For the past several weeks of our journey through Mark’s Gospel via the Sunday lectionary, Jesus has himself been on a journey, his increasingly bewildered disciples following him to Jerusalem. Between last Sunday and this coming one, the lectionary skips over quite a lot of what happens after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. This Sunday’s gospel reading describes an encounter that takes place after an extended series of disputes between Jesus and various factions constituting much of the religious leadership of Jerusalem.
In some ways, this encounter reminds me of one Jesus had while still on the road with a young man concerned about eternal life. In that case, it seems to me that Jesus’ first response is almost dismissive, until the young man stands his ground and insists that his question be taken seriously. It is then that Jesus really looks at him, and when he actually sees him, he loves him. Of course, Jesus then tells him the last thing he wanted to hear, but that’s another story.
A group of scribes, who seem to have been in some way experts in religious law, had been with the chief priests and the elders when they challenged Jesus regarding his authority to cause the commotion he did in the temple. In general, scribes in groups are presented in the gospels as being in opposition to Jesus.
Perhaps weary of the tests and traps associated with the religious leadership generally, Jesus answers this one scribe’s question quickly in straightforward orthodox terms, quoting scriptures that would have been very familiar to pious Jews, who would have had these words on their lips several times a day. The unusual aspect of Jesus’ answer is that he combines quotations from two different sources in the Old Testament, bringing together verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the basis of their appeal to love, love of God and love of one another, formulating a single Great Commandment of love in the process.
This scribe seems different from most of the others, though. When this scribe responds positively to Jesus, and even extends what Jesus has said to a thoughtful conclusion, Jesus knows that his question had been honestly asked. At least one translation has it that Jesus now looks at the scribe, before saying something unexpected to him.
Pheme Perkins, writing in the New Interpreter’s Bible, says the following:
‘The exchange between Jesus and the scribe becomes itself something of an illustration of the Great Commandment. Even though the exchange occurs in the middle of a dispute, a running argument between Jesus and representatives of the parties and 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” versus “them” categories. Their mutual affirmation is an island of reconciliation in a sea of hostility. The scribe recognizes Jesus as the great Teacher; Jesus recognizes the scribe as a pilgrim moving toward the kingdom. Their lived out common devotion to God and neighbour silences the debate.’
It seems to be a common experience that love is easier to talk about than to do, both towards God and one another. And I think Jesus was talking about love less as a positive emotion to be felt than as a commitment to learn from a loving relationship with God how to actively seek the wellbeing of those around us, whoever they might be, however we might naturally feel about them. Presumably this is why the version of this encounter recorded in the Gospel of Luke has the scribe asking just who would qualify as his neighbour, and receiving a challenging answer from Jesus.
But maybe we are all pilgrims stumbling towards the kingdom that has come among us, and maybe we all need encounters like this one between Jesus and the scribe to help us on our way. We need encounters with Jesus in which our eyes are opened to the fullness of God’s love. We need encounters with other people in which Jesus is present to help us to see more clearly and respond more thoughtfully to opportunities to be loving, even towards those we might have assumed would be in opposition to us. How life-giving it can be to discover our common humanity even in those most unlike us.
I leave you with these words from the First Letter of John. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him. We are loving because God first loved us.