Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Christ's sacrifice draws creation back into the eternal flow of divine love.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012

                                                                                                By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012


Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14

Mark 12:28-34


The readings for this Sunday move the church toward a cosmology of the cross. As before in our treatment of Markan texts, the significance of the temple as the center of Israel's worship is a central them. The exchange between Jesus and the scribe in Gospel reading over “the greatest commandment” brings to a close a series of confrontations with his opponents on the temple precinct. As Ched Myers summarizes the action, 


He has thrown the commercial special interests out of the temple and in their place assumed a role as 'teacher.” He has met challenges and foiled plots with brilliant rhetorical skill. He has gone nose to nose with the political leaders and the intellectuals, questioning the legitimacy of their respective vocations insofar as they are based upon privilege and exploitation. And in the end he has silenced his social and political opponents, and done it on their own home ground:  the temple (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 318).


The exchange is thus the culmination of the “ideological warfare” that began when scribes from Jerusalem came down to Galilee, shortly after Jesus had appointed his disciples. “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” Jesus had warned them at that time, “then indeed the house can be plundered,' (3:27). The victory, Mark declares, now belongs to Jesus: “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (12:34). “In other words,” Myers concludes, “Jesus appears to have “bound the strong men, and ransacked their house.” The question of authority raised by his opponents (Mark 11:27-33) has been settled. The authority that belonged to the scribes now belongs to Jesus. Jesus' judgment on their misuse of the temple follows quickly (12:35-44), as “Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23; cf. 13:1-27).


It is important to note, however, that this dramatic shift occurs in the context of an exchange in which Jesus and this scribe are in basic agreement with respect to the important issue of the “greatest commandment.” The exchange is surprisingly irenic: the scribe calls Jesus “Teacher,” and he grants the correctness of Jesus' answer, including Jesus' striking linkage of Leviticus 19:18 (“love one's neighbor as oneself”) to the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, (“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”).  Even more unexpected, perhaps, is the scribe's agreement that the combination of wholehearted love of God and love of neighbor is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” a judgment that clearly calls into question the central role of the temple in the nation's life. The scribe concurs with the standard prophetic critique of the cult. Not at all surprising, then, is Jesus' acknowledgment of the wisdom of the scribe's answer: “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). 


What is the significance of this remarkable agreement for care of creation? Two major themes can be drawn from the exchange. First, one might well suspect that Mark has placed this exchange where it is in the narrative in order to underscore the rightness of Jesus' displacement of the temple as the center of the peoples' worship of God (Cf. Frank C. Senn, “Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000, p. 237-38). But the agreement is nonetheless important for its own sake: it goes to the heart of what it means to be part of the people of God, and serves to establish an essential continuity between the teaching of Moses, or Torah, and the teaching of Jesus. The explicit linkage of Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18 is regarded by some scholars as Jesus' innovation. In Ched Myers' view, this “bold conflation is consistent with [Mark's] ideology: “heaven must come to earth—there is no love of God except in love of neighbor” (Myers, p. 317-18).  Mark Wegener puts the point equally forcefully: 


We misunderstand his [Jesus’] intent if we imagine that love for God is primary and love for our neighbor secondary, or it we assume that concern for our neighbor is merely the result of or consequence of concern for God. . . . Jesus' agenda is more radical than that. In his scheme of things, the way we love our neighbor is the way we act out our love for God. It's not, “love God and also your neighbor . . . . Rather, it's, “love God by loving your neighbor” (“Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 2003.  Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003, p. 240).


But is this linkage, for all that, actually a departure from the faith of Israel? The concurrence of the scribe with Jesus would suggest not. Might we not instead discern in Mark's placement of the narrative here an attempt to show that Jesus' displacement of the temple is accordingly to be equated neither with an abandonment of Torah nor with unfaithfulness to Yahweh?


 In this connection, it is interesting to note the comment of Walter Brueggemann on the linkage of the two commandments. Contrary to the common Christian stereotype of the practice of Torah obedience as legalism, he suggests, the practice of Torah . . .


as a practice of obedience and imagination that issues in communion is a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy. The freedom of the Torah is a freedom in obedience. This freedom is not autonomy, for autonomy is in any case an illusion. It is freedom of living with and for and in the presence of the One whose power is seen in creation, whose passion is evident in Exodus, and whose requirements are known in Sinai. Israel, as it “meditated day and night on Torah,” understood well how Yahweh related to Yahweh's partners. The relationship is one of love . . . [Deut 6:5; Lev 19;18] . . . Israel well understood the linkage between these two commandments to love: Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:20-21).


The exchange, that is to say, captures the essential continuity between the faith of Israel, as represented in obedience to Torah and the faith of those who follow Jesus. That continuity is significant for our concern with care of creation.  We note that those “living with and for and in the presence of the One whose power is seen in creation,” in Brueggemann's phrase,  “whose passion is evident in Exodus, and whose requirements are known in Sinai,” are those who are promised long life in the land that the people were “about to cross into and occupy,” “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 6:1-3). Would this promise not also hold forth hope for the same quality of life in relationship to their environment, to others who, although living in other lands, love God wholeheartedly on account of Jesus?


