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November 5, 2000

Mark 12:28-34

By Tony Grant

I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Mark, chapter 12 and follow along as I read verses 28-34. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).

28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?

29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:

30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:

33 And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

34 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday was All Saints Day. Many people would say that Mahatma Gandhi was a modern saint. I guess you heard about Gandhi. He walked barefoot everywhere, to the point that his feet became quite thick and hard. Even when he wasn't on a hunger strike, he did not eat much and became quite thin and frail. He also was quite a spiritual person. Furthermore, due to his diet, he ended up with very bad breath. Thus, he became known as a supercallused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis. I actually admire Gandhi. I hope he will forgive me for that.

Some people are proposing a saint for the Internet. In answer to the prayers of many Net users who have just crashed, the Vatican is considering giving the Internet its own patron saint. The choice of is thought to be St. Isidore of Seville, who died 1,400 years ago. Isidore was the last of the ancient Christian philosophers, probably the most learned man of his era and an immeasurably influential instigator of education in the Middle Ages. He was the author of the 20-volume magnum opus Etymologiae, and an indefatigable compiler of the world's existing knowledge. It was a bulky tome, but jam-packed with useful data. For his efforts, Saint Isidore has been placed on the short list of spiritual superstars being considered for the role of patron saint of the Internet. And why not? Pasta eaters have their own patron saint. So do tax collectors, beggars, seekers of lost causes, students and people with sore throats or troubled marriages. Maybe the time has come for a certified cyber-saint. Isidore is not the only candidate the position however.. Also in the running is San Pedro Regalado who was said to have appeared in two places simultaneously, at the monasteries of La Aguilera and El Abrojo, which lie 48 miles apart. In addition to this miracle, the priest was a renowned navigator - so in terms of exploring the world of virtual reality, you'd have to say that San Pedro Regalado has been "all over the map."

But some folks are objecting to attaching a saint from the past to technology of the present. They suggest finding a modern figure. How about ... Saint Gates of Microsoft? Just kidding.

So, just who is a saint? What does it take to be a saint? What are the qualifications? Today's passage from Mark drops a few hints.

Chapters 11 through 13 contain Mark's account of Jesus'ministry in Jerusalem, and this week's text concludes a seriesof challenges Jesus met when he returned to the temple in Jerusalem for a third day. Since Jesus had asserted his personal authority by ousting the money changers and animal sellers from the temple courtyard on his second visit, it is not surprising that the religious authorities - the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes - banded together to try to discredit Jesus when he appeared at the temple a third time.

The first three of these confrontations (Mark 11:27-33; 12:13-17; 12:18-27) were decidedly nasty and combative in nature - the establishment authorities were on the attack. But this fourth and final challenge has a different air about it. First, an individual scribe is singled out, speaking, it would seem, for himself and not as a representative of some group. The fact that Mark describes this individual as having just "come up" also seems to distinguish him from the previous gathering of Pharisees and scribes. It is not entirely clear from the text whether the "them" this scribe hears arguing consists of Jesus and this group of religious authorities, or the group muttering among itself.

Whatever the case, this scribe is immediately impressed with Jesus' answers. Consequently, unlike the baiting, belligerent questions posed by the others to test Jesus, this scribe's inquiry seems to arise from a sense of respect for Jesus' opinion and insight. "Which commandment is the first of all?" he asks (12:28).

The first half of Jesus' reply is what a first century Jew would call "the usual thing." He asserts that the Shema (taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5), the prayer recited every morning and evening by pious Jews, is "first" among the commandments. The Shema (named for its first word in Hebrew, shema ("hear") combines a theological assertion with an ethical mandate. First, it confesses that God is one and that God is in a special relationship with his people - he is our God. Second, it demands a profound personal response on the part of each who would confess this truth - to love this God. The totality of this love extends to all aspects of a human being.

The second half of Jesus' answer to the scribe's question comes from Leviticus 19:18. When coupled with the mandates of the Shema, this commandment welds personal piety to active ethical behavior. The term plesion, "neighbor," is an adverb being used as a noun. The context, however, makes it clear that Jesus has in mind the Hebrew re'a or "fellow citizen," or even more generally, "fellow man." Jesus fully intends these "two" commandments to be as one inseparable mandate. Note that he concludes "there is no other commandment greater than these" - inferring that these commands should be designated as numbers 1 and 1, not 1 and 2.

Verses 32-33 provide convincing evidence that scribes were quite good at hearing a slightly different message than they had been told. While this particular scribe generally gets the message, he still feels the need to add his own flourishes. In verse 32, he separates and emphasizes the singleness and unity of God - while omitting the relational aspect. He does not say love"our God," but simply love God.

The scribe continues to add his own interpretations by comparing the importance of Jesus' words with the importance of making offerings in the temple. He designates two different kinds of sacrifices here, both the "whole burnt offering" type and "sacrifices." The "burnt offerings" refer to animal sacrifices which were completely consumed by the flames. "Sacrifices" include any offerings, either animal or vegetable, made at the temple. What is unusual here is that this scribe has contrasted Jesus' comment on the Law with temple sacrificial practices. The commandments Jesus chooses as most important are highly theological and ethical in nature, while the practices the scribe chooses to contrast them with are ritual in nature. In fact, the scribe is being quite indiscreet - making this kind of comparison while standing in the temple.

Jesus' final words to the scribe also differentiate this exchange from the other combative challenges Jesus had faced that day. Mark's text, which generally has few good things to say about the religious authorities, specifically compliments this scribe saying he "answered wisely". Jesus' response is also unique. When he announces in v. 34, that this scribe is "not far from the kingdom of God." This "kingdom" reference is not to the eschatological age to come. Instead, it appears to refer more to a condition that exists here and now. The kingdom of God this scribe is ready for seems more like the Good News of the gospel itself, which once received will put him on the path toward the eternal kingdom.

This exchange between Jesus and the scribe becomes itself something of an illustration of the Great Commandment. Because they join together in the conviction that there is no commandment greater than love of God and neighbor, they are able to treat each other as neighbors. They have stepped away from "us versus them" categories, and created an island of reconciliation in a sea of hostility. Their common devotion to God and neighbor silences the debate, and Mark reports, "After that no one dared to ask him any question" (v. 34).

But let us think a bit about this scribe. If we are doing a saint search, if we are looking for people headed for the kingdom, then this scribe seems like a good place to start.. His qualifications are that he acknowledges God as the one true God, and he shows a love that flows in two directions, to God and to our neighbor. A saint is not necessarily a scholarly superstar like Saint Isidore of Seville, or even a person who can be in several places at once like San Pedro Regalado. Instead, a saint is simply a person who lives out an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.

But can we identify a modern saint? Can we point out one and say, there goes a saint. Not necessarily, at least not at first glance. Back in the 1920s, a divorced woman worked for a series of leftist periodicals and lived a bohemian life in New York's Greenwich Village. In 1927, she became a Catholic, and then led a quiet rebellion within the church to reach out to the poor, the needy and the desperate. She was a pacifist, an anarchist and a crusader for social justice - not your standard-issue saint!

And yet, her name is being processed these days in the great saint-making machine in the vatican, even though she said before her death in 1980 that she wasn't interested. No joke. This woman, Dorothy Day, lived one of the most highly-regarded lives in the modern church, but said she never wanted to become a saint because she didn't "want to be dismissed that easily." During the depression, Day set up a network of soup kitchens where people could come to eat and sleep, and her Catholic Worker movement - as well as her following - soon spread nationwide. But Day resisted accolades and attempts to portray her work as anything but ordinary. She saw herself as a simple woman seeking to live in the gospel - a person who demonstrated nothing more than an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.

God went deep into the most desperate parts of a sin-sick city and came up with Dorothy Day, a woman whom the archbishop of New York recently called "a model for all in the third millennium."

But wait a second ... not everyone's a saint. Most are far from it. What about those who are a long way from the kingdom, or at least on a significant detour? How did they lose their way? And how can they find their way back?

Some get lost because they have not learned how to listen for guidance from God. Others stray because their judgment is clouded - they are driving while drugged, drunk or debilitated by earthly desires. Others race after big thrills and big money, and risk losing their hearts, souls and minds in the process.

