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Tuesday:  Near the Realm of God

Sermon - 3/12/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 12:28-34

We're on a journey through holy week, which is of course the last and most important week in the life of Jesus as told in the gospel of Mark.  It's a rather long story, so it's rather hard to get in on Palm Sunday, there's just too much there.  And so we often don't look at that story as a whole.  So part of what I'm trying to do during Lent is rather than focus on the journey to Jerusalem as traditionally we've often done in the Lent season, is to focus on just that week itself.  Taking one day of the week on each Sunday and help us to more appreciate the totality of it then when we actually arrive at holy week.

And so I began last Sunday with Monday of holy week, when Jesus cursed the fig tree and then symbolically shut down the temple, in that story we often refer to (although not very accurately) as the "cleansing" of the temple.

And now we come to Tuesday, which is the longest day in Mark's story of holy week.  It has 8 different incidents in it, teachings and stories, 115 verses that goes from Chapter 11 verse 20 all the way through Chapter 13 in what's known as the 'little apocalypse', when Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple at the end days.  And so there's way too much there on Tuesday to even cover in 1 sermon.  

But I want to give a quick sketch of the most essential parts of that as it relates to the text that I'm going to read in a moment.  And hone in on that central and I think very pivotal passage that is not only pivotal to the holy week story, it is pivotal to the gospel as a whole.  

The day begins when Jesus and his disciples arrive into the city, and not surprisingly, they come into the city by the same path which they've always come -- they go out of the city each night, and come back the same way.  So, therefore, they come walking by that very same tree that Jesus cursed on Monday morning, what we talked about last Sunday.  And Peter, acting quite surprised, looks that the tree and says 'Look at that!  Golly, gee whiz, the tree is withered!'  They've been with Jesus through a lot -- they have seen Jesus walk on water, they've seen him heal the sick, feed the 5,000, heal the blind not once but twice, raise people from the dead.  You would think that by now they would have gotten used to the fact that Jesus can do all kinds of miraculous things.  But no, instead, Peter seems totally amazed.  Which is again the storyteller at work, as we have been focusing on.

This amazement of Peter is really not about the fig tree at all.  Nor is it even about the wondrous powers of Jesus.  So, remember if you were here last week, when I said the first key to understanding this story is understanding Mark as a storyteller.  When Matthew tells this very same story of the fig tree, there's no night in-between.  In Matthew's story, it's simply:  Jesus curses the fig tree and bam! it withers up and dies.  When Mark tells the story, Jesus curses the tree, goes into the temple, shuts the temple down (creates the mess there), goes back out of the city, comes back the next day, THEN we discover that the tree has withered and died.  In other words, Mark understands the element of suspense.  And he wants us to be sure that we get that point -- that the tree is a symbol of the temple.  So that when Peter cries out 'O gosh look what's happened to the tree!', Mark wants to make sure that WE see the tree.  It's not about the other disciples seeing the tree, it's about us seeing the tree, and that we get the point.  A tree without fruit is like a temple without justice. 

So get over your hang-ups over this odd story about the tree, you know, the poor tree that suffered unjustly at the whim of Jesus.  It's not about the tree, it's about the church, and the temple.  So we move on.

Jesus talks about the power of faith and prayer, and then he comes once again into the temple.  And as soon as he comes into the temple on Tuesday morning, immediately, he's questioned.  He's challenged.  The authorities are on him.  They've got a whole bunch of questions they want to ask.  First of all, 'who gave you the right, by what authority are you doing these things?  Show us your credentials, that you are entitled to come into the temple, create this mess (didn't stick around to clean it up, left us with it)', etc.  And so they began grilling him.  They're not very happy.  So you have to keep in mind the context of what happened on the day before to understand the questions they put to Jesus.

And so their first question:  "By what authority do you do these things?"  And Jesus stumps them with a question of his own, also about authority -- sort of "I'll answer your question if you answer mine".  And he asked them:  'Was the baptism of John from God or was it something that John just made up?'  And they think to themselves -- if they say it's from God, he'll say then how come you're not doing the things that John told you to do?  And if they say it's by human authority, the people will get upset with them, they'll lose credibility in their sight, because John is very popular.  So they decline to answer the question.  And so Jesus declines to answer theirs. 

Then they ask a second question, since Jesus kind of got them with a trick question, they try to get Jesus with a trick question:  "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"  Now the trick is, if you say 'yes' to that, you will lose credibility with the people, it's very unpopular [to pay taxes], same then as it is today.  And if you say no to it, they can say 'Aha!, he is advocating tax resistance, that's the crime of sedition, he can be thrown into jail'.  So it's a no-win question.

