Who’s On First

Early, in Meeting for Worship, the full script of the classic Abbott and Costello’s  “Who’s On First” was read.  The focus of worship, noted especially in the music used, was love.  The Story from Mark, while sharing that focus called us to acknowledging what is most important.  As the political contests come down to the wire and civility is at its lowest, this story, set amid contentious debates of Jesus’ time, is a breath of fresh air.  It is possible for opponents to respect each other and on things most important find agreement.   So — “Who’s On First…”

“Who’s On First”

Mark positions our story from the Gospel today between two series of contentious debates.  The first arise from questions to Jesus from the Chief Priests, Sadducees and Pharisees challenging Jesus’ authority to act. Jesus not only silences their question but tells the parable of the wicked tenants. These religious leaders don’t miss the point that it was Jesus’ description of them. Then, they send others to question Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar and some Sadducees question him about the resurrection. It’s difficult for us to keep in mind when and where these encounters occurred.  Jesus is standing in the courtyard of the Temple just days before Passover.

What follows our text for today is a series of sayings in which Jesus decries the Sadducees for misusing the law and exploiting others. You could argue that even the story of the Widow giving all that she has to the temple is part of that argument against the religious elite.  So our story of Jesus being questioned is embedded in a whole section of contentious debates designed to trap him.   It is the climax of a day of confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. 

All of us have about had our fill of contentious debates.  I’m just glad I don’t live in one of the so-called swing states.  There is something truly distinct and uplifting about this story from Mark.  The civil nature in which it starts and ends is like a breath of fresh air.  Listen to the spirit in which the scribe engages Jesus and then hear how Jesus concludes the interchange. In the very middle of all the contentiousness we have exhibited respect for each other and, surprisingly, real agreement.


Mark 12: 28 After he heard Jesus and the Sadducees debating, a scribe saw Jesus answered their argument well. So he approached Jesus with a question: “What commandment is the most important and guides our understanding of all the others?”  “The first is this,” Jesus answered,

“‘Listen, Israel! Our God is God, the only God! You must love the Lord our God with all your heart, your spirit, your mind, and your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love everyone else like yourself.’  No other commandments are greater than these.”

“Well done, Teacher!” the scribe responded. “You’re right when you said: ‘He is the only God and there is no other god besides him,’  ‘Love the God with everything you have,’ and, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  Obeying these commandments is worth far more than all the worship in the Temple at Jerusalem!”

34 Jesus saw the scribe answered wisely. So Jesus replied, “You’re not far from God’s Kingdom. Nobody dared to ask Jesus anymore questions.


Just in case you were writing off all religious elites as hard-hearted, unseeing opponents of Jesus, Mark ends the series of hostile questions with a scribe who asks a genuine one.  Mark tells us that the scribe had been positively impressed by Jesus – “seeing that (Jesus) answered them well.” This is remarkable assessment of Jesus’ by one of his opponents. Unlike the contentious challenges that Jesus had entertained, the question of this scribe is genuine. “What commandment is more important and guides our understanding of the others?”  Jesus’ response is equally genuine.  For his reply Jesus quotes from the same Torah that the scribe has so ardently studied all his life. “‘Listen, Israel! Our God is God, the only God! You must love the Lord our God with all your heart, your spirit, your mind, and your strength…”  It was so very basic to what it meant to be a Jew.  Every day all Jews recite the Shema.  It summons the people to total love of God with heart, mind, soul and strength, a love that springs out of gratitude for what God has done for them.  For Jews of an earlier time God’s love for the people was revealed in the Sinai covenant and in observing “all his statutes and ordinances” (Dt. 6:2).  But by Jesus’ time all these statutes and ordinances had been codified into 613 prohibitions or commands.  This, of course, opened up debates over which of these were of greater importance and which of a lesser concern.  Jesus’ reply focused not on the minutia of the law but rather on the core conviction.  That in itself may be a valuable lesson for us today.

