True Love: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-Fourth Week after Pentecost
1) This week’s Gospel reading is the tenth week of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in Mark.
2) Sometimes the week’s news overwhelms our collective experience, making it virtually unavoidable that a given biblical passage will be read, heard, and interpreted within that larger context. This is one of those weeks. The recent politically-motivated pipe-bomb mailings; the imminent, polarized midterm elections; the intense national and international controversy over immigration, and in particular over the “caravan” of Central American migrants now in southern Mexico; and Saturday’s massacre of 11 people in Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a congregation devoted to supporting refugees - these events have now converged into a broad atmosphere of grief and dismay within which this week’s readings must be engaged and understood.
3) The Gospel is not politically partisan, but it is most certainly political - so long as the word “politics” is understood according to its most basic, fundamental meaning: the collective art of neighbors shaping our common life together.
4) This story in Mark is surrounded by tales of dispute: Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and Herodians all try to embarrass or entrap Jesus, one after another. But this only makes this week’s passage stand out all the more, for here a scribe and Jesus profoundly, adamantly agree.
5) The Book of Ruth, a brief and evocative narrative at once intimate and epic, is one of the most beautiful stories in biblical literature. According to rabbinic tradition, the book’s primary theme is chesed, a Hebrew word often translated “loving-kindness,” but which also carries a connotation of steadfast faithfulness or commitment. And crucially, in Ruth, chesed involves unexpectedly reaching across conventional dividing lines of blood, custom, and religion.
1) Jesus has just deftly avoided two attempts to trip him up: the first trying to lure him into offending either the Romans who demanded taxes or the Jews who resented them; and the second trying to corner him into discrediting resurrection (Mark 12:13-27). A scribe looking on is impressed: Jesus has “answered them well,” and so the scribe approaches him with a sincere, searching question (Mark 12:28).
2) The question is about first principles underpinning the law, a subject commonly debated in rabbinical circles. Scholars traditionally count 613 precepts in the Law of Moses - but which are most important? How should we prioritize the list, and thereby more deeply understand and more wisely pursue it? Which commandment might serve to summarize the law, like a kind of shorthand, an iconic quintessence of the whole?
3) Another Jewish teacher in Jesus’ day, the great Hillel, answered this way: “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Compare Jesus’ articulation of the so-called “golden rule” in Matthew 7:12).
4) Here in Mark, Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. The first is the Shema (“Listen!”), recited daily by devout Jews, the commandment to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). Jesus adds “with all your mind,” perhaps a nod to the scribe’s intellectual gifts (Mark 12:30). The second quotation is from a chapter in Leviticus devoted largely to community life, directing Israel to respect and care for the poor and vulnerable, including “the alien,” and also to resist the urge toward vengeance (see, for example, Leviticus 19:10 (provide food for the poor and the alien); 19:11-13 (don’t lie, steal, or exploit employees); 19:15-17 (judge fairly, don’t slander, don’t hate); and 19:18 (don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, but rather “love your neighbor as yourself”). The same sentiment is repeated a few verses later in words that are particularly striking this week: “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34).
5) Jesus positions these two “love” commandments as profoundly connected, as if to say: Hold both of these commandments in mind and heart, and follow them always, and you shall live. The scribe agrees, quoting scripture himself, and at the same time sharpens the point by calling this double-love “more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” a phrase that evokes the Hebrew prophets (Mark 12:33; Deut 4:35; Hos 6:6). The scene, then, is of two teachers, both deeply familiar with Hebrew Scripture, coming to a meeting of the minds about the essence of the law. Jesus ends the encounter with words of praise: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
6) Some Christian interpreters speculate that Jesus saying “you are not far” means that the scribe somehow still lacked something (say, works of love or justice); others insist that Jesus innovates or moves beyond Jewish tradition by adding Leviticus 19:18 to Deuteronomy 6:5. But these interpretations miss the overall spirit of this passage: Mark is painting a picture here of concord, of agreement and reconciliation across lines of expected hostility. Scribes are typically Jesus’ opponents in Mark - but not here. The scribe does not convert to become a follower of Jesus, and neither does Jesus call him to do so; the two teachers remain on different paths, but they are nevertheless of one mind. They respect and affirm each other, and then go on their way. And please note, in doing so they exemplify the very commandments they exalt: they bear no grudges, but rather love one another as neighbors, treating each other with honor and respect. “You are not far from the kingdom of God” is a compliment, not a critique that something is lacking! And after all, Jesus effectively says the same to all of us (“the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15)). Moreover, while it’s true that the dynamic combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 reveals the heart of Jesus’ teaching, it’s a thoroughly Jewish innovation in any case - and whether it was Jesus’ innovation is open to question. In fact, this particular pairing of texts was likely a widely circulating piece of Jewish wisdom at the time; indeed, in Luke’s version of the story, it’s “the lawyer” who recites it first (Luke 10:25-27)!
