Minister's Sermon - Sunday 4th November 2019 10.30am
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 4th November

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 

Mark 12.28-34

I want to do two things in this bible study. In the first part I’ll focus on the passage and its context. On the community the Gospel was written for, on where today’s reading comes in it, and the passages Jesus was quoting from. Because contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing original, in what Jesus says. After that there will be a space, a time for you to talk, about what I’ve said. It’s not compulsory. And if you would prefer not to, please let you neighbour know, so that he or she can talk with someone else. After your conversation, I’m going to reflect on how the Greatest Commandment challenges us in our time. And that’ll be followed by a little more time for conversation.

Mark’s Gospel was written 30 to 40 years after Jesus died. A lot had happened in between. Most significantly, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the Jewish community was grappling with the question of what it meant to be Jewish. What was the core of Jewish identity now they couldn’t worship God in the temple? And what did their future look like? These sound like a relatively simple questions, but because the Jewish community wasn’t homogenous, there were several different answers to their question. In Mark’s Gospel we find the answer the Gospel writer was giving to his community. It was a sect within Judaism. And two convictions distinguished them from others. The first, was that they believed that Jesus’ ministry signalled that the transition between the present age and the coming Kingdom of God, was underway. And that this transition would be completed when Jesus returned at the end of time. The second, was that God’s kingdom would include the reunion, of Jewish and gentile communities. So, they anticipated this reunion, by welcoming gentiles as full members, but making none of the traditional demands on them. This was problematic for more traditional Jewish communities. And they were sure that Mark's community had become so unfaithful, that they were no longer truly, Jewish. The result was a growing tension between these different groups, and the beginning of a process of the more traditional synagogues, throwing Jesus’ followers out. The result was a crisis of identity in Mark’s community. Are we truly Jewish? What should we believe? And do we have a place we belong? It’s important that we understand this, because like all the Gospels, Mark’s Gospel is more than a story of Jesus’ life. The editorial process that created it, was aimed at a particular community, in a particular time and place, asking the particular questions they needed answers to. Answers that would enable them to remain faithful to Jesus, to his life, his words and deeds, which they believed are concrete expressions of God’s kingdom.

So, how does that help us understand what’s going on, in today’s passage? Well, it’s surprising, because for once the scribe isn’t the bad guy!” Nothing in Mark’s story prepares us for this conversation between Jesus and this Jerusalem scribe. From the beginning to the end of this Gospel, the scribes opposed Jesus and were intimately involved in the conspiracy to kill him. And that can make it hard for us to hear a positive story about one of their number. Today’s story is the third in a series of conversations between Jesus and various of the religious leaders living in Jerusalem. They all follow Jesus’ outburst in the temple, when he drove out the people, buying and selling. The next day he returned to the temple, and the chief priests, scribes and elders came and asked about the authority he had to do what he’d done. He told them the parable of the vineyard tenants. And Mark says, “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So, they left him and went away.” Later, the religious leaders return as a succession of groups, and attempt to trap Jesus. First come the Pharisees and Herodians. Then some Sadducees. And the last is the scribe. A scribe who surprisingly shared some of Jesus’ views. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, the antagonism between the Christians and other Jewish groups has increased, and the Scribe becomes the third religious leader who tries to trip Jesus up so he’ll condemn himself. But for the moment, there’s some way to go before the Christians were finally and irrevocably, thrown out of the synagogues. So, there is something different happening here, something we need to notice if we’re to really understand the point of today’s reading. Ron Allen, an American professor of New Testament suggests, that “Mark uses the… scribe to show that some members of the Jewish establishment agreed with Jesus…” (1) To say that, even if they weren’t accepted by everyone, their beliefs were still part of the Jewish mainstream. And that brings me to what they did believe. To what Jesus was saying.

