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The Holiness of the Ordinary
Mark 12: 28-34
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
In FIRL this week, we began by speculating about different ways this passage might be understood. Is the scribe questioning Jesus for information or perhaps to exercise authority over him—much as a professor might question a student. What is the meaning when Jesus says: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” ? My first thought was these words indicated Jesus’ blessing but one of our group members wondered if Jesus was expressing irritation at the scribe’s presumptive authority. (As in,’ keep this up and I’ll knock you into next week’). As usual, we cannot know. The written word gives us almost no information about, tone, body language or nuance. We are left to supply those—and it makes a big difference which we choose.
While this lack of information could be seen as a liability to understanding God’s word, I think it is a blessing. It is yet another reminder that seeking God is always filled with uncertainty. It reminds us to remain humble—even as we are convicted by the Word. It is not sufficient to say ‘But the bible says’. If you gather a group of Christians reading exactly the same words, there will be disagreement and often confusion. (And the difficult truth is that even if we were first hand witnesses to Jesus, there would still be room for different interpretations of his life.) We bring our filters and biases to every conversation we have—and often are clueless that we are doing so. But with some self reflection, how we read scripture often points us to the assumptions that we have treated as ‘truth’. I believe it is critically important to realize that the ordinary processes of human conversation also apply to conversations with God.
Communications theory talks about three levels of listening: words, non verbals and self revelation. We put great stock in words but typically, we have trouble simply repeating what has been said. And in real life, words are the least important aspect of understanding. Your parents can call your name in a dozen ways. Sometimes you know you are in trouble and another you know you are loved. The name is the same but the meaning can only be know in how it is spoken.
We all know this but it is amazing how often we turn a deaf ear to tone. I have a client who continually tries to argue, ‘That’s not what you said’—as if a transcript could prove his point. He argues about words but never takes the time to inquire about meaning. If he relies only upon words, he does not have to deal with the ambiguities of meaning. The words give the illusion of clarity but more mindful listening will always add more layers than we want to deal with.
This is the frustrating difficulty in all communication—-secular and spiritual. Alan Greenspan has a couple of relevant comments on the subject. “If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.” and more famously “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
In ordinary life, conversations will always contain the possibility of serious misunderstanding. It is no less true when we study scripture. You would think it would be easier with God. Not so much. The same communication issues that apply to everyday conversations are present every time we seek to have conversations with God through scripture. We make assumptions; we think we understand; we have blind spots. It takes a lot of work. And we still cannot be sure. The whole process of conversation is a journey toward relationship. And it has many bumps in the road.
Effective listening requires us to maintain our humility as we speak with each other—and with God. We must identify our own assumptions and filters. As we do so, we will be better able to present ourselves. We will be better able to listen. We will be better able to love and to be loved. The same principles apply to our discernment of scripture. God speaks through scripture, we listen and we wait. Conversations lead to relationships; relationships lead to intimacy; intimacy leads to God.
I have spent this time emphasizing the ordinary as it applies to the holy because I believe that is what Jesus was trying to get across in this passage. The vertical dimension of worship has no meaning without the horizontal dimension of love of neighbor. This may well be one of Jesus’ most important teachings. Humans have all too often made the worship of God about obedience, piety and purity. Such an emphasis has led to artificial divisions between the ‘spiritual’ and the secular world. Jesus challenges that division. Each time Jesus was asked what was most important, he quoted two commandments as one. Love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated. We cannot claim to love God and not love neighbor. And conversely, when we love our neighbor, we love God.
I think Dorothy Day, a powerful spiritual leader who fought for social justice in the last century said it well: “We really only love God as much as we love the person we love the least.” (Look her up. She’s worth learning about.) If that standard does not bring us to our knees, I don’t know what will. Jesus had every respect for the many ways the scribes and pharisees sought to defer to God and to regulate worship but over and over again he combined service to God with service to each other. It simply not possible to ‘honor the sabbath’ but disregard the ox in the ditch. That is principle that must be understood. But understanding is never sufficient. Understanding must lead to a new way of living. I am speculating but I think that was what Jesus was referring to when he said: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The scribe understood correctly but it was unknown if his understanding could be turned into living.
We all have trouble trying to love the people close to us much less those further outside our circle of belonging. Even the ideal of love is subject to massive ambiguity. We might agree that love is most important but in real life, it is hard to know what is actually loving. As Paul wrote, we all fall short of the glory of God. That knowledge will humble us and will certainly put a stop to human claims of righteousness. There was a good reason that “… no one dared to ask him any question.”
In the twelfth chapter of Mark, there is a whole series of trick questions directed to Jesus. He answered every one. Throughout his entire life, Jesus showed regard for every person he encountered. He had bad days, he was short sometimes, but he consistently honored God. He loved those around him—the clean and the unclean, socially acceptable and the outcast, his disciples and his enemies.
We will absolutely fail that standard. But it is not about our competence, it is our recognition of what matters, our recognition of what it means to worship God that is important. The ordinary is holy and the distinctions we make are ours not God’s.
We spent some time in FIRL talking about our political and religious intolerance. No one was exempt. We demand agreement and disrespect those who oppose us. We are far more like the scribes than Jesus. But Jesus did not turn from them. He took them seriously, even in their hostility—and he showed them the way. He will do the same for us.
May God’s love for us enable us to worship and honor him in the ordinariness of our lives.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more out about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our Staff Page or FIRL.