Jesus doesn't answer the question.  Instead, he asks for a coin, a denarius, and they give him one.  Now that's a very curious thing in and of itself.  The Roman coins, denarius, has the image of Caesar on it, as we know (because we have many of these coins, they've been found), and it has typically an inscription.  It says Caesar Divi Filius in Latin.  Caesar, Son of God.  And you see that's precisely why Jews were not allowed to bring that coin into the temple because of its graven image.  And that's why, therefore, the tables for the money changers -- so they could exchange their money and not bring that coin in.

Now what's interesting, of course, Jesus is in the temple.  He asks for a coin.  Who has one?  The religious leaders.  Carrying the very coin that they're not supposed to have in the temple!  So he gets them right off the bat there, and asks who's image is on it?  Well, Caesar's.  So, the famous saying "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's".

Now if you have understood that to mean to pay our taxes as we pay our tithes to the church, you've totally missed the point.  If Jesus wants to support paying the taxes, all he had to do was answer 'yes', that it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.  But you see, the whole point of his response is to refute the assumption of the question that is based on the temple's collaboration with Rome.  Once you start asking this question -- what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God?  Does this fruit from my harvest belong to Caesar or to God? -- well, of course, it's God.  Do the things in my life belong to Caesar or to God?  Of course, God.  What belongs to Caesar?  When you begin to ask that question, Caesar is going to lose every time.  Because it all belongs to God.  The fullness of the earth and all that is therein belongs to God.

And then we come finally to the third question, asked by the Sadducees, a religious party that does not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and they try to trick Jesus with their own trick question about life after death (which they don't even believe in).  They use a question to show that it's a nonsensical notion:  if a woman has 7 different husbands, because each one dies and she marries another, who's she going to be married to in the next life?  And Jesus once again refuses the rationale of the question and challenges the assumption behind it, affirming that God is the God of the living and not of the dead.

Now after these 3 hostile questions comes what appears to be an honest question with no hidden motive behind it.  A scribe, one of the religious leaders of the temple, apparently breaks ranks with his leadership, impressed by the answers Jesus gives to the other questions, decides to ask one of his own.  And this then is the central section in Tuesday, comes right in the middle of these 115 verses, and pivotal to the gospel.  So listen carefully then to Mark 12:28-34:

28 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.

And so you see it builds up to that point with this series of questions and the hostility, and finally we get to the essence of it -- the greatest commandment of all.

It's not surprising that a scribe would ask this question.  There's a long tradition behind the question, in fact.  There are 613 laws in the Torah, in the Hebrew scripture, and 365 of those are prohibitions.  One "thou shalt not" for every day of the year.  And 248 affirmations, which corresponds to something you should do literally for every bone in your body.  The numbers may not be coincidental there.  And so many Jewish leaders over the years have tried to boil that down to the essence.  In Psalm 15, we read 11 essential commandments.  The prophet Micah (in 6:8) narrows it down to three:  do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.  The prophet Amos also narrows it down to three:  hate evil, love good, do justice.

A great story of two famous Rabbi's in the first century, about the same time of Jesus (a little bit after), who were asked by a Gentile if they could teach him the totality of the Torah while standing on one leg.  So you kind of get this image -- how long can you stand on one leg?  And one of the Rabbi's, Shammai, was so offended by the trivial nature of the question that he chased the questioner out with a stick.  The other Rabbi, Hillel, who is also mentioned in the New Testament, instead responds with a negative form of the golden rule:  "Do not do to others what you would not do to yourself.  That is Torah, all else is commentary on it".

After church I'd invite you to come up and look at the symbols of the various religions left here from the interfaith service last night, and see if you can spot other forms of the golden rule.  I think about 4 of them have various forms of the golden rule, and there are more than that -- almost every religious tradition has some expression of the golden rule:  Do unto others as you would do unto yourself.

So, what is most important?  What is most basic to God's commands?  If you boil it down to its most elemental essence, what do you have?  It's an honest question.  It's a question many people have today.  And the answer that Jesus gives is thoroughly, through and through, Jewish.  First he recites the shamah -- shamah is the first Hebrew word:  "O Hear".  O Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one.  And that verse, from Deuteronomy 6, is so central to the Jewish faith, it is still put on the doorframes of every Jewish home to this day.  Just last Monday night, Judy and I were at the home of Rabbi Husbands-Hankin for dinner, and sure enough it was right there on the doorpost as we entered in, the shamah.  

