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.

Text Study for Mark 12:28-36 (Pt. 3); October 31, 2021

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

How is the foremost commandment – to love God with one’s whole self – connected to the second-most commandment – to love one’s neighbor as oneself? In his book, Two Kinds of Love, Tuomo Mannermaa puts it this way.

“God’s Love helps human beings, first of all, to love God as God and not only the goodness received from God, and, second, to love other human beings for themselves and as persons, instead of loving only their precious qualities and for what could be gained from them for the benefit of the one who loves” (Kindle Locations 201-203).

Mannermaa suggests, in other words, that human love is connected to and even mirrors God’s love when we love “for nothing.” That is, God loves not for what God can gain but rather for what God can give. When human love functions in the same way, it is a product of God’s love.

Photo by Daria Liudnaya on Pexels.com

Mannermaa roots this discussion in the final thesis Martin Luther proposed for debate as part of the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation. That thesis reads, “God’s Love does not find, but creates, that which is lovable…to it. Human Love comes into being through that which is lovable to it ” (Kindle Location 133). God’s love is given to something or someone which can produce nothing in return or is, in fact, nothing in itself.

Human love, apart from God’s love, is always focused on that which can and does produce something in return. Human love on its own, at its best, is seeking the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. In simpler terms, human love on its own gives in order to get. Mannermaa argues that “human beings always seek their own, that is, their own good, in the objects of their love” (Kindle Locations 145-146).

Mannermaa is not being overly cynical about the nature of human love. Nor is he judging any particular instances of human loving. Instead, he is describing the nature of love possible for a creature on its own. This is how we are able to love apart from God’s love in us. It’s not bad in and of itself. It’s just not all there is. And it’s not the full love for which we were created.

This notion of loving “for nothing” or “for something” fits in with one of the overall directions of the Markan composition. Think back to the two times that Jesus puts a child in the midst of the disciples. Jesus tells us that unless we receive the Kin(g)dom of God like a child, we will not be able to enter into it. Remember that this is not about childlike innocence or any other romantic notion. This is about welcoming God among us “for nothing.”

We are called to welcome God among us “for nothing” because that is how God welcomes us. This is the Good News that Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts in his mission, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Remember that Jesus comes as the Son of Man, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life. God does not come in Jesus to get. God comes in Jesus to give.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not,’” Mannermaa writes. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object” (Kindle Locations 149-150). What God’s Love pours out is the presence of Christ in the hearts of those who trust in Christ, as we saw in the previous post.

Paul follows up his assertion in Romans 5:5 with a description of our condition when that “pouring in” takes place. Here we are – weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies of God – and Christ dies for the love of us. That love creates something where there was nothing. That’s what it means to be in bondage to sin – to be reduced to the nothingness of death. But that’s where God does God’s best work.

It’s for that reason, backing up a bit further in Romans, that Paul uses Abraham and Sarah as an illustration. Abraham was, Paul says, as good as dead. Sarah was barren –her womb was empty. Out of that nothingness, God creates new life. Out of that death, God brings resurrection. Trust in Jesus is trust in precisely that God, who handed him over to death for our trespasses and raised him for our justification.

“God’s creating love is especially manifest,” Mannermaa argues, “when God-and and those human beings in whom God’s Love dwells-loves the sinners who are wicked, foolish, and weak, in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong” (Kindle Locations 154-155). Mannermaa reminds us of a great Luther quote at this point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

Thus, God loves us “for nothing.” That’s the nature and definition of God’s grace. “Because God’s Love does not find but creates that which is lovable to it, it is not determined by the attributes of its object,” Mannermaa notes. “It does not choose its object on the basis of these attributes, nor does it depend on human opinions, according to which the object of love always should be something” (Kindle Locations 157-158).

God loves us “for nothing,” and creates in us the capacity to love God “for nothing” in return. That’s a sort of operational definition of faith. We Christians would say that this capacity comes to us as Christ lives in us and through us. When our love for the neighbor is “for nothing,” that is, for the sake of the neighbor rather than for our own benefit or advantage, then our neighbor love is a reflection of and response to our love for God.

Mannermaa notes that Lutheran theology, and especially analyses of Luther’s theology, tend to downplay, or even ignore Luther’s thinking on God’s love and human love. But this thinking is critical to understanding Luther’s work and the Markan composition at this point. It’s not that we can use human love to help us understand God’s love. It is, rather, that God’s love is the standard by which all human love should be judged.

“God loves human beings by giving them Godself fully, that is, by giving them God’s full ‘nature’ with all of God’s characteristics.…” (Kindle Location 398-399). This is the “joyous exchange” I mentioned in the previous post. God’s love is always more than a feeling. It is the gift of God’s very self, given to us in the living and transforming presence of Christ within us.

“Faith receives the good deed of Christ,” Mannermaa continues. Notice that we are back to what it means to receive or welcome the Kingdom of God. Faith receives God’s love in Christ poured into our hearts by the Spirit. And we receive that love, trusting that we are loved “for nothing” and not “for something.”

I know far too many people who are certain that they can only be loved “for something.” They are convinced that they have to produce, to provide, to be used and exploited in order to receive anything that looks or feels like “love.” Most of us live this way most of the time. My chaplaincy supervisor said that most of us believe that “bad breath is better than no breath at all.” We settle for being loved “for something” rather than risk not being loved at all.

The joy of the Gospel is the realization that God loves me “for nothing,” that is, for me just as I am – not for what I can produce or provide, not for my perfection or pretense. I only get brief glimpses of that Good News in my heart now and then. But when I do, it is, to quote Luther, as if the gates of Paradise have opened wide.

The second-most commandment, then, comes out of the foremost – but applied to our neighbor. “This means, to do for their neighbors as Christ has done first for them,” Mannermaa argues, “to give the good gifts they have received to their neighbors in need, and to relate to the neighbors’ sins, weaknesses, and needs as if these were their own. In this way,” he concludes, “Christ, Christians, and their neighbors form one body in God and God’s love” (Kindle Locations 400-402).

Reflect on those moments in relationships when you have felt most loved. I suspect those are moments when you experienced love that was for you as you were, not as you were expected to be. When we have someone in our lives who loves us that way, it is the greatest of all gifts. That’s the sort of love that changes people, makes people better, makes people closer to what God has created us to be. That sort of love is a means of God’s love for us.

Is it any wonder that when the scribe affirms Jesus’ words here, Jesus says that he is “not far” from the Kin(g)dom of God? The scribe doesn’t stick around, however, for the way this works out in reality. After all, self-giving love – loving “for nothing” – is always suffering love. This love is always on the way to the cross and resurrection.

“Because of the nature of God’s love,” Mannermaa writes, “all God’s action in the world has the form and shape of the cross” (Kindle Location 489). Therefore, if our love is to be “like” that love, our action in the world will also have the form and shape of the cross. Again we come to Luther’s formulation of the Golden Rule – “Do to your neighbor what Christ has done to you.”

“These are the true Christian works,” Luther says in a sermon, “that the Christian falls and plunges into the mud where the sinner is, and is immersed in it as deeply as the sinner is; and that the Christian takes the sinner’s sins upon oneself, and rises up again with the sinner, acting as if those sins were one’s own.”

That’s what Love’s got to do with it.

References and Resources

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

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.

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.