All the Gospels, contain quotes from and allusions to, the Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel writers were well versed in the religious tradition Jesus had grown up in. And the scriptures he was familiar with are the foundation of his message. That’s particularly clear in today’s reading. But it isn’t just the words that are brought into the Gospels, that Jesus’ listeners, and the early church heard. The words also bring the stories in which they are originally embedded. And with them the whole sweep of Jewish history. Our limited schooling in the Hebrew scriptures, as well as our many prejudices about the God of the Old Testament, mean that we often lack this rich material, so don’t grasp the full significance of Jesus’ words. And that’s true of today’s passage. Jesus’ reply, to the scribe’s question about which the greatest commandment is, is a quotation from two passages of scripture. The first, we’ll recognise from the passage we heard from chapter 6, of the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus quotes the passage traditionally called the Shema, a well-known and well-used, daily prayer. The core confession of faith for Jews. “Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Love God… And the second passage is from Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Julianna Claassens is a Professor of Old Testament from South Africa. She says there are two different stories Jesus’ people could hear when he quoted the Shema. The first, comes from the context, in which the Shema was heard for the first time. The Israelites were standing at the border of the Promised Land that they “are about to cross into and occupy.” Some Jewish communities, will have read this passage as a justification for invading and colonizing other people’s lands. Believing that God approved of them subjugating the other nations Israel they shared the land with. But Claassens points to a question in the passage that follows. “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ The answer,” she says, “should centre around the memory of when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and how God had delivered them… It is this memory of being liberated and freed from slavery that is to be central to Israel’s understanding of the One God they serve, and that is to determine their identity of living as the people of God. This memory of being slaves… ought to prevent one from enslaving others.” (2) You might remember this from our last Church with Choices. The Ten Commandments begin with God saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In Mark’s Gospel, this is the story that Jesus and the editor og the Gospel wanted his people to hear. The God, that Jesus’ life, words and deeds reveal, is the liberator God. God who embraces outsiders. Who healed women, lepers, and those whose physical deformities excluded them from the community. Who welcomes tax collectors. Who speaks highly of gentiles. Whose words and actions challenge the religious leaders. Whose followers were a rag-bag of fishermen, women of dubious repute, and people who were unclean according to the law.

So, it’s the liberator God, and the whole story of the Exodus that comes to mind when Jesus says, “The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’” The context of this instruction in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a reworking of the Ten Commandments to make them directly applicable to the many different ways people related to their neighbours. But it begins with these words. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Earlier on, I said that one of the challenges for Mark’s community, was that they’d included gentiles in. But they’d included them in, without requiring them to undergo circumcision, the religious rite which was a symbol of belonging to God. And also an expression of holiness, of being separate from the other tribes and peoples. They saw Jesus’ followers letting go of this way of expressing their distinctiveness. So, the scribe’s response to Jesus, even ‘though it doesn’t mention circumcision is extraordinary. His acknowledgement that “It is more important to obey these two commandments than to offer on the altar animals and other sacrifices to God,” suggested to Mark’s community that even ‘though they’d let go of some traditions in order to include others, they were still holy. And there were people among the scribes who thought so too. This assures Mark’s community that they are faithful to the Jewish tradition and part of God’s kingdom. Jewish people, he was saying, could live without the temple. And Gentiles can be part of God’s kingdom without being initiated fully into Judaism. And so, we come to my first question, this morning.

What has struck you about what I’ve said about the time the Gospel was written, the context of today’s reading, and the passages Jesus was quoting from? Talk with your neighbour – if they wish to – for a few minutes.

I want to go back to the painting I showed you earlier. “Agape” - which means love. The picture articulates the sense of today’s reading. Loving God and loving other people is connected. We love God, not by making sacrifices at temples, or by sticking to religious rules, but by loving our neighbours. By welcoming the outsider. Seeking reconciliation. And acknowledging our mutual humanity. One of my commentaries on Mark’s Gospel is written by Pheme Perkins. She suggests that “the exchange between Jesus and the scribe [is in itself] … an illustration of the Great Commandment. Even ‘though their exchange happens in the middle of a dispute, a running argument between Jesus and the representatives of the leaders of the religious establishment, Jesus and the scribe are able to transcend the party strife and cross the dividing line of hostility to confess a common faith. Because they join together in the conviction, that there is no commandment greater than love of God and neighbour, they are able to treat each other as neighbours. Both the scribe and Jesus have stepped away from the ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories. Their mutual affection is an island of reconciliation in a sea of hostility. The scribe recognises Jesus as the great teacher; Jesus recognises the scribe as a pilgrim moving towards the kingdom.” (3) The question for us now, is what it might mean to be a pilgrim moving towards the kingdom, in today’s world. And I want to offer two reflections.

