Me: “Jesus, why do you respond to a question by asking another?”
Jesus: “Why do you think?” It’s always encouraging when you are excited by seeing a familiar Bible passage in a new light, especially when it is from the lips of Jesus. And thanks to the Holy Spirit and to Bible scholarship, that is often my experience. I even come to expect it. For there’s an electric charge running through scripture. That was certainly the experience of J B Phillips. He commented “Translating the Bible is like trying to rewire the electrical wiring in a house without pulling the main switch.” And so this week, going through the Gospel of Mark in very short chunks in my BRF Guidelines, yet another powerful charge ran through me. And from a very familiar passage, one which I have said hundreds of times in leading services of Holy Communion. Jesus is asked a question by a scribe, which is the greatest commandment – and surprisingly for once, Jesus gives a straight answer. No parable, no sign or miracle, no counter question. But there again, he doesn’t quite answer the question. Asked for one commandment, he gives two, bringing together quotes from separate books in the Hebrew scriptures, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. “’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our 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 mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-30) A bit of a mouthful with all those repetitions of “with all your” but the Shema, for that what the commandment is called, is foundational for all Jews, to be recited every morning and evening. Like us saying the Lord’s prayer, but more so. ‘Shema’ means ‘hear’, the first word of the text which Jesus quotes and this is just what this particular scribe – unlike his colleagues - has been doing. “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well.” (Mark 12:28). So he asks a question not to wrong foot Jesus but simply to learn from him. So he responds. “‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33) In fact, his response is more radical than would appear at first sight for this dialogue takes place in the temple at Jerusalem, where one of its key functions is that of making burnt-offerings sacrifices. Its very raison d'être was being questioned. What I had only half-realised is that Jesus, unlike the scribe, does not give an accurate quote from Deuteronomy. In fact, he adds a fourth all to ‘heart’, ‘soul’, and ‘strength’. He adds ‘mind’ in the middle. In fact, the scribe in his response quotes accurately, with just the original three all’s. I guess we would have had the same reaction if someone added an extra phrase to the Lord’s prayer. Not only would it sound strange but also presumptuous. So what is Jesus doing here? Well, Mark gives us a clue in how he summarises dialogue between Jesus and this scribe. Using Steve Motyer’s particular translation of this passage, we read: “When Jesus saw he that replied mindfully he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (v34). For the original Greek word for mindfully comes from the same root for the word Jesus inserts into the text. As Motyer explains: “This scribe is doing it – loving God thoughtfully, which means beginning to see Jesus as holding a dangerous, exciting new authority alongside the law, and being ready to break moulds and think the unthinkable.” In other words, Jesus not only wants us to love God. Of course. But to love him mindfully, to think as well as to trust. Above all, to allow the Holy Spirit to remake the operating systems by which our minds work. We are to obey thoughtfully. And this is why Jesus so often taught in parables, to subvert our basic assumptions and to challenge us to think in new ways. And this is why Jesus normally responded to one question by asking another. He wants us to think and to think deeply. We are not to subcontract our thinking to others. Always a challenge, for we can so easily become lazy in our thinking and readily accept the assumptions of our surrounding culture. In fact, they can become so integrated into our mental operating system that we simply do not see it. The Holy Spirit has a major undertaking on his hands. This is how the apostle Paul want us to live, to think anew with the mind of Christ. So at a pivotal point in his letter to the Romans, he challenges us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2) As ever, the Message translation spells this out: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” Or as the theologian John Piper observes: “Thinking is one of the important ways that we put the fuel of knowledge on the fires of worship and service to the world.”
May we think with the mind of Jesus himself.