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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Not far (B31O)

Back in January, when we first met Jesus at the beginning of Mark after his baptism, desert retreat, and the arrest of John, his first words declared the heart of his mission: "Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message." (1:15, The Message) The "kingdom," the reign of God, is the first thing on his mind. In those three terse sentences, the urgency of his mission and the sea change of loyalties that it represents pops out at us. In Sunday's gospel (31st Sunday in Ordinary Time) Jesus tells a scribe, a member of a class or guild with which he is often at odds, that he is "not far from the reign of God." What did he mean? I think, to begin with, we need to revisit the motto of that first campaign and consider what Jesus is doing, and maybe discover what it has to do with us.

Jesus knew John had been onto something, and he had undergone the baptism of John in solidarity with John's insight. It seems to me that John and Jesus were in touch with a feeling in the populace, now under Roman rule after laboring under a succession of conquerors over the last three centuries or so, that things shouldn't be like this. Something's wrong. People had an instinct that what God had promised them as a people had to be more than being another revenue source for another conquering emperor. Their story was a story of freedom. The Jordan River was a symbol of the boundary between slavery, nationlessness, and freedom. God had brought them here. What was this new hell?

John had felt it strongly, and preached the arrival of "another" who would put things right on God's behalf. "His winnowing fan is in his hand," John preached, "and his ax is at the root of the tree." John’s cry of “Repent” was picked up by Jesus with perhaps a playfully seditious hashtag: “Believe the gospel,” that is, the good news of the god-emperor’s victory—only Jesus meant an emperor quite different from Tiberius. Their riverside exhortation to “repent” was a shout almost of imminent danger: you’re going the wrong way! No wonder you’re confused and unhappy. Turn around! Follow me! We’re going to the reign of (a different) God...and it’s where you belong.

Because of the way we experience the gospel liturgically, we might not be aware of where this story fits into the overall narrative of Mark. Like the gospel of the first Sunday of Advent last year, which we experienced before Christmas, the gospels from now through the end of the year happen near the end of Mark, between what we call Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. After the entry into Jerusalem "cleansing of the Temple" in chapter 11, a series of confrontations happens as events during the lead up to Passover tumble toward the arrest and crucifixion. A delegation of party leaders question Jesus's authority to undertake these deeply symbolic political gestures and continue teaching. He silences them, and follows up with a thinly veiled allegory about their collusion in the conspiracy to kill him, at the same time putting to the lie their imagining that they, and not God, are in control of his life and death. Some Pharisees and representatives of the puppet king confront him about a legal matter, the payment of taxes, that could put him at odds with the agents of the empire, and again, he silences them with a reminder of their amnesia over their actual "lord/Lord." Sadduccees try to sink him with what they think is an hilarious rebuke of the idea of resurrection, and he reminds them that God has nothing to do with death, is not in rivalry with death at all, that God is the God of life and the living. Into this matrix of conflict and duplicity, a scribe enters the story with a question about the Torah: "What is the greatest commandment of the law?"

Unlike Luke's version of the story (chapter 10), the scribe is apparently not trying to outwit Jesus, but to engage him, as scholars do, on an important question of the law. What teachers (rabbis) do is interpret the law. They debate interpretations, size them up, weigh them against each other. From the conversation that ensues, it appears that in Mark's story, the scribe really wants to know, and has no agenda other than a rabbi-to-rabbi conversation.

When Jesus tells the scribe that he is "not far from the reign of God," the story harkens back to the choice between emperors, between Caesar and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "You're seeing the choice clearly," Jesus seems to be saying. "You're not framing it, like some of the rest of the leaders of the people, in terms of law, or ritual, or birth, or status in the world. You understand that love of God and love of people are divine attributes, aspects of Godself, inseparable. The proof of the one is the authenticity of the other.


In Luke 10, where the third evangelist tells the version of the story he knows and wants to record, the scribe is trying to justify himself after Jesus’s response, so he goes on with a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Refusing to quantify what constitutes a neighbor in legalistic terms (how many people can I get away with excluding?), Jesus leaves the scribe and his other listeners with the familiar parable, and says, “So, which of these was neighbor to the man?” Unable to even spit out the word “Samaritan,” the unlucky scribe says, “I suppose it was the one who stopped and took care of him.”

Jesus’s response, “Go and do likewise,” rings down the ages to say that we become neighbors by acting like neighbors, and nothing else: citizenship, ethnic group, kinship, no other criterion other than compassionate action on behalf of the other makes a neighbor. Jesus’s reimagining of the Law as a binary “Love God entirely, and love your neighbor like you love yourself,” infuses the whole of Christian scripture with its vitality. Matthew recasts the second part as part of the Sermon on the Mount when he states in an axiom as old already as Hammurabi that one should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethic’s universality among world religions and even secular ethics is remarkable, and even so is not without its critics. (“You should do unto others the way that they would like to be done to,” or “It would be better cast in the negative, ‘Do to no one what you would not want done to yourself.’” Taking issue is clearly easier than taking a chance and opting in.)

“Love God, love your neighbor” also echoes the double chiasmus of the familiar song of the angels at the birth of the Messiah, remembered each time we sing the “Glory to God” on Sunday, that is, that

GLORIA —> IN EXCELSIS —> DEO
PAX —> IN TERRA —> HOMINIBUS (BONAE VOLUNTATIS)

or, GLORY —> IN THE HIGHEST —> TO GOD
(is) PEACE —> ON EARTH —> AMONG PEOPLE OF GOD’S FAVOR

which means everybody. The incarnation means that God’s boundless love for people has overflowed into the human flesh and blood of the Messiah, and the mission of making a world of people aware of their interrelatedness and belovedness to God is everyone’s task. In the song over Bethlehem, the angels tell the good news that the glory of God is made manifest by the mutual shalom of the human family.

In those tension filled and conflict-fraught days between the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, two rabbis confer over an opinion of interpretation of the Torah. In the scribe’s response to Jesus’s formulation of the greatest commandment of the law, by looking past cultural, ethnic, dietary, and even moral imperatives, we find Jesus relax for a moment, and put the war of words on hold. From within, Jesus reaches out with words of fraternity and affirmation: “You are not far from the reign of God.”
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This Sunday also accomplished the extraordinary feat of getting me out of my musical inertia and writing a new song, an arranged ostinato that I have I in originally titled “The Greatest Commandment.”  I just thought, after a long period of gestation, that there should be a simple musical setting of this important text like we have with other important texts: the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and so many others. I have sent the music to over two dozen “beta-testers” around the country. Maybe during the week we’ll see how it played in Peoria, as they say.