But Jesus didn’t stop with the Shema.  He backs it up with another important piece of Jewish self understanding, what you could see call “the other side of the coin”. It is Leviticus 19:18: : ‘You must love everyone else like yourself’ .  

In classical literature and in the Old Testament we sometimes see a fascinating structure in how a story is laid out. Such a literary device is a tool left over from an oral tradition, before the stories were ever committed to paper, an aid to recalling exacting detail. The word for this is rather pretentious. It is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a “criss-cross” arrangement of terms. It is chiasmus [ky-AZ-mus],  “a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas … .” 

Here are a couple of really simple examples:  Cicero wrote: “One should eat to live, not live to eat”; a bumper sticker read “Live Simply that Others May Simply Live”,  Mae West with a glint in her eye, would say “ I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” In the Gospel of Matthew we have these chiastic lines: ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  The point is that this whole section of Leviticus, called the Holiness Code, is one long and complex chiastic structure.    And this eighteenth verse of chapter 19 is at the very center of this long, complex and carefully chiaistically edited passage of scripture. In rabbinical thought and in the mind of both this unnamed scribe and Jesus this passage stands out as the pinnacle of God’s commands. ‘You must love everyone else like yourself.’   

How do you love God and neighbor? In first-century Jewish thought, “as yourself,” meant “as though he or she were yourself” or as if you were in the same situation as your neighbor. For the Christian, the answer could be found in a relationship with Jesus. Jesus is seen as the point of access to the Father. He was the brother that could be found in the face of other people. And how about this – in this instance Jesus and the scribe see eye to eye! Agreement on these two guiding commands and their shared quality of allegiance became the starting point for proclaiming the Good News.

In our relationship with God we can ask the very same question poised by the scribe: what’s most important? How does that question impact our prayer life, our family life, our social life? What one principle or character trait tells others we are followers of Christ?  So you might wonder, “What does it mean to be a good Quaker?” A cacophony of voices shout: experience the gifts of God’s Spirit, go to Meeting each first day.  Be conscientious about the self appraisal, the personal examine, called for by our Queries. Attend to the advices and testimonies of our Faith and Practice.  Be seriously concerned about the poor, about injustice and work for peace in the world.  Today the neighbor presumed in this line from Leviticus may be as near as our spouse, or as distant as a homeless person shivering against the cold waiting for the warming shelters open when in the depth of winter it gets down to 17 degrees. 

Love of neighbor may be extremely difficult for a person undergoing great suffering or one who has been seriously wounded, but its fundamental presupposition is not psychological well-being, but a conviction well expressed by Thomas Merton: “The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved…by God although unworthy or rather irrespective of one’s worth!”

The expression of love of God and of neighbor is not limited to prayer or even specific acts of service—it is to be enshrined in our daily lives. Jesus and other first-century Jews prayed at least three times a day, observed the Sabbath as remembrance of God’s creative love and recalled the saving deeds of God in a cycle of feasts (Sabbath, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, Day of Atonement). The Qumran scroll’s Damascus Document shows that love of neighbor was to be translated into action, “Each one to love his brother [or sister] as himself [or herself], and to support the needy, the poor and the stranger”.

The Gospels portray a Jesus whose love of God and neighbor was translated into action by teaching of his Father’s mercy, by healing touches, by confronting the power of evil and by giving himself up to death as an example of “The Great Commandment.” Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, says:  “Such love is a ‘harsh and dreadful thing’, [where] our very faith in love has been tried through fire.” What it means to be a Christian, a Quaker, a follower of Christ today is expressed in this profoundly simple teaching repeated by the scribe when he replied to Jesus: “Well done, Teacher!” “You’re right when you said: ‘He is the only God and there is no other god besides him,’  ‘Love God with everything you have,’ and, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  Obeying these commandments is worth far more than all the worship in the Temple at Jerusalem!”. When we live the meaning of these words we are like the scribe to whom Jesus said: “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”





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