Daring to ask questions, 23 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2012

November 4, 2012

Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146 (or Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8); Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Isn’t it interesting? In our gospel reading today we learn that “after that, no one dared to ask him any question.” What an opportunity they wasted!

Several times throughout the gospels we hear that people didn’t want to ask any more questions. Sometimes it was the Pharisees, those few who wanted to trip Jesus up, who backed away out of intimidation perhaps, or anger at being caught out themselves. Other times it seems that ordinary people decided not to ask any more questions. Were they confused and content not to push the issue? Were they afraid? And if so, why?

The discussion in today’s passage was not a scary one. Jesus was not talking about angels separating wheat and chaff, the chaff to be burned. He wasn’t allowing an evil spirit to go into a herd of pigs that then raced off the bluff to be drowned – nothing like that. Today Jesus is talking about love, and the greatest love of all, the love between God and God’s people – the love of neighbor for neighbor. What could be more comforting than learning about how we should live in love? They should have been full of questions. They should have been asking for examples of how we could love our neighbor more and how we could love God more. But they didn’t. Isn’t that sad?

At the beginning of this passage, we hear that Sadducees were disputing with one another and evidently they were asking Jesus questions. This was a very normal way that religious leaders of that culture learned and taught. A group of rabbis would sit together discussing and debating about various points in scripture and law. They would pose many questions to each other – think back on the time when Mary and Joseph found the young Jesus in the Temple. He was sitting in on just such a discussion and he was being praised for his learning. We see here that a scribe was listening to Jesus’ answers and realized that Jesus answered the questions posed to him very well. So the scribe had a perfect right to ask his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

We all know Jesus’ answer by heart. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder if Jesus smiled to himself when the scribe told him that he was right and then referred back perhaps to Amos or Hosea by saying that these two commandments were more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices. The scribe didn’t realize he was complimenting God! What did he think when Jesus told him he wasn’t far from the kingdom of God? It was after that short discussion that no one dared ask any more questions.

Perhaps the scribes were put off by the mention of the kingdom of God. Perhaps it made them think of their own preference for being an important part of the temple worship, the sacrifices, the collection of money. Perhaps they weren’t as interested in loving one’s neighbor as themselves. We don’t know if that’s the case, because we aren’t told; but something made them back away from a conversation about love.

What we also need to remember is that the word love in this context is not the kind of love we too often think about today. Loving with the whole heart isn’t the emotional, huggy-kissy kind of love we find on greeting cards or in advertisements. Loving with the heart in that day first of all meant being loyal. So Jesus was talking about being loyal to God – to God’s laws – to the promises of the covenant the people made with God. Included with being loyal to God was being loyal to your neighbor. Because they knew their scriptures, the Jews knew that being loyal to their neighbor meant that they would care for their neighbor, fight oppression, feed the hungry, make provision for the poor, the widow and the orphan. No one would have a surplus where others were going hungry. Maybe the Sadducees were afraid that if they asked any more questions, Jesus would point out to them that they were not doing too good a job as religious leaders in showing others how to care for those in need.

Remember, though, we don’t know why they didn’t ask any more questions. What we might need to consider in this passage is whether we might have asked any more questions. This is one of those passages that most of us could recite by heart. I’m certain we’d all like to think of ourselves as the scribe – asking Jesus a thoughtful question and being praised for our own interpretation of his answer. And yes, of course, there are those days when we do understand and work toward being even more loving – loyal – in our relationship with God and with others in our lives. But we must also be honest in considering when we aren’t. In today’s culture, we don’t like to talk about sin, our own personal sin or the sin we see in the world. We may not think about this “loving my neighbor as myself” thing when we don’t particularly like that neighbor or we are against a particular issue or we don’t want “that kind of person” coming to our church or moving into our neighborhood. The poor are no longer in far-away countries, they are – sadly, too often – us. A recent survey tells us that one in five Americans live in poverty, and even worse, one in four children live in poverty.

Maybe, just maybe, the Sadducees didn’t want to ask any more questions because they were afraid of being overwhelmed with Jesus’ answer about what they, as religious leaders, must do to show their loyalty to God and neighbor. Maybe we’re overwhelmed with all the needs in today’s world – needs of our own for our own families. There is really too much to care about. It would be an impossible burden for one person, but for all of us together, there is a chance. We need not to be afraid to ask any more questions. We need to ask more. We need to ask more people to work together with us. We might need to be willing to ask for help for ourselves. If we truly believe the two great commandments are important in our lives, then we should be like the folks in today’s passage. Be like the Sadducees – talk to others about what the scriptures mean to you. Question and think about what God is calling us to do about the kingdom of heaven that is here already if we just live into it. Dare to ask God questions and then listen for the answer. Dare to ask each other questions about how we can live out these two great commandments. We can dare to do this because we’re not alone. God has promised to be with us. There is no reason to fear.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Comments

  1. Lucia Stanley says:

    In this day and age, this sermon goes right to the point. Thank you for writing this and being very clear as to our duties as well. I only have one question so that I can read this properly on Sunday. This sentence doesn’t flow. “Sometimes it was the Pharisees, those few who wanted to trip Jesus up, who backed away out of intimidation perhaps, or anger at being caught out themselves.”
    Did you mean to say “called out” ?
    Thank you for clarifying this.

  2. Fr. Jay Pierce says:

    I take issue with Rev. Dr. Mitz when she offers the idea that there was nothing scary about our Gospel today. There is NOTHING more frightening than attempting to define our relationship with God. It presupposes your behavior is incorrect, you’re dumb as a rock, and your intentions can be covered by complete focus on God with your whole being. And, loving that neighbor … well that’s another deep hole. She is right in that asking questions is a positive and effective way of explore, understand this complicated, vague statement of what is required, what is first in our attempt to live with and for our Creator, self and our neighbor.

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