Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 2); October 31, 2021

Commanded to Love

What does it mean to say that we as Jesus followers are “commanded” to love God and neighbor? How can Jesus (or God or Scripture) “command” an emotion? I have heard that question many times over the years of my parish ministry. Framed this way, Jesus’ words seem to be nonsense to twenty-first century ears and minds.

How can loving be a commandment? It’s a post-Kantian, Romantic question – at least in terms of the history of Western ideas. Immanuel Kant taught us that morality is about the rules that we would be willing to universalize. While Kant’s rule-based understanding of ethics is not the only option, it is a highly influential one.

Combine that with the Romantic (as in the philosophical and literary school of thought called Romanticism) notion that emotions are the essential marks of our humanity and that love is the primary human emotion, and we have a problem.

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Of course, Jesus is not a Kantian moral philosopher. Nor is Jesus a Romantic poet. Our protests about rules and emotions are anachronistic at best. That means that we need to hear Jesus’ words in the Markan composition within something approaching an “original” framework if we want to make any sense of them at all.

Let’s think about the “commandments.” It’s not really helpful to understand the commandments are rules for living. It is more helpful to understand them as practices or disciplines or patterns of character-forming behaviors.

In modern Jewish usage, the word for commandment (“mitzvah”) often refers to a good deed or set of good deeds. That usage goes back to quite ancient documents, including the Jerusalem Talmud, which takes us back to within a century or so of the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tzvi Freeman notes that the word may be related to an Aramaic verb meaning “to attach” or “to join.” The Aramaic word can mean companionship or personal attachment, Freeman observes. Thus, a mitzvah is not about a rule but rather about a relationship. “In this sense,” Freeman continues, “a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.”

Given this framework, Jesus’ reply to the scribe makes good sense. The foremost commandment (mitzvah) is about our relationship with God the Creator. The second most salient commandment is about our relationship with our neighbor. It is “like” the foremost commandment because both are about the relationships which define us as human beings.

I find the description of commandments as character-forming patterns of behavior to be the most helpful understanding of the term. When I think, for example, of the Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), I don’t think of these statements as ways in which God legislates the fun out of life. Instead, God gives commandments because they are good for us. I find it to be a rule of thumb in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that God wants from us what is good for us.

Keeping the commandments is a way to practice the habits that form our character in a particular way. I would argue that God’s commandments are intended to form us into the fully authentic and joyful human beings God created us to be from the beginning. Freeman quotes a commentary on the commandments from a thirteenth-century Jewish author in Spain. “A person’s attitudes,” the commentator wrote, “are molded by his behavior.”

If a preacher were to use our text on Reformation Sunday (as I am proposing), then some time meditating and reflecting on the nature of God’s law would be in order. Martin Luther is often caricatured as saying that the Law is uniformly bad and is the “opposite” of the Gospel. That cannot be right, of course. After all, Luther spends the majority of both his Small and Large Catechisms expounding the Ten Commandments. If the Law were bad, why waste all that ink on it?

Luther reminded the Western Church that the Law is the result of our relationship with God, not the road to that relationship. As he reads the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms, for example, he sees the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 as the “Introduction” to the Commandments. “I am the Lord your God,” we read in that verse, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It is only in light of that gracious act that the following commandments make any sense at all.

Therefore, Luther argues, it is faith that fulfills the commandments. By that he means that it is trust in that gracious relationship which God initiates which is the keeping of the Law. But even this trust in the relationship is not a “work,” something that we humans – in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves – can produce on our own.

Faith itself, the capacity to respond to God’s gracious gift, is also God’s gracious gift. “Thus, God’s promises give what the law demands,” Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian¸ “so that everything may belong to God alone, both the commands and their fulfillment” (page 496). Jesus roots the covenant connection with God in relationship, not rules. The scribe agrees with that assessment and is, therefore, “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

This faith relationship, according to Luther, is far more than a pleasant connection. He describes three “powers” of that faith in The Freedom of the Christian. First, the gift of faith forms us for our loving union with God. Second, the gift of faith equips us to treat God as God – as Jesus would put it, loving God with the wholeness of heart, soul, mind, and strength. Third, the gift of faith unites us with Christ (see pages 496ff.).

To illustrate this third power of faith, Luther uses the metaphor union between the “bride” (my “soul”) and the Bridegroom, Christ. The working of this union is what Luther describes in many places as the “Joyous Exchange.” He puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian: “Accordingly, the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).

Our trusting relationship with God is not something already within us that Jesus uses to build us up into perfection. In the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, faith is the presence of Christ in us. “Christ gives his person to us through faith, Mannermaa writes. “’Faith’ means participation in Christ, in whom there is no sin, death, or curse” (Kindle Locations 321-322). To put it more simply, Mannermaa notes, “Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Location 319).

