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A Great Commandment

The Great Commandment (which we read in Mark 12:28-34) can be analysed in several ways:

Some will point out that the two parts each quote the Old Testament – Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and ask with the scholars whether Jesus was the first teacher to bring them together in this way – it seems likely that it is.

Others will find it helpful to set this story in the sequence of questioning of Jesus after the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. There is the parable of the Vineyard, the hostile questions about taxes, and the resurrection, and then this more friendly scribe.

I want to ask a more fundamental question: What does it mean to do it? What would loving God and neighbour in this way look like in today’s world? There is a single-mindedness about it – something we find difficult in a diverted and distracted world. Interestingly Mark (not Matthew and Luke, who deal with the story in different ways – perhaps reflecting different occasions when Jesus used the summary?) quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” The force of that may be clearer in CEV “’People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God.” Because there is one God, and not a choice, a wholehearted response is necessary. This is most important – more than personal inclination, comfort, even wealth and career.

What then? Clearly we are put in our place, and it is not at the centre of the universe! That might offend our selfishness, but it can also be a relief. We do not have to invent a meaning to life, a reason for our existence or anything else – someone else has done that. If for a time we lose our way, and find it hard to see pleasure, let alone purpose, this is a personal malaise, not the end of the world! God knows, God plans, God is, and our responsibility is to him first. There is a relief in letting him be in charge!

Strangely, the second thing about being put in our place is that we are not free to disparage ourselves – or indeed other people. If we are made and loved by God, we are not unwanted, useless, or rubbish. We do not have to justify our existence by exceptional achievement.

I do not matter because I am clever, successful, or professionally competent – but because God made me, loves me, and saves me. That is true today, and will be tomorrow if I am suddenly confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or do anything much at all.

You are not free to think badly of yourself – that can be a temptation, to be recognised as such. You are to love the Lord your God – and his evaluation of you, and of others.

Loving your neighbour is a consequence of this. Yes, you may have the worst possible set of neighbours, but God still cares for them. You may be the means of bringing them to faith, and so to heaven (which is about as important as anything could be!)

You don’t love your neighbour when you can find a nice one. You don’t love your neighbour to be thought well of, to be praised for your charity. You don’t love your neighbour to convince yourself that you aren’t such a bad person really. You love your neighbour because you know that God, who is the most important person in all the Universe, loves you and loves them as well. You are told to love them; it may even have a part in God’s plans for you both. So you do it.

Generosity, groups and the Gospel

One of the things I value in Christianity, and in people, is generosity. Not so much a readiness to hand out money, as a kindness, a positive attitude – perhaps because I recognise an ungenerous streak in myself that I have to work on.  So it won’t be a great surprise that I enjoy Mark 9:38,39 at the start of this week’s selection (Mark 9:38-50). Unlike groups in his day, and ours too, Jesus refuses to allow a monopoly to “our group”. (It’s no use Joshua saying stop those 2 prophesying – Numbers 11:4-29).

Jesus explanation shows how it works – if they not only claim the name of Jesus, but are doing something good with his power, – then don’t stop them, they won’t be able to rubbish Jesus after that. There is nothing here about those who use other “powers”, some of which are forbidden to Christians. Remember that Jesus is the greatest spiritual power of all – a fact which is the basis of Christian healing, and indeed exorcism (when, uncommonly in British society, that is needed). Those who work as his disciples share in something great; those who will not (whatever they write on the T shirt or headed notepaper) are useless.

You might think the passage then moves away from generosity. There is a series of sayings about damaging faith – (the Greek is “causing to stumble”, a word that gives us English “scandal”). In fact, it illustrates “ungenerosity” to others, and to yourself!

So, to damage someone else’s faith is desperately serious
and to damage your own, no less so!

What could do that? Does for example you liking for sport limit the energy you put into living as a real Christian – then it’s time to give up sport! (A bit of exaggeration? Yes and no. Your ability to play sport will decline with age; even watching it will become harder. Your competence in Christian living should increase to meet the critical challenge of God’s judgement). You may be able to reduce your commitment to sport, but if not, abandon it in favour of living Christianity.

Maybe it’s not sport, but TV, or insistence on “time for yourself”, or laziness, or some sin like dishonesty, immorality, or pride . . Whatever gets in the way of living faith – give it up! It’s the seriousness of the issue we tend to avoid. It’s not about “our group” – church being nasty to sportsmen, or actors, or . . ; it’s about losing faith, and finding our chosen life in danger of destruction. (“Hell” here is the Jerusalem rubbish dump, where there were always fires smouldering to consume the waste). God’s generosity is real – he wants us to live well, and to avoid that with other priorities is not just foolish, but dangerous.

You don’t want to be counted (by the only one who matters) as “rubbish”, your chosen lifestyle down the chute? Then be serious about doing faith!

Faith is always about Jesus, not the claims of one group against another. But that is no excuse for laziness or inaction; this is more serious than your career, or your human relationships – it may direct and change both, so – get busy!

Mary Magdalene

[Mary Magdalene is traditionally remembered on 22 July, so many churches will replace the routine readings this Sunday to turn to her story]

The “Saints” in New Testament language are defined as all faithful Christians.  Still, we often use the term for those best known, perhaps for their place in the New Testament. These have a place in our education, as examples of the grace and work of Christ in believers, and of the diversity of vocation. They also challenge our limited horizons:
to those inclined to say “This is me, this is all I am ever going to be, and all I want from religion is a bit of comfort” they offer a resounding “NO” This may be where you now start, but by God’s grace you will grow into His purposes, as they did.

Mary Magdalene was “rubbish”: a woman, and one possessed by demons until Jesus freed her (Luke 8:2)! Yet she is remarkably honoured:

  •  she is mentioned as one of the group of women who followed Jesus. Indeed, it may be significant that she is usually mentioned first.
  • she is granted the first appearance of the Resurrected Jesus (John 20), and is the “apostle to the apostles”{a medieval term from several theologians}, sent to tell them the good news
  • she has a clear place in the gospel story – not bad for a nobody (and good reason for us to revise our ideas of who “matters”!)

But be careful not to get her story wrong. Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code took ideas from the Gnostics, (and their late and untrustworthy writings, the “Gospels” of Thomas and of Mary) that she was Jesus’ lover or wife, mother of his child/children, teacher of the apostles. Wishful thinking? Inability to believe that a close relationship could not be pure? Ben Witherington notes there is NO early historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than disciple to Master/teacher.

But let’s go back to what we know with confidence, and ask “Why, or in what way, is her life an example for us?”

  • Firstly, she accepts what God does for her. Healing, change, becoming part of a new group (and no doubt adapting to it).
  • Secondly, she re-makes her life around God’s purposes. We can only speculate about her life before: did she have family (or had they given up?) Certainly she recognises the source of her healing, and she follows. A very important part of Christian life is finding where God wants to put us, and being content to work at fitting there.
  • Thirdly and very importantly, she invites us to look again at the way Jesus relates to people. He has funny ideas about who is important. He avoids making people dependant, yet is of first importance – to beggar, scholar, and fisherman.

Saints are useful to make us think of what God does, and wants to do, with his people. We need to be careful not to read into their stories what we want to find, but there is plenty here to instruct and challenge us.