And it continues, then:  love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.  And to that trio, Mark adds Jesus saying also love the Lord your God with all your mind.  And then Jesus goes on to quote from Leviticus 19 the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.  Two sides of one coin.

And the scribe responds here, very interesting, by affirming Jesus.  It's the scribe who pronounces on Jesus, 'yeah, this is right, this is true'.  And he summarizes, repeats what he has heard from Jesus, showing that he gets it.  And making sure that we do to.  And as an illustration of how central this is to the Christian faith, I would refer you to Paul, where he echoes this very same sentiment in Romans 13 and says "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."  Then he goes on to cite four of the commandments -- you shall not commit adultery, murder, you shall not steal or covet.  And says "and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"

And then in 1 John we read:  "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."  And I noticed that was the verse they chose to represent Christianity on that collection of [interfaith] symbols.

So this is the essence of the gospel.  This is what Jesus came to show us how to do.  

Now, since I've mentioned the interfaith service, last night at the service that was gathered here (a full house), a couple of young men came into the service, looked around, decided it wasn't for them, left very loudly, showing great disrespect for the service in progress.  And swung on the door, the exterior door (not sure if any of you noticed when you came in, the repair work done on that door late last night), swung on that door, hanging on it when they went out, yanking it out of its hinges.  Pulling it apart, separating the door and it fell with a big crash onto the porch, broke the stained-glass window and then they ran off laughing.

When I came out and saw the damage to the door, I was just livid.  And my first response was 'I want to grab these guys, I want to strip them naked, I want to hand them up by their . . . . big toes. . . . by the columns of the church in public shame for everyone to see' J.  And then I remembered those 9 churches in Alabama and Mississippi that were burned to the ground in several cases.  They caught two college students responsible for this -- started out as a prank, then they had to continue it to cover up their tracks.  Faith communities have lost everything.  And the pastor of one of those churches, I cited a couple weeks ago, he said "We will pray for the perpetrators, and if given the opportunity we will forgive them". 

And I felt ashamed in my response.  I thought, yes, I will pray for them.  I will love them.  I will forgive them.  And then I will strip them naked and hang them up by the columns!  But at least they'll be forgiven while they're up there J.

As I told a couple of the folks last night -- maybe it's not a bad thing for them to rip the doors off the church, because we should have an open door.  We should be every night what we were last night.  As Jesus said last Sunday, this is a house of prayer for all people.

Well, there's a bit of surprise in this text, when Jesus affirms this religious leader of the temple.  And I think that's an important reminder for us, that they were not all bad folk.  Did you catch the story this week, that members of the Christian Broadcasting Network voted Pat Robertson off the board?  They're not all bad folk, there's some good ones in there, it just takes a few bad apples to make the rest look bad.

So we should remember, a good portion -- maybe the majority -- of the leadership of the temple were good, decent, devout people of faith.  And so Jesus says to this one scribe:  "You are not far from the realm (or the Kingdom) of God".  In other words, to love God and neighbor is to be near that realm of God.  And by implication then, the more we love God, the more we love our neighbors, the closer we draw to the realm of God.

Moses Mendelson tells the story of a woman who came to a great teacher and asked him:  "Teacher, how do I know which religion is the right one?"  And he replied with a story of a great and wise King with 3 sons and a precious gift -- a magic ring that gave him great compassion, generosity, and a spirit of kindness.  And as he was dying, each of those sons went to him individually and asked the father for the ring after his death.  And he promised to each that he would give them the ring.  And before he died he called in the finest jewelry maker of the land and asked him to make two identical copies of the ring.  So that after his death each of his sons was presented with the ring.  Well, it wasn't long before they figured out that the other brothers all had a ring and therefore two of them had to be fakes, and only one of them could be the genuine article.  And so they went before a judge and asked the judge to help them determine which was the authentic ring and then they could determine who the proper heir was.  The judge could not distinguish between the three.  And so he said:  we shall watch and see which son behaves in the most gracious, generous, and kind manner.  Then we will know which possesses the original ring.  

And from that day on, each son lived as if he was the one with the magic ring, and no one could tell which was the most gracious, generous, and kind.  And so the teacher said, if you wish to know which religion is true, watch and see which reveals God's love for the world.

Are we going to do that?  Will others do that?

Tuesday begins with the cursed, withered tree, and ends with Jesus reflecting in chapter 13 on the eventual destruction of the temple.  In-between the cursed tree and the destroyed temple comes the great commandment:  to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Show that love.  Practice that love.  Live that love every day and with everyone.  And you will be ever near to the way God wants this world to be.  That is the law of God, and all else is commentary upon it.


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