Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Neighbor is Me

When 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. (Mark 12.34)

A Sincere Inquiry

Today’s Gospel (Mark 12.28-34) is our earliest available account of what’s widely regarded as the crystalizing moment in Jesus’s ministry, when He distills the whole of Judaism's labyrinthine edicts and codes by blending two lesser-regarded commandments into a unified Great Commandment: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you 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.” (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18) Similar passages also appear in Matthew 22.34-40 and Luke 10.25-27, whose authors source much of their material directly from Mark. Yet of all the Gospels, Mark is the most concerned with Jesus’s credentials as a prophet and teacher, and that directly influences how he positions his account.

Arriving two or three decades after Mark, in the wake of the Early Church’s surging popularity, the other writers emphasize Jesus’s divinity, which automatically puts Him above, and in direct conflict with, Israel’s religious establishment. In contrast, Mark portrays Jesus as a rabbi and miracle worker actively engaged in the Judaic faith community. He sees Jesus as God’s Chosen Son—a radically different concept than Matthew, Luke, and John’s belief that Jesus is God Incarnate—Whom God endows with divine wisdom and power. In Mark, Jesus’s gifts and message put Him at odds with the religious and social norms of His day. Mark says God adopts Jesus (at His baptism) and tasks Him with ushering in the kingdom of God on Earth. And nowhere is this divine calling more prominent than in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’s two-tiered Great Commandment.

While Matthew and Luke depict a confrontation, saying a lawyer taunts Jesus to name the most important commandment, Mark describes a friendlier, more respectful conversation—a sincere inquiry about personal priorities rather than a devious ploy to ensnare Jesus in theological red tape. The lawyer has just overheard Jesus invalidate a ludicrous hypothetical question by indicting its askers’ insufficient knowledge of Scripture and God’s power. Because the proposition involves a sectarian dispute, Jesus avoids taking sides by citing a higher principle that moots the question altogether. His deftness impresses the lawyer, encouraging him to ask Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (v28)

The Law of the Land

Unlike the absurd test case preceding it, the question has very real and relevant implications for Jesus and the lawyer. It opens the door for Jesus to condense everything He's talked about for three years into a concise imperative. It also reveals the lawyer’s earnest curiosity, which Mark greatly admires, distinguishing his account from Matthew and Luke’s versions. They replace Mark’s polite lawyer—whom he identifies as a scribe, an academic—with a sly legalist and, in the process, diminish the moment as no more significant than any other skirmish in Jesus’s ongoing battle of wits with religious adversaries.

Matthew doctors Christ’s reply in Mark to underscore its legal precedence. After quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus adds, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and Prophets.” (Matthew 22.40) In Luke, Jesus doesn’t reply at all. Instead, He tosses the question back in His challenger’s lap. “What is written in the Law?” He asks. “How do you read it?” (Luke 10.26) The lawyer summarizes the Law. Jesus congratulates him for being wise and answers his follow-up question (“Who is my neighbor?”) with the Good Samaritan story. We’ll never know which account most accurately documents the actual event. In terms of impact and clarity, however, Mark’s stands leagues above the others, because the Great Commandment surpasses legal precedent and ethical ideals. It’s the essence of what God’s kingdom is all about.

Jesus’s reply elicits this response from the scribe: “You are right, Teacher; You have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other,’ and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (v32-33) Everything comes together in the Great Commandment. Uncompromised love for God is expressed in the consuming passion, constant awareness, and tireless devotion that drive our determination to please God in all we do. This in turn fires our relentless quest to love others with the same fervor and faithfulness we desire for ourselves. Whether or not our neighbors are “lovable” or deserving of love never enters the picture. And here’s why: none of us is lovable through-and-through; we are all vulnerable—and we all frequently succumb—to weaknesses and failures that beg more grace, mercy, and tolerance than we could ever merit. That’s also why nothing displeases God more than our polluting love for one another with conditions and expectations. Such behaviors constitute rebellion against God’s sovereign kingdom, where unconditional love is the law of the land and God alone presides as Supreme Authority and Judge.

Get Close

In the kingdom of God, God defines justice and righteousness. There is no court of appeals, no legislative council to amend or reverse God’s law of love, and no legitimate way to please God without total adherence to the love commandment. Jesus need not explain this to the scribe; his response proves he gets it. He answers wisely, whereupon Jesus declares, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Imposing personal opinions and human logic on love redefines it as something other than love. It becomes a reward rather than a gift—a far cry from what God intends our love to be and what God’s love actually is.

If we truly love God as the Great Commandment teaches, with all the heart, understanding, and strength we possess, we regard every chance to love our neighbors as a sacred opportunity to get close to the kingdom of God. Without love for God and one another, every sacrifice we make and all the talents we offer come to naught. First Corinthians 13.2-3 says, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Power, knowledge, and possessions lose all value in the absence of love. Living in a hateful world that worships power, knowledge, and materialism should be more than enough to convince us of that.

Note the stinger on Mark’s version: “After that no one dared to ask Him any question.” Love that gets us close to the kingdom of God silences controversy and ends self-aggrandizing debates. With all respect to Luke, once we internalize the Great Commandment we don’t need to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” In God’s kingdom, my neighbor is me. That makes love a decision that decides itself.

All-loving and powerful God, overwhelm our hearts so they ache for Your kingdom. Cleanse us of the false notion that love is a reward given at our discretion. Obsess us with desire to please You by loving one another and then fortify our resolve to satisfy this most sacred desire. Make us wise. Amen.

The Great Commandment surpasses legal precedent and ethical ideals. It’s the essence of what God’s kingdom is all about—the law of the land.