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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Mark 12:28-34
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2003

A husband and wife are getting ready to go to sleep. They’re having an argument over who’s going to get up first and make the coffee the next morning. The husband says, “I’m the man of the house and you’re the woman. You’re the one who should get up first and make the coffee.” The wife says, “Oh no. You’re the husband alright. But you’re the one who needs to get up and make coffee for me.” The husband says, “Oh my dear, you’re so wrong. God has established an order to things. The woman is the one to get up and make the coffee.” The wife says, “Oh, is that what God says. Well, it’s the man who needs to get up and make the coffee, and it even says so in the Bible.” The man says, “Oh yeah? Prove it.” And he puts the King James Version in her lap. So the wife turns a few pages. Then she turns a few more. “Here it is,” she says. “HE BREWS.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not a true story. It was told me by a senior citizen lady who goes by the name of “Sunshine.” I was visiting the hospital last week and Sunshine told me that one. She said, “That’s one you can use in church next Sunday.” And I just did, which proves the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

So, we’re in this hospital room and Sunshine tells me she got her name because she visits nursing homes every week and does something like a stand-up comedy routine for the residents. And then she goes into her stuff, and she’s telling me joke after joke. And some of them are pretty good. Not all as good as HE BREWS, but pretty good material. So after a while, I’m thinking, hey I’ve got material. I can spread sunshine, too. In the back of my mind there’s this tiny voice screaming, “Nooooooo! Don’t even try.” But if I listened to all the voices in my head, I’d never get anything done.

So, I tell her this one. And this IS a true story, which I think makes it even funnier. I’m sitting at a church potluck dinner between these two elderly ladies, who are just as sweet as they can be. One’s Gladys, the other’s Helga. Those aren’t their real names, but for the sake of the story, we’ll just pretend. They’ve known each other for decades and they’re kind of like sisters. Gladys and Helga are telling me how getting old hasn’t been so bad, and they really haven’t had to change their lifestyles all that much. Gladys though, concedes. She says, “Well, I have to confess. I have stopped driving at night. On account of I have a cataract.” To which Helga slaps her hand down on the table. “Oh Gladys, you know you do not! You know you have a Buick!”

That one just kills me. So I tell Sunshine this hilarious but true story and this is the response I get.

“Mmmmm. Cataract. She thought she said Cadillac. Mmm.”

At which point, I’m ready to crawl under the bed. I’ve tried to match wits against the Jedi joke master Yoda, and I have failed.

Chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel is one long series of competitions. Only instead of a joke-off, the challengers are coming up to Jesus in a kind of scripture-off. And it would have been better for these guys if there had been a voice screaming, “Nooooo! Don’t even try.” But you know how we men are in situations like this. Wouldn’t have made any difference. So here they come.

First come the politically-minded Pharisees. They’re sure they’ve got a zinger. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” You remember this one. This is the one where Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. “Whose head is it on the coin?” he asks. “Caesar’s,” they say. Jesus says, “Then give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.”

Ding! Round one’s over. Next!

Then come the sophisticated Sadducees, who don’t believe in life after death, and they’ve gotta be giggling under their breath as they put one to him, about, of all things, life after death.

They say, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; so the second brother married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise, and so on. None of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus says, “You don’t know either the scriptures or the power of God. Don’t you know where it says that they will be like angels in heaven, who neither marry nor are given in marriage. God is the God of the living, not of the dead.”

Ding! Round two is over, and they skulk away.

But during all this public debate, biding his time, watching from the sidelines, is this old scribe. A Jedi scripture master. He’s been studying Jesus. He’s been learning his moves. He’s watched as the other challengers were dismissed in shame. Having chosen his moment, this scriptural heavyweight enters the ring. On one side stands Jesus. On the other side stands the scribe.

The scribe goes straight for the jugular. “Which commandment is the first of all?”

A scriptural question. Jesus answers with more scripture, Deuteronomy 6. (And the crowd is thinking, “Who reads Deuteronomy?”) “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and 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.”

Zing! Right back at cha, scribe, ol’ boy. And then, Jesus turns the challenge back by adding another quote from scripture, Leviticus 19. (Whoa. Nobody reads Leviticus.) Jesus says, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

It’s like Jesus is saying, “I’ll see your Deuteronomy, and raise you a Leviticus.”

OK, so now the scribe knows he’s up against somebody good. “You are right,” he says, “to say that God is one and to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

And then the scribe digs deep, way deep into scripture and pulls out a trump. Hosea 6:6. “Loving God and neighbor is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Oh boy. The crowd’s gotta be thinking, “How’s he going to beat that?” That’s GOOD material.

But you and I know something that the crowd doesn’t. We know that Jesus wasn’t interested in winning a scripture-off. We know that Jesus wasn’t playing games with scribes or scripture. We know that Jesus didn’t care two hoots about the applause of the crowd.

So with one sentence, Jesus calls all the games to a stop. Instead of continuing the war of words, instead of using more scripture like yet another weapon, Jesus listens to the meaning of the words the scribe himself has just said. He listened to these words of scripture instead of just hurling more out to prove how smart he was. He listened to the scribe and said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

After that, the Bible says, no one dared ask him any questions.

You probably know somebody who lives for the thrill of verbal victory. No matter how funny you think you are, no matter how juicy you think your information is, no matter how bad you feel – this other person’s always funnier, juicier, or closer to death. One-upmanship is addictive. Getting the last word is cool.

Jesus knocks the hot wind out of us. Jesus’ last word isn’t victory. Jesus’ last word is love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Love of enemies. Love. The game of life isn’t about winning or losing. Life’s not a game and scripture isn’t ammunition. Not many of us get into physical battles, thank the Lord. But we all get into wars of words, land mines of thoughts, replays of moves we wish we’d made and points we know we could score if we had another chance. Jesus tells us that the ideas of winning or losing are irrelevant. This isn’t a life-off. We either love or we don’t. Our words and acts either spread love or they don’t. Our lives either spread sunshine or they are very dark indeed.