In this week’s Gospel reading from Mark 12 Jesus has already argued with the Pharisees and Herodians about paying taxes to Caesar, and with the Sadducees about the concept of resurrection. Now a scribe, overhearing their arguments and judging Jesus to be a smart cookie, poses his question. It's odd that Jesus gives him a straight answer instead of an object lesson (as when he asked for a coin from the Pharisees) or a counter-question. Perhaps he knows the scribe is asking a genuine question and doesn't have a hidden agenda?
In Matthew's version (22:34-40) and in Luke's version (10:25-28), the questioner is a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Mark's scribe seems to be honest. Mark's story is also unusual in that the scribe congratulates Jesus on giving a good answer, and that Jesus responds by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God.". The Pharisees and Sadducees have just been shown up by a lowly scribe! He even gets in a dig at the Sadducees' focus on the temple, "This is much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
There is something touching in this encounter that offers hope to churches today. Despite those who try to control Jesus, to manipulate or discredit him, there is still hope for the few who come to him with genuine questions.
Have you ever thought about, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?... bring no more vain offerings” means for us as those who seek to live as Jesus did. Let’s try another tack. God is lonely for us. God, our Creator, our very help in time of need, longs for us, for our love, for our prayers for help, for prayers of praise and thanksgiving. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul is often quoted.
Have you ever wondered why God, our heavenly parent who formed us in her own image, longs for the companionship that comes during times of silent prayer and meditation; during times when we talk and laugh out loud with God; when we cry out in sorrow and petition; and yes, even, perhaps most especially, at those times when we scream in anger. These are the presents, the gifts that we can bring to our God who desires no material evidence of our love. What can our high spires, our golden chalices, our "burnt offerings" give to God that God does not already have?
Shall we seek to adorn the throne of the One who, according to Revelation, sits on the golden throne surrounded by worshipping creatures crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy?" Shall we expect to augment the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? How redundant that would be. No, these are but window dressing, substitutes for what God really wants from us: “...and the second is like unto it you shall love your neighbor as yourself...” As the prophet Micah reminded us, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.
Martin Smith, SSSE, is Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. His book, Co-Creation with God, provides profound insights into the way we view our relationship with our Creator-Parent. Martin's thesis is that God invites and welcomes our co-equal participation in the unfolding of our lives and future. Posing this provocative question, "God, what are we to make of this?" Martin counsels us to allow a partnership to form in which we jointly create our future according to the will of God.
Carter Heyward, feminist theologian at the Episcopal Divinity School and author of numerous books, says, "In the beginning was the relationship." Thus, relating to and with God enriches us and, Martin suggests, enriches the heart of God, also. How can you say that you love God whom you have not seen, when you hate creation and your neighbour whom you have seen?
Another gift that we can present to God is to mirror the love so freely given to us in our relationships of peace, harmony and justice with others in the world. This gift we can bring before God in thanksgiving and praise for God's love. We can allow that love to be a model for all of our earthly relationships. We can understand that God's will for us is that we should love equality, do justice, love our neighbors, those living anywhere in this global village, and walk in humble thanksgiving for the incredible blessings of God's love.
We are to demonstrate fairness in our business dealings, compassion and justice in our encounters with other human beings, see the face of God in both friend and foe, and invite the holy spirit to be present in all dialogues, discussions, and relationships. This is what is called for by the Prophet Isaiah and it stands as a blueprint for how God wishes us to live.