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.

You are not far from the kingdom of heaven, 22 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2006

November 5, 2006

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

This is one of those gospels that when we hear it, we can get all comfy in our pews and say, “Oh well, of course. How lovely that thought is: Love God, love our neighbors. That’s what it’s all about. No problem.”

That’s what we might call “squeeze me, Jesus” theology – when we get all comfy with ourselves and think that just “love” is the answer. Thousands of popular songs have been written using those very words, heart-style jewelry is in every catalogue, movies by the score are based on our romantic notion of love. So, loving God and loving neighbor should be easy. Love should be the answer and everything would be all right. But we look at our world. We look at our church. What’s the problem? What aren’t we understanding?

Important questions! If we believe what Jesus is saying to this scribe, we have to admit that love is the answer. But really to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to define what we mean by love and perhaps more importantly –because it’s so easy for us to get comfortable with the familiar – we need to define who our neighbor is.

First, we need to understand that the love Jesus is talking about has to do with loyalty. The Valentine heart thing is all well and good, but this kind of love is a deliberate mind thing – a deliberate choice. It’s a commitment to living the kind of life Jesus lives. Jesus is telling his followers that to love God is to be loyal to God both when it’s easy and when it’s difficult. We must be willing to be loyal to the end no matter what.

But even if we can wrap our minds around the concept of being loyal to God – of trying to live a godly life – we have to remember that this love, this loyalty is bound up, as Jesus says, in loving our neighbor. We can’t choose to do one or the other.

Then, of course, comes the sticky part. Just who does Jesus mean by our “neighbor”?

We know the answer to that: everyone is our neighbor, both those who are like us, those who are easy to love – but also those who aren’t just like us and those who are pretty difficult to stand, let alone love. Not an easy thing to do. Our neighbors are also those whom we may never meet, but who might be touched through our outreach and prayer. The good news here is that they just might touch us.

Loving our neighbor isn’t just about benefits we confer on them. Remember the Old Testament lesson for today, that wonderful story of Ruth and Naomi. That’s a story of love going in both directions. It’s a story about real loyalty. Orpah wasn’t being mean or disloyal when she chose to return to her own mother’s house, to her own people. That was a perfectly sensible and honorable thing to do in that culture. Ruth and Orpah weren’t Jews – they were Moabites. We can sense the love that Orpah had for Naomi, but she chose to take a chance at being remarried, perhaps among her own people. Ruth on the other hand, made a radical and courageous choice. Her love, her loyalty to Naomi was so fierce and dedicated that she couldn’t abandon her mother-in-law even if it meant she might never be remarried – a problem for women in that culture – and might never be accepted by Naomi’s people.

Barbara Keener Shenk in her lovely book The God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel puts words in poetic form to Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi. Ruth says to Naomi:

“Your inner flame warmed me and helped me see
That loyalty and truth form bonds … and last eternally.
I came to share your bitter dregs with you
And found the cup was filled with joy for two.”

That kind of love asked a lot of Ruth and it asks more of us, too. Remember at the end of our Gospel passage, Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” (But you’re not there yet.) And no one dared ask him any more questions. Being brought face to face with that concept of love – the kind Jesus is really is talking about, the Bible’s kind of love – was maybe quite enough for Jesus’ followers right then. They didn’t yet understand love as Ruth did. Some of them eventually understood. Others walked away.

So, what now? We may be perfectly willing to accept the full responsibility of this kind of love, but we’d like some guidelines. Jews seek to live out of Torah. We seek to live out our baptismal covenant. Take a couple minutes when you have your prayerbook in your hands, and read pages 304 to 305. You’ve already said yes to this covenant at your baptism. Let the story of Ruth and the words of the baptismal covenant strengthen your heart.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of contextual education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.