Faith – the presence of and participation in the person of Christ – forms us for works of love. And works of love then further form us for faith. Have you ever noticed that the real “virtues” are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating? By that I mean that the best way to be more trusting is to practice trusting. The best way to have more hope is to practice hoping. The best way to be more loving it to practice loving. The practices themselves form us more fully into the Christ within us.

This sounds a great deal like the understanding of commandments with which I began this post. A person’s attitudes are molded by their behavior. And a person’s behavior molds their attitudes as well. While the Law cannot bring us into relationship with God in Christ, Luther asserts, it can help us to grow deeper in that relationship. The Law can guide us to discipline ourselves for living. And it can guide us into fruitful ways to love our neighbor.

Jesus notes that the “second” commandment is somehow connected to the foremost. We can and likely will examine that idea in more detail downstream. But for now, let’s think about it in terms of a kind of descent. The ancient principle is that “like begets like.” The second commandment is the “offspring” of the foremost. Love for neighbor as oneself is the natural progeny of the trust in God that produces love for God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 5:1 (NRSV). He concludes that sentence at the end of verse five by noting that we have this peace with God “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It won’t be a Reformation Day observance without some heavy-duty Paul-quoting, eh?

“God’s love” is a plenary genitive in this passage. It is both God’s love for us and our love for God. Not only has that love been poured into us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is poured through us onto our neighbor. The second commandment is the offspring of the foremost commandment and is the expression of the presence of Christ in us – the clearest expression of our faith in Christ.

I’m not arguing that Jesus was a Lutheran and didn’t know it. I do hope, however, that Lutherans have a faithful way of talking about Jesus. That’s what theology is good for, after all – to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in ways that can make sense to people. Our love for neighbor is the result of our relationship with God in Christ.

Luther puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524, my emphasis).

In this time when the assertion of individual “rights” at the expense of the neighbor, the community, and Creation, has been raised to the level of an ultimate concern, a review of the Lutheran basis for love of neighbor might be a helpful thing. It should be clear that putting individual preference ahead of the needs of the neighbor cannot qualify as love for neighbor (or self, for that matter) according to Lutheran theological categories.

Luther’s “Golden Rule” is not “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Instead, Luther’s Golden Rule goes like this. In faith (that is, the presence of Christ in us) “in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us” (page 525, my emphasis).

That’s the real application of the “second” commandment in the life of the Jesus follower: do for your neighbor as Christ does for you.

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.

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 John 15:1-17 (Pt. 4); 6 Easter B 2021

I know people struggle with the idea that love can be commanded by anyone, even Jesus. He is not demanding the presence here of an emotion. That’s a modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic way of reading the text. Instead, Jesus is instructing his disciples in a set of practices. They are, after all, “learners” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for “disciples”). We teach children how to love and to be loved – sometimes in words but mostly through example.

“Love” is not a feeling. It is an action. Or more properly, it is an ongoing set of actions. Therefore, “love one another” is a commandment. This commandment is found in verses 12 through 17. Therefore, these verses indicate a unit marked by an inclusion. This paragraph (12-17) is at the center, textually and thematically, of the Farewell Discourse in John. The inclusion begins and ends with the “love one another” commandment.

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We must be careful how we interpret the word “commandment.” We would tend to hear that word as a law, a requirement, or a command. However, the Hebrew behind that word has much more the sense of a teaching that is put into practice. It’s probably worth some time to explore that Hebrew term, mitzvah.

The Hebrew noun is really a participial form of the verb zwh, which means to “order, direct, appoint, or command.” We Christians might think first and foremost of the “Ten Commandments” in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Of course, in Exodus 20, there are more than ten “commandments,” and they are not called “commandments” at all, but rather “words.” Likewise, in Deuteronomy 5, there are more ordinances than ten, and once again they are not called commandments.

But I quibble a bit. The plural of the word does appear in Exodus 20:6. Following the prohibition of idol worship, the Lord promises multi-generational punishment for those who bow down and worship idols. The Lord also promises “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (the promise is paralleled in Deuteronomy 5:10). It’s worth observing that “love” and “commandment” show up in the same verse already at this point.

The noun in Hebrew can and does indeed mean “command,” or “commandment.” The word appears over 180 times in the Hebrew scriptures in a variety of contexts. In traditional Jewish usage, the word can refer to a commandment in the Scriptures. It can refer to a religious duty or obligation. It can also refer to the deed or deeds necessary to carry out that obligation. Thus, it often refers to the actions, especially of kindness, compassion, or love that result in carrying out a religious duty or obligation.

We children of Luther have a deep and wide bias against “commandments” (even though they make up more than half the volume of our catechisms). We are sure that the commandments are “Law,” and that the Law is bad since it leads to works righteousness. We know we are not saved by works but rather by faith.

So, any discussion of commandments seems contrary to the Good News of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This line of thinking is not particularly Lutheran (as in being rooted in the specifics of Luther’s theology or Paul’s theology, for that matter), but it is certainly a baseline in popular Protestantism.