7) Endings matter, and as Mark tells it, with this encounter we come to the end of the “opponents confronting Jesus” stories: “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (Mark 12:34). It’s as if Mark is saying, Not all scribes opposed Jesus, and in fact, his struggles with the scribes culminated in a respectful, civil meeting of the minds - which is, after all, what love of God and neighbor looks like in practice.
8) Likewise, beginnings matter, and the Book of Ruth begins with the recently-widowed Naomi encouraging her daughters-in-law, also just widowed, to “Go back each of you to your mother’s house” (Ruth 1:8). It’s a time of famine, and Naomi is migrating from Moab, where her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are originally from, back to her native Judah. In effect, Naomi is relinquishing them from any obligation to care for her, urging them instead to return to their homeland and leave her alone, for “the hand of the LORD has turned against me” (Ruth 1:13). After some weeping, Orpah agrees and departs - but Ruth refuses to do so, expressing instead a wild love and astounding solidarity: “Where you go, I will go, / Where you lodge, I will lodge; / Your people shall be my people, / And your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). Across conventional lines of blood, custom, and religion, Ruth clings to Naomi with steadfast loving-kindness - i.e., chesed - and refuses to let go. They continue the journey (the “caravan,” we might say) together to Judah.
1) For Jesus, loving God involves loving our neighbors, and vice versa. But not with just any love! The love Jesus evokes here - call it “true love” - has a particular substance and direction.
a) First, true love means understanding and caring for our neighbors as we would want others to understand and care for us in the same circumstances, in effect imagining ourselves or our loved ones in our neighbors’ place, and then treating them accordingly; that’s the kind of love Jesus has in mind.
b) Second, true love means extending this imaginative move precisely to those we are tempted to hate, or exploit, or mistreat, or retaliate against; that’s the kind of love Leviticus has in mind.
c) Third, true love is “all in,” putting our whole heart, mind, and strength fully into the task, and reminding ourselves multiple times each day to do so; that’s the kind of love Deuteronomy has in mind.
d) And fourth, true love is steadfast and tenacious, and it often surprisingly builds bridges across the lines we use to divide ourselves from one another, lines of blood, custom, and religion; that’s the kind of love Ruth has in mind.
2) There’s no place in true love for divisive, hateful rhetoric, or for demonizing our neighbors with bigotry or lies - not least because such rhetoric can add fuel to the always smoldering fires of violence and hatred. When our political leaders debase themselves and our common life in this way, we can and must speak up and insist on a different kind of life. We cannot simultaneously love each other and demonize each other; nor can we love “the alien” while at the same time calling them “invaders.” Indeed, the ancient vision of true love is startlingly direct on this point: “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34).
3) And by the same token, there’s no place in true love for contemptuous, mean-spirited criticism, even when it’s criticism directed against divisive political rhetoric! We may speak the truth in love - but that love, too, must itself be true, lest we become the thing we abhor. As the midterm elections approach, whenever we speak across political divides, we are neighbors speaking to neighbors. The same imaginative leap must be taken: when the progressive speaks to the Trump-supporter, or vice versa, each is called to speak as she would wish to be addressed, to respect as he would wish to be respected - and so on. Our political life, though it will at times include anger or struggle or fierce disagreement, must nevertheless be suffused with love.
4) Finally, this week’s passage also provides an opening for Christians to take up a clear, unwavering position of solidarity and ongoing companionship with our Jewish brothers and sisters, bearing in mind the unspeakable losses at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In this week’s Gospel passage we find a beautiful portrait of Jesus in profound agreement with a scribe; they affirm one another in dignity, and make no attempt to prosthelytize. They embody the very love-across-expected-lines-of-hostility that God has commanded from days of old. And likewise, in this week’s passage from Ruth, we find beautiful language of solidarity across the too often clannish lines of blood, custom, and religion. Ruth reaches across these divides in steadfast, tenacious loving-kindness - and her example calls on us to do the same, even here, even now.