My first begins with the Shema, which comes at the moment in Book of Deuteronomy, when the people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. We’ve already established that Mark’s intention is to bring the stories of their slavery in Egypt and the Exodus to mind. But I think there is another part of the story that has implications in our time. The people of Israel have been wandering around the desert for forty years, living off manna and quails, and were pretty fed up. As they stand on the edge of the promised land, they’re promised a land flowing with milk and honey, riches they’d only dreamed of for the past forty years. But these things would only come if they observed the commandments God was giving them. In our time, this pattern of promise and reward, is familiar as the prosperity gospel. If you believe in God, and keep the commandments, all will go well and you will flourish. And for some Christians, that is a justification for believing that the answer to poverty and injustice, is to become a Christian. There is some evidence, and it happened in the young Methodist Church, that faith does enable some people to become richer. But when it is applied to individuals rather than communities, it’s a distortion of the good news, and anyway we know by experience, that despite our best efforts to love God, things still go wrong. So, we need to remember that while the Shema is a way of live for individuals, it was given to the whole community. Prosperity, the riches of milk and honey, are for all and not just for the few. When we forget this, we are far from the intention of, the Greatest Commandment. So, at the moment, I’m struck by the caravan of people still walking from Honduras, towards the Mexican border with the United States, fleeing poverty and seeking a better life. By the thousands upon thousands of people who have had to flee Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan because of war and have tried to find safety in Europe. And by the Jews those who left Europe after the 2nd world war, looking for a country of their own, where they would not be persecuted. I could go on. Poverty, conflict and persecution are the traditional fuel for movements of people. Now we need to add climate change as well. Juliana Claassens, wonders “How one can continue to pray the Shema in some of the darkest days seen by humanity.” (2) Thinking particularly of the Holocaust and she quotes this poem by Primo Levi. It’s called Shema.

You who live secure
In your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,

when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you. (4)

Claassens says “this poem… calls on people during, and also after, the Holocaust to remember what had happened, and to recognize the incredible suffering done to men, women, and children… [It] expresses the intrinsic link between the Shema that is centred on loving God with all of one’s being that is considered to be the heart of the Jewish religion, and loving one’s neighbour. [And] raises the question: How can you say you love the Lord your God who is One while your brother and sister are experiencing the horrific treatment witnessed by people like Primo Levi? True devotion, she says, to the One God implies that we stand where God stands and challenge all dignity-denying behaviour to all people, in all places, at all times.”

As I read this I was reminded of a news item I saw earlier in the week about soybean production in the Amazonian rainforest. At first, I thought it was about the environment, because it was talking about the deforestation being caused by clearing the forest. But it was also a story of how small farmers are being forced of their land, by agri-businesses, so move into forest areas, to farm their own crops. All because soybeans are a good earner of foreign exchange and now attract high prices. The main drivers for this are, the increasing demand for meat in countries with a large and fast-growing middle class in India, Brazil, and China, and changing production patterns in the United States. There, the government is subsidising corn-based ethanol production, and that’s encourages farmers to switch to corn from soybeans. Less soy production in the United States, means more production is needed elsewhere, and Brazil now produces 13 percent of the world’s crop. But what they haven’t been taken on board until now, is the impact on the environment, and on poor farmers. In January this year, the Brazilian government placed a moratorium on producing soybeans in newly deforested parts of the Amazon, and the news piece interviewed a farmer who was farming more sustainably. And there are still many places, where small farmers are losing their land to agri-business. At the end of the piece, the interviewer asked a woman who had lost her land to a large landowner growing soya beans for the international market, what she wanted to say to people eating meat from animals fattened by soya. That’s most of us. She looked directly at the camera and said, while you eat meat, we are starving. You are the cause of our suffering… Remember Juliana Claassen’s question. “How can you say you love the Lord your God who is One while your brother and sister are experiencing” such suffering? “True devotion to the One God implies that we stand where God stands and challenge all dignity-denying behaviour to all people, in all places, at all times.” This is challenging. Loving God and our neighbour as ourselves, has a greater implication, than the things we can do among our friends, family and local community. It has to affect all our relationships. The way we relate to people in Honduras suffering deep poverty. Those affected by conflict in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. As well as victims of persecution and injustice throughout the world. Mostly, we see these as issues “out there,” as situations we can’t change. Yet if we’re not willing to try to change our eating habits and more besides, to challenge our governments about the prosperity we enjoy being only for us, or to questions whether war is the best way of solving conflict, we’ll be failing our neighbours around the world.

Primo Levi’s poem, and the pleas of the woman being interviewed, speak to me across time and space. And they invite us to cross the boundaries of our communities and recognise our shared humanity. In the moment Jesus and the scribe confessed their common faith, despite the hostility of their communities, they treated each other as neighbours and expressed their conviction that love of God has to be expressed in the way we love our neighbour. The greatest commandment is more than words. It needs to be seen, in the way we relate to our neighbours far away, as well as those close by. There is no them or us. There are only neighbours. Neighbours called to love God and each other.

As we wait for the others to re-join us, there’s another opportunity, to talk with your neighbour. How do your respond to these reflections? What resonates with you? What are you challenged by?

Sue Keegan von Allmen

Interpreters Bible, Mark’s Gospel, page 679

Shema. Poem by Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann; published on Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust's website at