Isn't this at least implied in Jesus' own linkage of love of God and love of neighbor? In view of our ecological understanding of the inseparable relationship of human community to its environment, love of neighbor that does not also include love of the shared neighborhood is surely as incomplete and even as false as the love of neighbor represented by scribal leaders who, in spite of the orthodoxy of their teaching,  “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets” while they “devour” the houses of widows like  the woman who gives her all at the temple entrance (Mark 12:38-44). We love God by loving the neighbor; and we love the neighbor in giving loving care for the neighbor's 'hood’!


A second theme of relevance to care of creation arises from the exchange as well. While the shared devaluation of “whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” serves to legitimate Jesus' repudiation of the temple-state establishment, it is important to underscore again that Jesus' own way of obedience to Torah and love of neighbor is a way of sacrifice. Indeed, it involves deep self-sacrifice. His displacement of the temple and its sacrificial system leads directly to the cross and, as our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews serves again to remind us, the replacement with his own sacrifice as “high priest of the good things that have come.” The bloody sacrifice of goats and calves,” endlessly repeated in the temple, is replaced by the sacrifice of his own blood “through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)”  in “the Holy Placewhere “through the eternal (or Holy) Spirit [he]offered himself without blemish to God,” thus “obtaining eternal redemption” and purifying our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11-14). By virtue of its occurrence within the very dwelling place of God, imaged here in terms that will contribute to the eventual development of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity ( the Holy Place where God is eternally present, the Holy Spirit, and an obedient and sinless Christ), Jesus' sacrifice is of the utmost cosmological significance (See Craig Koester's helpful discussion of the cosmology and eschatology in his Hebrews:  A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New York: The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 2001, pp. 97-104).


Last Sunday, in attending to Mark's “concern to break open the cosmic myths of the ancient world,” we took note of the continued importance of alternative cosmological elements both in Mark and elsewhere in the writings of the early Christian community and, of particular interest, because of these readings in the lectionary here at the close of the church year in the Letter to the Hebrews (See our comment in Series B on the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost). Here we see the astonishing fruit of reflection on those elements: With the image of the high priest, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews re-appropriates the meaning of Israel's temple sacrifice for the Christian message. As with the obedience to Torah, so with temple worship: Jesus carries their meaning and manifestation forward into the all-inclusive context of the divine presence. David Bentley Hart illumines the significance of this continuity of sacrifice and its difference from pagan sacrifice in his chapter on salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite: 


The God of Israel is explicitly a God who requires nothing, who elects and sanctifies as he will, who creates out of the bounty of his love; and for this reason Israel's sacrifice is already in a sense a violation of sacrificial economy, a failure to “contribute” to cosmic order, and offering of thanksgiving to a God who gives out of love of what he gives, and who—far from profiting from the holocaust of the particular—fulfills “sacrifice” by giving the gift again, in excess of what is “required”; . . . . The gift God gives is infinitely given; it does not obey the economy of ousia, of circulation and indifferent exchange; God will not suffer to see it absorbed into the cosmic drama of death and regeneration, violence and the fruit of violence (David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite:  The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2003, p. 350).


Jesus' sacrifice of his life in entirely at one with this understanding, Hart argues:


Jesus' devoted gift of himself—the motion of his whole life lived in love toward the Father—entirely fulfills the narrative of Israel. The cross itself, of course, is of pagan origin, and so the crucifixion in itself expresses perfectly the sacrificial logic of the secular order; but it is on the side of Christ—the beauty of his particularity, the gesture of his  sacrifice—that the Father passes judgment, against the sacrificial order that builds crosses. On Golgotha a certain pagan sacrificial analogy between the order of the cosmos and political order—a mimesis of the violence of the sublime, an endless recapitulation of power's war against power—gives way to an iconic analogy between the eternal giving and receiving of the Trinity and creation's character as gift. Within the context of trinitarian dogma, it is possible to think of sacrifice (conceived as gift rather than debt) as the free expression of a love desired of Israel by God, and so not simply owed in any elementary economic sense: a gift given because the graciousness of the gift already received draws forth a response of love and gratitude (Hart, pp. 250-51.)


How is this understanding of benefit for care of creation? Fundamental to this understanding of sacrifice is its grounding in faith in God as creator of all, for which Israel (and so also the church) was ever to give the sacrifice of praise. The crisis Jesus confronted in his encounter with the leaders of the temple/state was precisely their transformation of the temple's sacrifice into an economy of power. Jesus' work included the restoration of that sacrifice as a sacrifice of praise, but now on a cosmic scale, inclusive of not just the land of Israel and its people, but of all creation. As Hart comments further:


When the sacrifice of Israel ceases to be understood as a sacrifice of praise—which means, of an entire life offered back to God, in accordance with his justice—and is seen only as a ritual dangerously similar to a pagan appeasement of the cosmos, prophetic voices rise to its rebuke; but they do this out of faithfulness to the sacrifice that God most truly desires (a broken and contrite heart), not out of disdain for sacrifice. For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father's giving of the Son, the Son's execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit's eternal offering back of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Remus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love. God is then the God who transgresses the bounds of totality, who violates the contained power of every temenos, and whose motion in time must therefore call forth totality's most “natural” gesture:  crucifixion (Hart, p. 353).


The benefit to creation? As stated with elegant simplicity at another stage of Hart's argument, Christ's sacrifice “draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love, for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our sacrificial order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace . . . .” (Hart, p. 371). By virtue of his participation in the divine life, love for creation and care for its healing belongs to the very heart of life in Christ.