Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 5); October 31, 2021

Perfumatory Farts

“How radically must we rework our own self-image,” Antony Campbell asks, “if we accept ourselves as lovable—as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?” (page 4). I find this to be the biggest personal challenge in our text. I know that both in the setting in Leviticus and here in the Markan composition, the call is to love my neighbor as I love myself. But, if that’s the standard, then my neighbor is in deep trouble.

Campbell’s question invites me – urges me – to consider the “second” commandment in a different light. He amplifies Luther’s Golden rule, that I am invited to love my neighbor as Christ loves me. The “second” commandment gets to the heart of the matter for me if I read it like this: “love your neighbor as you yourself are loved.”

That seems like a better deal for the neighbor. And it forces me to grapple with, and accept, how I am loved. And if I accept the reality of that love for me, then Campbell’s question takes on its full reality. If I can accept that reality, then I will be changed. I will be changed because, on my own, I will never see myself as loved unconditionally or unconditionally lovable.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

If I can’t even accept that for myself, how can I ever share such love with my neighbor?

I stumbled on to Brennan Manning’s work quite by accident in a secondhand bookstore. Thank you, Loving God, for such happy accidents! I would recommend Manning’s book, The Furious Longing of God, as a resource for our reflection together. I won’t rehearse Manning’s journey here (I think I’ve done that before). But I will share some of his insights alongside those of Campbell and others.

“I believe that Christianity happens,” Manning declares, “when men and women experience the reckless, raging confidence that comes from knowing the God of Jesus Christ” (page 23). As we work our way through the final scenes of the Markan composition, I think this is part of the subtext.

The heroes in the story are not those who hedge their bets and strengthen their sense of security. The heroes are those who toss it all away – like Bartimaeus’ cloak and the widow’s offering (spoiler alert for next week) – and follow Jesus to and through the cross. “Does our basic attitude,” Antony Bloom asks (oh, he of the excellent questions!), “emphasize appropriate behavior as a condition for being loved by God or as a consequence of being loved by God?” (page 5).

I know that my default response to that question is to choose the former description rather than the latter. I know, “Welcome to the human race.” We are all in the same boat. And yet, we each occupy our own seat in that boat.

For me it was a family that assumed production and performance as the price of something approximating love. That was not a conscious decision or an intentional strategy. It was both an inherited system and a response to the trauma of the generations before me. My mother – poor dear that she was – suffered abandonment and abuse as a child. And it marked her for life.

Thus, she passed on the certainty that no one could love her – no one could even want her – unless she was doing something of value for the other. Even then, that “love” could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice and often was. Every relationship was, for her, an unspeakable risk. With the exception of my father, she saw every relationship as an attempt to take from her without giving in return. So, the doors remain closed for the most part.

In fairness, that was the family in which I came to life and age. I know it was different for my siblings in some ways. And I’m grateful that it was so for them. But I live – conscious as I am of my tendencies – with the unthinking, knee-jerk, default assumption that what I am and what I do is not up to standards. Thus, I must masquerade as “perfect” in order to fool at least some of the people some of the time and secure brief moments of what passes for “love.”

My CPE supervisor made a repeated observation during my initial interview with him. “You know,” he said with half a smile, “you think your farts smell like Chanel Number 5.” I was unable to respond to that provocation. That’s what it was, after all, not a rude criticism. He was trying to provoke me into deeper self-reflection on my perfectionism.

It didn’t work – not at that moment, and not during the three months we spent together in that basic quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education. But I see in retrospect that my supervisor was also playing the long game.

Obviously, his words continue to have impact on me and my perspectives. I knew then and I know now that I don’t think for a minute that my flatulence is pleasantly fragrant. But I wanted everyone else to think that was the case, to be taken in by my performance. I was a failure in projecting my false self to anyone but myself. Of course, for most of my years, that was success enough.

“The men and women who are truly filled with light,” Manning writes, “are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfect existence” (page 32). Manning was far more courageous in pursuing that gaze than I am. But I know he’s right. Perhaps that’s another lesson from the little people in the Markan composition. The ones who come to life-changing trust in God are those who have less crap to dig through and discard.

How can I love my neighbor as I have been loved if I don’t trust in that sort of love? That’s what I’m wondering with you in this post. Manning recounts the morning he woke up to the graphic realization that he was “filth” (read one of his books).

It was in the midst of that realization that he began to know God’s love for him “for nothing.” He writes that this Divine love “is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods – of elation or depression. The furious love of God,” Manning declares, “knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender” (page 35).

Martin Luther’s theology is typically described with the polarity of faith versus works. But Luther’s description of his personal epiphany is not framed with those notions. Instead, Luther describes his relationship with God in terms of love versus hate. That means something.

If God demands perfect righteousness as a condition for Divine Love, then, Luther thought, we are all lost. He came to his monastic practice and his theological studies with the accepted notion of the “righteousness of God.” This term meant a certain of moral and ethical purity that would qualify one for a relationship with God.

Since no human being could achieve that standard, the medieval penitential system was created to remedy the deficiency. Humans could call upon the surplus in the treasury of merits accumulated Christ and the saints to make up the indebtedness of your run-of-the-mill sinner. With the right rituals and responses, the books could be balanced, and life could go on.

For Luther, this system was not adequate. He was, in his own estimation, an impeccable monk. He engaged in hours and hours of confession and heroic efforts at making satisfaction for his sins. He was so resolute and thorough in his efforts that he wore out his confessor, Father Staupitz. The good father is reputed to have complained to Luther, “Martin, either accept the absolution or get some new sins!”

New sins wouldn’t do it for Luther. He had to get “a new God.” Not that Luther created a new divinity for our worship. Instead, he returned to the God and Father of Jesus Christ – the God who loves nothing into something, who loves for nothing in order to give the beloved everything.

I noted in a previous post that God loves us “for nothing.” This Divine Love creates in us the capacity to love God “for nothing” in return. That’s a sort of operational definition of faith. But that means that I am challenged to accept that “for nothing” love. It is so radical, so unfamiliar, so unmanageable, that it is (for me) a lifetime of growing in order to catch even brief glimpses of that unmerited Love and Favor that we Lutherans often call grace.

If the call of that “second” commandment is to love my neighbor as I am being loved by God – without condition or cost – then I cannot do that on my own. I can do this only if God loves through me. “With the grace of recognition comes the awesome and alarming awareness,” Brennan Manning writes, “that Jesus, the incarnation of the furious longing of God, wants more than a close relationship with you and me; He seeks nothing less than union” (page 68).

That’s what Love does. Love seeks union with the beloved.

This is why I find the work of Tuomo Mannermaa in Two Kinds of Love so compelling. For years I struggled to work to accept the declared justification I have through faith in Jesus Christ. But, as Luther would note, that’s just another “work of the law.” In fact, I am invited to welcome the person of Jesus into my being as well as to accept his work of setting me and the whole Creation right.

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes to the Galatian Christians. That’s what makes it possible for me to love my neighbor as I am loved by God in Christ. “The revolutionary thinking that God loves me as I am and not as I should be,” Manning notes, “requires radical rethinking and profound emotional readjustment.” Sounds like conversion to me – or daily dying and rising with Christ.

At least I don’t worry so much about the perfumatory and performatory qualities of my farts. Well, that’s a start anyway.

References and Resources

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Aceepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017773.

Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1051616.

HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723803.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brenna. The Furious Longing of God. Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2009.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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