut. 6:5, repeated here in Mark 12:30, "to love God" can be paraphrased as "to be attached, to be devoted" to God. There may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment along with the outward behavior bound up with attachment that love entails. Thus "to love God with all one's heart . . ." means total attachment to the exclusion of other deities; "to love one's neighbor as oneself" is attachment to the people in one's neighborhood as to one's own family-a very normal thing in the group-oriented Mediterranean (see Lev. 19:18, where neighbor is "sons of your own people"). (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, the section: "Love and Hate, 12:28-34")
Love is attachment. True love means I am so attached to you as a part of my group that I will not accept, and will not strive for anything, that you, my neighbour, cannot have. In Lindeman Allen's words, I will put you first. And as Luke will later clarify for us in his refinement of the story of the Scribe and the Samaritan, (Luke 10:25-37) our neighbour is everyone. There is only one group. So of course the Samaritan attends to the wounded man; he is attached to him as a brother. Love means he is his brother. If ever we needed the word of Psalm 130, it is at this point:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
But why privilege love? How can love be so much more important than the holiness of sacrifice and offering? Surely the parable about the Samaritan is a special case— why couldn't the healing of the woman wait until after the Sabbath? What is one more day in 18 years? (Luke 13.9-19) It is because sacrifice— and therefore, the holiness of doing the right thing— is based in fear, not love. Love is the opposite of sacrifice. The two are, finally, opposed.
Firstly, if I do not love you, I detach myself from your well-being. This is not about feeling— "there may or may not be affection"— but about action. Not to love means I am prepared to sacrifice your well-being for my own, whether that be to let you go hungry while I eat my fill, or whether it be to detach myself from your pain at being made into a second class human, because you are a woman, because it would cost me my privilege and comfort.
Secondly, the wounded traveller is not a special case because we meet wounded people every time we go out into the street. If the priest was afraid because perhaps the brigands were lying in wait, I understand; I approach people flagging me down on lonely roads with great caution. And staunching the wounds of a bleeding person with our bare hands means taking a very deep breath. But to abandon you because you might damage my holiness before the God who forgives all things is a special act of callousness on my part. Indeed, it seems to me that my early attempts at holiness often ended up simply being callous.
Now this could sound like a clever semantic or rhetoric which the text does not really support; after all, isn't the text about the sacrifice of animals?
It is here that we have to approach the deeper problem. Sacrifice and its holiness is not something which "primitive" people do with animals. Sacrifice is a violence against arbitrary victims to protect the rest of us who, this time, have been lucky enough to avoid being chosen as the victim.
Animal sacrifice is merely the ritualising and limiting of the violence between ourselves, and the projection of that violence onto a "God" who we decide demands it. The sacrifice of the animals, and even the offering of measures of grain, is an often not so distant reflection of buying off or appeasing the angry God. And it is a way of hiding murder.
One of the things about sacrifice is that it only works if you believe in it. If we can see the scapegoat is innocent and arbitrary, the whole system falls apart. We don't believe in animal sacrifice, which we call "primitive," but since we still invariably sacrifice it begs the question if in some ways we are worse than the cultures who emptied much more of their violence upon animals. We use people.
I'm sketching out the Girardian understanding of sacrifice which turns our understanding of ourselves on its head. As James Alison puts it, we didn't invent sacrifice, it invented us. We didn't decide to keep the God's happy by giving them food and drink to eat. We became human because sacrifice prevented us from wiping ourselves out. Sacrifice is
how humans survive the potentially catastrophic consequence of having turned into especially imitative apes: ones no longer constrained in our rivalry by instinct or the dominance patterns we see in our nearest simian relatives. This is the mechanism of the aleatory [random, by the throw of a dice— I had to look it up!] victim, sometimes referred to as the "Scapegoat mechanism”. According to this, what structures our existence as culture is the way in which a group's all-against-all, rivalrous imitation run amok, sometimes found itself able to be resolved into an all-against-one, when the group joined together in fury against a particular member, treated as having caused the problem in the first place. When the frenzy is not so resolved, the rivalrous group destroys itself. When it is so resolved, the group survives at the expense of an excluded other to whom it mistakenly attributes responsibility for both the frenzy and the peace that follows the unanimous expulsion. (James Alison We Didn't Invent Sacrifice, Sacrifice Invented Us: Unpacking Girard's Insight.)
I take this formation to be basic to our existence; we are formed by this background, and it is still the way our culture manages its violence. One only has to look at how, if the Prime Minister's offering of department head and then a cabinet minister is not enough, then the party will sacrifice the Prime Minister, to see that it still goes on. Whenever anything goes wrong, whenever things are getting tense, when conflict is increasing, we always look for someone to blame. In the Greek of the text, the word for burnt offerings is ὁλοκαυτωμάτων. It can be transliterated as… holocaust. This is our original sin; that unravelling thing about us which we seem unable to escape in any real way. Human relationships keep falling apart.
True holiness is to love God with all my heart, and soul, and mind, and strength by loving my neighbour as myself. Otherwise, all my attempts at holiness are not only part of the problem, they are the problem.
To love is to accept God's freeing gift. Love which attaches us to the other, the neighbour, allows us to begin to live outside the cycle of violence which defines us. Love is grace; it is the vehicle for our healing and fulfilment.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
To see sacrifice in action, and our continuing use of the scapegoat, you could read my sermon from last Sunday, where I noted that while we have been apologising to children abused in care, children stolen from their parents in the UK, the stolen generations of aboriginal people... we have been building more walls and committing even worse abuse against refugees, and particularly their children by keeping them in detention centres which have slowly morphed into what can only be called off-shore concentration camps designed to hinder due process or anything like love of neighbour.
It takes little reflection to see that this politically bipartisan approach in Australia, which has been approved by the electorate on multiple occasions, and grows steadily worse, is about heading off the violence within our culture. By shifting our anger at all our problems and inequalities onto the (virtually non-existent) terrorists among the refugees, political parties can preserve their power, gain electoral advantage, and the rest of us can feel a little more safe. It's been called a race to the bottom, between the two major parties, but we have been willing for the politicians to dig deeper still.
What is not in my sermon draft is the discussion we had about other abuse which those in my congregation know all too well. Rather than be attached to our neighbour and ensuring their life is as safe as our own, we Australians constantly sacrifice them to institutional care which is often more abusive than that from which we claim to have rescued them. We sacrifice them to an increasingly straightened medical system. We turn the social security safety nets into punishments; the safety net has become a violent trap. This is life in our streets, not just in Canberra.
If you wish to read more on Girard's insight into sacrifice, a great place to start is David Heim's book Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Just about anything by James Alison will do the same, but be prepared for more insights per page than you are used to!
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