But there is always hope because God is always saint-searching. Kathleen Norris tells the story of a friend named Willie who had fallen in with a drug dealer in Wyoming and dreamed up a scheme to make some truly big bucks. Willie thought that things were working out just fine - making good contacts, setting up a network - but one day he and his colleague were cruising down the road when the drug dealer saw a man traveling the opposite direction. "I need to kill him," said the dealer quite matter-of-factly, reaching for a gun that was stashed under the front seat.

"It was right then I decided to get out," said Willie, badly shaken. "This was over my head." And that, concludes Kathleen Norris, is where salvation begins - in the sudden awareness that a particular path is leading to death, in the naming of something as "wrong," and in taking steps to turn away from it. And it is continued in the unexpected and astounding action of God to free people from whatever is holding them in bondage.

The way back to the right path - the kingdom path - always begins at the very same place: At the point where God in Christ reaches across miles and missteps and a multitude of messy mortal mistakes, at the point where Jesus wraps his arms around the shoulders of wayward, wandering souls and gently guides them back. Christ doesn't discard people because they're moving down an imperfect path - look at how warmly he addressed the scribe in today's Scripture lesson (v. 34). Nor does he disqualify people who have made a mess of their lives before finding the right road - Dorothy Day became quite Christlike after having had an abortion, a divorce and a child out of wedlock.

Let met tell you about a saint named Walter. No this is not the guy who does produce for Bi Lo.

Every Sunday for nearly three years Walter had a routine. Just before 10:00 a.m. he would open the doors to Epworth and prepare the church for worship. If the weather was cold, he would build a fire in the old wood stove. If it was hot, he would open all the windows and distribute the hand fans with a picture of Jesus on one side and an ad for a local funeral home on the other.

Next, Walter would open the Bible located on top of the wooden pulpit and read the selected Scripture for that week. Then he would pray. Often there were folks in the community included on Walter's list. The latest national and world news would be mentioned. But always, Walter ended every prayer with a plea for God to remember and bless his beloved church.

Every Sunday, Walter had a routine, but what makes this story so unique is that with very few exceptions, Walter began and ended the Sunday morning worship service ... alone. Alone? Why? Many years ago, Epworth church was built on land donated by a neighboring farmer, but if for any reason they stopped meeting regularly, if Walter stopped opening the church doors every Sunday, the property would revert to the original owners ... Epworth church would cease to exist.

So what is the big deal? If Walter is the only one bothering to attend, let him go somewhere else or stay at home. Why not face the inevitable and allow Epworth to quietly disappear? What harm would it do? For Walter, it was a big deal. God had a divine purpose for his life and for the church he loved. But for now, Walter must be patient, be faithful ... and wait. Wait for what? ...

One Sunday morning a young family, new to the area, visited Epworth and after meeting Walter joined him in worship. They found something unique about this little church nestled among the trees and the old man who faithfully opened her doors. On the following Sunday they came back and within a few weeks the children were bringing friends. At year's end a minister was hired.

Today, Epworth is a small family church situated between several farms and hidden among the trees. Many of the original family have died and some of the children have moved away, but the miracle of Epworth has never been forgotten.

On the first Sunday of August, people come from across the United States to visit the church of their youth and relive the miracle of the old man who refused to let his beloved church die. The worship service is followed by a picnic on the church grounds. While the children are playing and the adults are eating, you may notice a family wandering over to the nearby cemetery. If you listen carefully, you'll hear a parent telling her child, "Let me tell you a story about Walter." (Larry Davies, "Turning Points: A Church, the Messiah... Wait! Why?", December 15 & December 22, 1999.)

Walter you see was one of God's saints. God is on a saint search, and it is not only perfect people who are going to be found. Sure, there may be some who are born with the natural ability to love the Lord with the totality of heart, soul, mind and strength, but for most of us, this passion and power come only after we discover that God has always loved us, and that his love precedes our own. Fact is, most of us find the Lord only after we have been found by the Lord. And all he asks is that we respond with that same level of passion ... loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength ... and showing a willingness to love our neighbors as ourselves.

If we do, we'll be God's holy ones, set apart for his service. That is what a saint is by the way. One set apart by God for his service. That is what you can be. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last modified, November 8, 2000