The Bible Boiled Down
March 11, 2024

The Bible Boiled Down


Text: Mark 12:28-44

Let me tell you about one of the many hobbies my dad practices. My dad makes maple syrup. You might thing, of course, Canadians are synonymous with maple syrup, but let me tell you It’s not exactly a common practice in the prairies of Saskatchewan, where, unlike in Eastern Canada, the maples are more spindly and fewer and much farther between. Saskatchewan is known for rolling wheat fields (and canola and soy and lentils and barley and all the grains). 

To make maple syrup in Saskatchewan - which will be starting up soon, when the temperatures are freezing in the night and warm during the day - the Maple trees (ironically mostly they are Manitoba maples) are tapped and the running sap is collected. Then my dad collects the gallons and gallons of sap and it goes into a pot on the grill on my parents deck and in boils. It boils for hours and hours. After many hours of boils and many gallons of sap, and all the water has evaporated, you come out with a few small jars of syrup.

Oh, but that syrup is precious and delicious and no drop is wasted. I do not share this syrup with my children.

Why am I waxing eloquent about syrup. Well, last week in Sunday school as we were reflecting on the exchange between Jesus and the scribe who asks him about the greatest commandment, someone said that Jesus boils it all down. Asked about a massive and detailed collection of tradition and practice and writings, he boils off all the extra and says, 

“Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

He cheats a little and cites two commandments, but to Jesus these two are so intermingled as to be impossible to pull apart. There is no love of God without love of neighbor and loving neighbor is an expression of loving God. 

Simple! All the extra stuff that’s diluting the law of love. All the legalisms and statutes that prevent us from tasting that true, sweet, pure “Love God, Love Neighbor,” Jesus boils it away. When you make syrup, it turns out it takes a lot of time and energy to get to that point something that’s useable as syrup. And it lot of energy and care and wisdom to discern what it means to live a life of love.

Jesus has spent some - a lot - of his energy in confrontations with the scholars and scribes just like the one he’s engaged with here. In fact this is a kind of culmination of a series of sparring conversations he’s had with various authority figures. We’ve address several of those over the last few weeks. It feels like relief to get to this place and see Jesus in relatively positive interaction. 

I think about those confrontations and challenges that Jesus is having with people in power as I think about confronting and challenging my own leaders and representatives of power. Because it does take so much energy. I guess some people are made for that kind of work and I have so much respect for that. But I wrote a question to my congressional rep Adam Smith this week, anticipating the possibility of attending his upcoming Town Hall and thinking of how to word it and wondering how it would be received and imagining actually speaking a question in public. The emotional and mental energy that takes is a lot!

My question, by the way, somewhat prompted by Mennonite Action but also by my own incredulity was and is this: 

I appreciate your support for increased aid to the citizens of Gaza and your visit there shows empathy to Gazan people. Yet you continue to support Israeli violence against Gaza and American dollars (my dollars!) toward this effort. You said in your most recent statement on Gaza that "The war and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza have created an escalating regional conflict that threatens Israel’s long-term security." Indeed there is no military solution that will make Israel safer. What will it take for you to call on our government to cease military aid and pressure Israel to end its assault?

I am trying to point out the immense hypocrisy that I see in our democratic leaders who want to deliver aid by air and by sea - President Biden’s rhetoric in the State of the Union was fiery! - but then will continue to arm Israel and send money for weapons. They’ll call for ceasefire (sort of ) but will not cease military support.

Jesus is also pointing out the hypocrisy of the temple. He’s just had this friendly and positive contact with a temple scribe and immediately warns his disciples - watch out for those scribes. They like to call attention to their giving, to their piety and holiness. They like to show off their knowledge, but they are taking advantage of those are barely able to care for themselves. 

Jesus knows - and so do the scribes, as this legal expert has just demonstrated - that the Torah is clear: to love God is to love your neighbor. And to love your neighbor means to care for them, to not extort them of their last few pennies. Many people read this text as a commendation of the poor widow - and perhaps to some extent it may be. I think many of us have experienced the generosity and hospitality of those who have very little.

Amy Robertson, who is a Jewish teacher in the Atlanta area and one of the host of the Bibleworm podcast, which is invaluable to my study of these texts, shared a common practice that Jewish people even now as they pray. They might open any prayer with the following phrase,

"I take upon myself the commandment you shall love your neighbor as yourself and by this merit I open my mouth.”

In other words, I won’t even begin to speak my prayer of devotion to God, of praise or petition, without a commitment to loving my neighbor. The two are so entwined.

Faithful Jews then and now would know that prophets like Amos reflect God’s distaste for worship that is empty of loving action.  Amos 5:21-22 says,

“Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

This is after the prophet has cited God’s hatred of the religious festivals when the poor are being oppressed, the innocent being deprived of justice. 

It seems like those Jewish leaders should have known better. To say nothing of Jewish leaders of contemporary Israel who seem not to be heeding their own law to love their neighbors as themselves.

When you boil down the Bible, that’s what you get to: Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor with equal force of strength. Simple! Well, not so much. It’s a little like Saskatchewan maple syrup. Saskatchewan maple syrup, in my opinion, is more complex than your garden variety, off-the-shelf syrup. There’s a tang and wildness and layers not in other maple syrups. It’s delicious and it’s sweet but it’s complicated and takes a lot of energy.

Our challenge to keep up that energy to get to the sweet results. Confronting the ‘temple’ - which in our context and in some situations might be religious institutions - or it might be the cult of American exceptionalism and imperialism - this is what we’re called to. We’re called to keep calling it out and pointing out hypocrisy. I was so heartened and compelled by videos shared at the Mennonite Action Peace School this week. Like my experience in meeting with politicians here, many are very cordial - like Jesus’ exchange with the first scribe - agreeing to agree, being civil, exchanging ideas. But they didn’t hesitate to still say - but what you’re doing is wrong!

May we continue to resist and to name the ways our systems and leaders are unjust. And may we spend our energy together to boil the scripture down to it’s sweet essence of loving God and loving our neighbor.

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