Common Ground

Did anyone else see the news about Abigael Evans, this week—the 4-year old girl in the Denver area who became famous for her tearful explanation that the reason she was upset was that she was tired of hearing about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney? It was followed by a whole host of news articles wondering—“Are we all Abigael Evans?” And the answer, for many of us is, yes—we’re all ready for this election to be over.


We’re tired of news being dominated by campaign coverage. We’re tired of attack ads. We’re tired of rhetoric that isn’t really changing anyone’s mind, only fueling the self-righteousness of everyone who is already convinced they are right.


Part of the nature of debate, and political campaigning is that it focuses on difference. So we hear in the debate preamble: “Tell us how your position is different than your opponent.” In other words, make a case for why you are right by showing us how the other person is wrong.


Sometimes it feels like the mud-slinging and vitriol is worse than ever, and maybe it is worse this year than it has been at other times, but the truth is that I think this is just part of human nature—part of power struggles in any time and place. At least our political leaders can have these debates without bloodshed or military coups, or even throwing furniture or shoes—both of which I’ve seen happen in video footage of parliamentary proceedings from other countries. So, it could be worse.

And it’s certainly not anything new. Not only do we have all kinds of stories of smear-campaigns dating back to the earliest elections in our nation, we also see the same dynamic in the way that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day interacted with him.


Starting in chapter 2 and running all the way through the gospel, Jesus is confronted by scribes and Pharisees who pose hostile questions. They call him names. They accuse him of blasphemy. They ask questions that begin with accusatory phrases like “How can you…” and “Why aren’t you…” and “Who do you think you are?”


And Jesus handles the attacks like a pro. He turns every one of their hostile questions into an opportunity to drive home his own message—a message that both the religious and political system of his day has everything backwards and upside-down. A message that God is present with the people who don’t fit in, who don’t follow the rules, who aren’t allowed in good company. A message that God wants to make people whole and well—wants to make communities whole and well—wants to make the world whole and well.


There is one teacher in the crowds—one at least—who listens to Jesus and hears truth. This one teacher, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel defensive—doesn’t feel threatened by Jesus, and instead can listen and really hear, and hear that Jesus’ words are good and he answers the questions well. And in our reading from this morning, this teacher stands up in the middle of one of these public debates and asks a whole different kind of question:


“What is the greatest commandment?”


Now, judging by Jesus’ answer, and the way it compares to other writings from Jewish history, this was not a controversial question. There was not debate about this. Everyone agreed. The greatest commandment is the Shema—called that because it begins with the words “Shema Israel—Hear Israel—the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength.”


By the time Jesus answered this question Jewish families had been reciting the shema on a daily basis for centuries—as long as Christians have been reciting the Lord’s prayer or the Golden rule. It was the first part of the Torah that children memorized. It was—and still is, in many Jewish households—written on a slip of paper that was rolled up and tacked to the doorway, so that everyone coming and going would see it and touch it and remember.


Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you mind and with all your strength.


And the “Love your neighbor as yourself” part wasn’t particularly innovative or controversial, either. It is used as a summary of the law by plenty of other teachers before and after Jesus.


When this teacher asks Jesus which law is greatest, he is stepping outside of the political rhetoric and mudslinging and asking a different kind of question—almost a prompt—a prompt for Jesus to recite something everyone agrees on.


It would be like the moderator of one of these presidential debates inviting the candidates to answer the question, “What are the self-evident truths at the foundation of our government?” They could recite, and I’m sure you could recite now, with me “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


It’s that kind of familiarity—that kind of unquestionable agreement that is sparked by this interaction. After Jesus recited the well-known, well-beloved highlights of the Torah, the teacher commends him—“You answer well,” and then recites it back to him. “The Lord our God is one,” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, understanding and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Finally, this teacher offers a commentary—maybe the commentary is for himself, mumbled under his breath—maybe it is for Jesus’ sake—an affirmation, or maybe it is spoken to that room full of hostile interrogators. “These are far more important than any of the burnt offerings or sacrifices.”


The interaction ends with Jesus’ words: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”


For a long time I thought Jesus said this to the man because he understood the law—that he got why Jesus thought those two laws were important—but I’m beginning to reevaluate. After all, the truth is that probably everyone in that room—all the scribes and Pharisee and teachers who despised Jesus and wanted to bring him down—they probably all agreed that those were the two greatest commandments. It would not have been unusual.


No, I think the reason Jesus tells this particular teacher that he is not far from the kingdom of God is because of the spirit of both his question and his answer. In the midst of hostility and attack and political rhetoric, this man held out an invitation to stand on common ground. And that has much more to do with God’s kingdom and God’s priorities than being right, or winning a debate, or proving someone else wrong, which seem to be the motives behind most of the questions thrown Jesus’ way. This one teacher does something different, and good.


So, in two more days we will all go cast our votes, and watch our TVs and listen to the radio, or just go to bed and wait for the next day’s paper to tell us the result. Judging by the polls, no matter the outcome there will be a big chunk of this country that will be disappointed. And after months of campaigns that emphasize our differences and all the ways we disagree, maybe we all need the example of this teacher in Mark, who steps out of the rhetoric and the party lines to invite someone to stand with him on common ground.

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