We’ll be celebrating All Saints’ Sunday this week, although again I’ll be using the regular lectionary passages for the day. Hebrews I’m not quite sure what to do with, but there’s a connection between Mark 12:33 (“more important to obey … than to offer … sacrifices”) and the last verse of the Hebrews passage (“His blood will purify our consciences from useless rituals, so that we may serve the living God”). Maybe I’ll just refer back to yesterday’s sermon and say that now I have the rest of the story.

We just played a bit of hopscotch with Mark, jumping over Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his first big confrontation at the temple, and three rounds of contentious debate with the religious authorities. Now Jesus gets a softball question, and of course he hits it out of the park. The challenge before him is to… choose the most important commandment? I learned in Sunday school that the selection of this “great commandment” is a special mark of Jesus’ teaching, but seriously, I’m guessing that the extended discourse on household mildew (Leviticus 14:33-53) didn’t exactly make the short list. Ron Hansen points out that in addition to Judaism, where these Great Commandments had already been identified, several ancient religions more or less figured out the Golden Rule. This is true and all, but it’s not all that remarkable.

Maybe what’s remarkable is that this scribe came to Jesus with such an olive branch. The debate had been heated, remember, and in this fevered environment – much like in our country just before an election – anything a person says can come across as politically biased toward one side or the other. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had been drawing bold lines between themselves and Jesus; to say something nice about him just then would have been unpopular and potentially dangerous. Perhaps we should be impressed at the courage and principle of this questioner who allowed publicly that Jesus and the rest of the religious authorities were not so far apart after all. When the tensions are so high, granting your opponent the benefit of the doubt constitutes a kind of heroism. I think that’s part of why Jesus insisted that we must love our enemies, and that insistence is probably a big piece of why we killed him.

In these extreme situations, whether of conflict, danger, or illness, the really important things can come clear – after the fear, anger, and sadness subside, of course. We often imagine the inscription on a person’s tombstone as the summation in a few words of what was most important in their life. Jesus’ tombstone might have been inscribed with these words (if of course he’d stayed dead long enough for the engraver to get to work on Monday). Maybe the scribe’s tombstone would have read, “Affirm the truth, even when it comes from your opponent.” Moving away from tombstones, there’s the baptismal speech from Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Jesus affirmed the scribe as well: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” I’m not sure we get into the Kingdom just by being kind, although being kind to those who aren’t kind to us gets pretty close. Affirming the words of someone you’re arguing with gets pretty close. I suspect that the scope of our involvement in God’s Kingdom depends in part on how wide we’re willing to open the door. Are we willing to grant that even the ideas we happen to disagree with may be true? Are we willing to venture that even the people we loathe are still beloved of God? If so, we may not be too far off the mark.

And because all this talk about tombstones is making me hungry:

Advertisements