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Jesus said to the Scribe, perhaps with some wondering amazement, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Golly, what brought that on? I mean, never once did Jesus ever say anything nice about the Scribes. He said plenty of other things, but never anything like that; mostly just the opposite.
In the week we have come to call holy, St. Mark portrays Jesus in a number of confrontations with the Pharisees, with the Sadducees, with the Herodians (collaborators with Herod, the Roman puppet king), with the chief priests and the money changers, and with the “teachers of the law,” the Scribes.
There were a whole series of encounters in the Temple that week. Jesus would leave Bethany in the morning, two miles off, and enter the Temple precincts to teach and then return each evening to Bethany. He was safer in Bethany. The one night he stayed in Jerusalem was the night he was betrayed.
One of the encounters was with the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection.” They come with the puzzle of that poor, hypothetical woman who married seven brothers in succession only to watch each in turn die. In Levitical marriage the brother’s widow passes from brother to brother all the way down to the youngest, lucky number seven. (Me, I’d hesitate being that brother but, never mind, the question is only hypothetical.)
They ask Jesus, “At the resurrection” (they are snickering their question) “whose wife will she be?”
Have you ever thought of Jesus becoming snappish, put out, finally fed up? Here’s the place. Jesus tells them there is no marriage in heaven and, besides, sharply said I think, they don’t know Scripture and they don’t know God’s power. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You,” he concludes, “are badly mistaken.” So there; want me to say it again?
Cue our Scribe. “One of the teachers of the law,” a Scribe (originally called sopherim, literally “people who can write”), got interested in the debate between Jesus and the Sadducees. He was eavesdropping, which means the exchange with the Sadducees was loud enough for him to hear it.
This Scribe compliments Jesus on shutting them down, hearing “how well [Jesus] had answered them.”
That should be no surprise. The sopherim were better aligned with the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection, than with Sadducees who did not.
The Scribes were influential because they were educated in the very thing that identified Israel as Israel: the Law and that one God of theirs. The Law with its blessings and demands; the Law in the way it made and defined Israel; the Law that sheltered the Jews even in exile. There was nothing like the Jewish Law in the ancient world, and there were no people like the Jews with their Law. God gave them his Law and set them aside as a “light to the nations.”
So next, like a debate coach announcing the proposition, our Scribe asks, “Which is first of all commandments?”
Pick just one commandment and you may have an interesting discussion. Well, sure that one, but what about this other one, and if not that one, how about this third possibility, and on – a refined conversation fit for contending scholars enjoying a glass of wine.
But the Law finally is practical and directive. It may be intellectually diverting but it is always pointed, and the direction it points is to the one God and one’s neighbors.
“Love the one God of Israel,” Jesus replied, “and from that love, love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
And the Scribe doesn’t quibble. Instead he offers a stunning conclusion:
To love God as the one God and to love the neighbor God has given “is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices combined.”
Did he know what he was saying? This Scribe – described by Jesus himself as not far from the kingdom of God – just overturned the entire Temple sacrificial system: The slaughtered animals and gush of blood all mixed with the noise of their bleating, dying cries, amid the smoke of burning flesh clouding above the altars and filling the precincts with the ugly slaughterhouse smell of flesh and excrement … all that done daily, hourly, for sins and thanksgivings and purifications, repeatedly, tirelessly enacted, and never finished.
Did he shock himself, our Scribe? There’s the logic here of a seasoned scholar reaching the sharpened point of an inescapable conclusion. If he didn’t surprise himself, I bet for sure Jesus raised an astonished eyebrow.
This is the shadow of the cross falling over Jesus. If the Scribe was right and all the burnt offerings and sacrifices combined cannot match the simple commandment to love God and neighbor, there is still the question of atonement. Something – someone – will be summoned to atone for our sin-soaked world and account for it, once for all.
What is “atonement?” Who does it? And what does it mean for me?
The Scribe may have come to it later, figuring it out upon hearing drifting reports of crucifixion and resurrection. He was, after all, not far from the Kingdom of God.
“When Christ came as high priest,” so it is written in Hebrews, “he did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves, but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood.”
What is Jesus doing in the tabernacle? The Bible’s answer