This bias causes us to be very confused about a passage which makes loving a commandment. I think the word “instruction” would be a much superior translation here in the place of “commandment.” But I think that “obedient practice” is perhaps the best translation of all. The description in Deuteronomy 30:16 (NRSV) captures this sense of the word:

“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

Jesus engages in the obedient practice of laying down his life and taking it up again (see John 10:18). He has received the commission to carry out this practice from his Father. Jesus offers a description of this obedient practice as the conclusion to the Book of Signs (see John 12:49-50).

The Father has given Jesus the words to speak. What Jesus speaks is “eternal life.” The “commandment” is linked here in the Farewell Discourse to the “example” (or, as I prefer to translate, the “template”) that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Footwashing in chapter 13. (See Moloney, pages 114-115).

Jesus’ obedient practice requires that he will go away into the glorification by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension which has been the goal of his mission from the beginning. As he prepares to depart in chapter 13, he gives his disciples “a new obedient practice” – that they should love one another. This practice imitates the love Jesus has embodied with and to them. When others see this practice, they will know that the disciples belong to Jesus.

Schrenk does a good job of connecting the scriptural dots for us. “The new factor is not the law of love as such, nor a new degree of love,” he writes, “but its new Christological foundation. They are to love one another as those who are loved by Jesus. They are to actualize the basic love of Jesus. Thus,” he concludes, “the loving self-giving of Jesus is the root and power of the new” love (page 553).

Jesus promises that the disciples (then and now) are not on their own in living out this obedient practice. Instead, we receive another Encourager, “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-16). Even though the lectionary committee splits this section of John’s gospel (John 15:1-17) over two Sundays, the passage from John 15:1 through verse 17 is of a piece. “The vine can only be understood in light of its definition as an abiding in love, and the fruitfulness of this love,” Meda Stamper writes, “as described in John 15:16 only makes sense in light of the vine.” The point is that we remain connected to the Vine by the Encourager.

This verse is, among other things, the conclusion to the conversation that began in John 3. God loves the world in a particular way. God sends the Son into the world to die so that the cosmos might have abundant life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus expands on and illustrates that love over and over. It is, for example, the identifying mark of the Good Shepherd that the Good Shepherd lays down the Shepherd’s life for the sheep.

Love, as described in John 15 is, therefore, a set of obedient and intentional practices that flow from our connection to the Vine and make that connection more intimate as we continue our obedient and intentional practices. Loving does not graft us into the Valid Vine. Rather, loving is the clearest sign that we are branches of that Vine and the surest expression of the life we share with that Vine and with the other branches. We did not choose Jesus, after all.

What can it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s “friends?” Clearly, the “friends” Jesus means here are other disciples. That is perhaps too narrow a framework for understanding the whole of New Testament theology, but if we simply started by loving other Christians as an obedient, intentional, and concrete practice, our world might change a great deal.

For example, it is indisputable that some of my Christian co-religionists are Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and of other ethnic heritages. They are, in terms of John 15, my “friends.” Will we white Christians be willing to give up our power and privilege, our wealth and property (or even some of it), that is, our “lives,” in order to fight the racism that infects our churches and our lives?

Here is a website that lists a number of actions that white people can take to fight racism – “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” (it used to be 75 things, but hey, we’re trainable, right?). If you can’t bring yourself to grapple with the systemic racism that exists in our country (and it does, not matter what some public figures would have us believe), then at least consider taking one or more of these actions because millions of your “friends” will benefit.

Working for justice always has a cost for those of us who are privileged, positioned, propertied and powerful. That’s the deal, so, white friends, let’s deal. I don’t believe the folks who think they can make real justice painless for the privileged. Loving our friends will cost us something that we experience as “life.” Otherwise, it’s probably not love.

At our house, for example, we support through weekly donations a black congregation in our community. I don’t think we’ll ever attend there or be involved in any significant way. That’s for the best. We don’t attach any strings or conditions to the gift. We don’t assume we know anything about how that money should be used. In fact, it’s not a gift at all. It’s repayment on a debt long overdue.

I think every white Christian church should dedicate ten percent of its revenue right off the top for repayment to a congregation or organization rooted in a different heritage and history. If there’s some sort of partnership or relationship that develops, well and good. But connection with and listening to white people should not be a condition for us making the reparations we need to make in order to begin to approach justice.

Perhaps that would be one small step in our obedient practice of loving our friends. If we could make progress on that practice, we might be better positioned to love others as well.

References and Resources.

deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.

Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15,  Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.

Moloney, Francis.  https://repository.divinity.edu.au/2586/1/Moloney_LoveGospelJohn.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-3.

Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.

Knowing Love

Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.

Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.

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Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”

This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.

Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.

In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.

At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.

N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.

Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.

Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.

Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.

Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”

That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”

Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!