St. Mark 12:28f
“He had answered them well”
The context is controversy. It almost always is when it is a matter of spiritual truth. Truth which unites is frequently what divides; a deeper unity may sometimes be only found through the divisions of our hearts, when our hearts are broken and opened to view. For then, and only then, perhaps, we discover what it is that we believe, what it is that we stand for, if anything at all. Sometimes it takes controversy. As the song which Mary Ann Dufour sang last night at the variety show puts it, “you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything”, and everything, we might add. There are “the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil”.
But what does it mean to stand for something? Is it simply a matter of assertion, an matter of self-definition which demands recognition upon no other basis than the subjective claim about our desires and interests? Are we in fact defined simply by our sexual and material desires? Is the truth just what we make it? Or do we stand for something objective and received, truth that defines us even in our untruth?
Sometimes we learn through controversy. Sometimes through controversy something of the truth of God is at once communicated and received. What is to be looked for is some deeper understanding of truth, “tam antiquo, tam novo”, “truth so ancient and so new”.
Jesus is engaged in religious disputation. “Which is the first commandment of all?”, he is asked by a member of the literary caste, the scribes, the writers of words which are like pictures into which we may step if we choose. We shall never be the same for truth always confronts and convicts us. This scribe, about whom Jesus will ultimately say, “thou art not far from the Kingdom of God” perceived that “[Jesus] had answered them well” and so is led to ask the overwhelming question, “which is the first commandment of all?” He is, we might say, compelled by the truth itself in the context of controversy and even intellectual animosity where power is more at issue than truth. But “Jesus had answered them well”.
And he continues to do so in his magisterial “Summary of the Law”. The greatest commandment is the love of God and the love of neighbour, “there is none other commandment greater than these”. Powerful stuff. Irrefutable stuff. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. And yet profoundly provocative and controversial. Why? Because of its clarity. This clarity about charity puts everything into perspective. It cuts through all the clutter and confusion of history and experience. It crystallizes the whole of the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. It is a kind of distillation of the teachings of the Old Testament, almost, we might say, a kind of Old Testament Creed, and certainly one which challenges many perspectives about that remarkable collection of books and stories and poems. Is it really all about love? How can law be love?
Because the Law is nothing more than the expression of God’s will and truth for our humanity and if it convicts us of our own shortcomings, as it most surely does, especially from a Christian understanding, then it does so only to recall us to truth. Such is repentance and prayer.
There are two forms of turning back to God, the one is in thanksgiving, the other is in repentance. Both are an acknowledgment of the truth of God which measures us and not the other way around. But that measure is, ultimately, one which redeems and sanctifies our loves and our experiences. How? By bringing them to the truth of God without which “all loving [is] mere folly”.
“The Summary of the Law”, as we have come to call it liturgically and theologically, is not a creed. It is not, as some have wanted to suggest, the Jewish Creed to be incorporated into the Christian liturgy as equivalent to the Catholic Creeds. The word ‘creed’ needs to be used most advisedly; it is really a Christian concept which should not be cavalierly read into other contexts and situations. What makes the word ‘creed’ something peculiarly Christian comes out in the rest of this gospel story.
Jesus, who had answered well and answered well again, also has responded to the scribe’s recognition of the truth of his words, saying that “thou art not far from the kingdom of God”. “After that”, we are told, “no one dared to ask him any questions”. But Jesus goes on to challenge certain ideas about the Messiah, saying in effect that the Messiah of Israel is more than just a son of David, that is to say of the royal Davidic lineage, and more than a political saviour, (like the sought-for leader of the Conservative Party!), because he has a more transcendent, indeed, eternal origin, namely, God; ultimately, as we say credally, He is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God”.
Jesus is the Messiah who is God with us, true God and true Man. In this lies the heart of the creeds. The focus is on the utter uniqueness of Christ as one with the Lord God of the Old Testament to whom David, Shepherd and King, Poet and Warrior, is also subject. “Jesus is Lord”, after all, is the earliest form of credal statement that we have in the New Testament; a statement which we can only say “by the Spirit”.
Here the Old Testament is summed up by Jesus and, even more, the commandment of twofold love is signaled as realized in Jesus himself. Something of the transcendent truth of God is being made known even in the midst of controversy and it is made known through scriptural interpretation; ultimately, through an interpretation which is, at least, proto-credal in shape and substance.
In this, perhaps, we begin to find a way to think through our present difficulties. We return to the Creeds and to the Scriptures credally understood, that is to say, understood through the primacy of the categories of creation, redemption and sanctification, and even more through the primacy of the love of God revealed as Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. In the primacy of these categories and in the embrace of the Trinity, we find the objective determinants of our humanity, and not otherwise. And in the creeds, too, we find the principle of approach to all questions of morality, namely, the doctrine of “the forgiveness of sins”.
There is no new truth that stands over and against the words of Jesus. There can be, at best, a deepening of the understanding about our humanity, though at the same time, it has to be said, that there can equally be a loss of understanding. With respect to the current controversy about human sexuality, there is no third sex - a homosex, as it were. What we confront in this debate is really a feature of consumer culture which demands that we be defined by our appetites and desires, by the ambiguity of our so-called orientations which have no objective basis either biologically or biblically, instead there are only the ambiguities of the subjective determinations of psychology and the politics of identity.
This gospel would have us defined by the redemption of our desires, calling us into the love of God and the love of one another in honesty and truth. Here we find the possibilities for the redemption of our friendships and our marriages, and not their confusion. We are, all of us, whether we choose to define ourselves as gay or straight, implicated in the sexual confusions of our age. We need the clarity of the gospel to discover again the charity of God without which we are nothing and nothing worth, especially in the folly of our self-assertions. There is one who has answered well.
“He had answered them well”
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne