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Cup, Bucket, Ocean

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 01

Text  Mark 12: 13-17, 18-34

This Lent, we’ve begun exploring two questions that Jesus asks of Peter in the gospel of Mark.  The first is “Who do people say that I am?  The second is this:  “But who do you say that I am?”  Karin preached on that text from Mark 8 last Sunday.  I’ve led a couple of adult formation hours on these questions.  This past Wednesday night, over 20 of you gathered at the parsonage and dug into these questions, usually answering with yet more questions!  Such questions are no doubt part of what has kept our faith tradition alive.  They insist on ongoing conversation, let alone ongoing relationship and ongoing community!  Consider that God’s very first conversation with Adam in Genesis began with a question:  Where are you?  We might wonder if God has been asking that one of all of us ever since!

Recently, scholars and commentators have begun to take note of just how many questions Jesus asked, and just how many he answered.  Some of these studies have rightly located Jesus in the midst of Jewish and Rabbinic tradition.  Rabbinic interpretation of text has long revolved around questions. This may explain the joke.  Have you heard this one?   Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?  Answer: “Why shouldn’t a Jew always answer a questions with a question?”

In the words of Kai Ryssdal from NPR’s Marketplace, ‘Lets do the numbers, shall we?” Counting from all four gospels: Just how many questions did Jesus ask?  307. In contrast,  how many questions were asked of him?  183.  And most strikingly, how many questions did Jesus answer directly?  8.  Martin Copenhaver has written about this phenomenon recently: “Jesus is more than forty times more likely to ask a question than to answer one!”  I wonder what each of our percentages would be!

In our text for today, Jesus is asked three questions.  He answers two of these questions with two questions of his own. These, by the way, don't count as part of the 8 direct answers.  But the for third question, “Which commandment is the greatest?”  his answer is as direct as they come, with language that would ring out clear as a bell!  He pivots just a bit, mind you, not saying which one commandment is the greatest, but instead underscores the inextricable link between the two – love of God and love neighbor as self is the greatest commandment – the first and second greatest commandments are indivisible.  What’s more, when one of the scribes affirms Jesus answer, “you are right, Rabbi,” Jesus in turn says “You are not far from the Kingdom!”

So my question is this: what’s the connection between the kingdom and the commandments!  After all this back and forth, what led Jesus to tie it up with that comment – you are not far from the Kingdom?

Staying with numbers for a moment though, Jesus makes mention of the Kingdom of God 14 times in Mark’s Gospel!  Biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, notes that if you ask 100 New Testament scholars what is the central theme and unifying message of Jesus teaching and preaching, they would all answer the same:  The Kingdom of God!  It was the first thing he preached in Mark 1, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!”  It’s what he taught us all to pray, “thy Kingdom come.” It’s what he taught us and his followers to strive for, “Seek first the Kingdom”!  He even exacts his blessings in the Beatitudes with reference to it – Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours! 

While there are many mentions of God’s kingship, over and above all earthly rulers, the Hebrew Bible has no references to the Kingdom of God but for the apocryphal, or extra-canonical texts.  It may well be that the reason why this expression was so powerful for him was because of his experience of that other kind of empire, namely the Roman empire, was so present!  One needed only look at a coin to see its influence over daily life.  By the way, I’ve seen just such a coin. At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, there’s a fascinating display of first century coins.  I saw one with Caesar’s mug on it, dated 43 BCE.  Chances are it was still in circulation in the times of Jesus!  Some of these coins also held inscriptions:  King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God, Savior!  Imagine what an affront that would have been to the Jews! 

  For Jews like Jesus, God was the sole sovereign, poised to free all captives from foreign rule!  It goes straight back to the Exodus, and to the themes that would have been echoed through centuries of Jewish resistance and revolts,  These themes would have rung especially true to Mark’s community in the wake of the Jewish Roman War that had so recently led to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70!  Imagine paying taxes to that brutal regime that had just brutally killed and probably raped members of your community and family.  The text tells us the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus!  They tried to provoke him!  He answers with a non answer, refusing in that instance to say something that would get him arrested.

Ultimately, this pairing of passages underscores several points that are key to our ongoing exploration of who was and is Jesus.  First, Jesus was a Jew, through and through!  His recitation of the Shema – Hear O Israel—could not have made that more clear!  Second, Jesus was living with boot of the empire on his neck!  Rather than finding common ground against a common enemy, the Pharisees turn their antagonism toward Jesus, trying to trap him.  Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  He looks right at the coin and sees in it the world as it is -- the violent and oppressive Kingdom of Man!  Third, its clear that Jesus believed God is one, the sole sovereign of the universe.  Jesus is here claiming that God is, in the words of Paul Tillich, his ultimate concern, set apart from lesser concerns of earthly concerns or driving fears, about power, money or even family.  Fourth, love of God is inextricably connected with ethics, with how we choose to treat one another and ourselves. 

This kingdom of God, this world as it should be, the world as it would be were God in charge, was no apocalyptic, other-worldly vision.  It was already showing up in the here and now of Jesus’ actions, of how Jesus treated and loved his neighbors, and even his enemies!  The kingdom and the commandments, how we are supposed to act in the world, go hand in hand!  But this leads me to a different question. 

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God amid the very hard realities of history.  How do the two go together?  Are these parallel tracks or alternate realities that might occasionally bump into each other in rare moments where justice wins and love wins?  Does one contain or encompass the other?  I was discussing this idea the other day with Karin who shared a Buddhist image that allowed me to see one way of putting these pieces together.  She spoke of a story of a cup that sits inside a bucket that sits inside an ocean.  The cup and bucket are full and overflowing. Cup. Bucket. Ocean.  We’ll have to ask her where this idea comes from when she’s back next week, but being the image oriented person that I am, I immediately took it for a ride as I wrestled with this text.  So often, it seems, maybe since the Enlightenment at least, we position ourselves as living in an ocean of history.  We might try to fill and overflow our individual cups, our little K cups, with as much love as we can muster, we might even let that overflow into a community or love or some bucket sized worldview, but the ocean of history is vast.   But what if it’s supposed to be the other way around.  What if history is the cup, and the Kingdom of God is one way we situate that cup in a larger bucket wherein history doesn’t have the last word, wherein the arc of the universe overflows toward justice, or something like, and wherein that bucket sits within a vast ocean of love! Can you imagine that?  History is the cup that overflows toward the justice of the Kingdom, the Kingdom of God is our particular Christian world view that overflows into an even more vast, mysterious and universal ocean of Love.  Other religions may have other names for the particular bucket. Isn’t that a more hopeful picture than imagining human history with all its violence and victimization as our proverbial “grand scheme.”  Even the phrase, “You are not far from the Kingdom” invites us into imagine a grander scheme, a new frame for how we see our lives and our world.

If the Kingdom of God is merely some alternate, competing reality we are all too inclined to make a dualistic notion of our reality as the bad, the Kingdom as the good.  Whereas, if we envision history as held within the Kingdom of God, we are invited to pray for the in-breaking of God into that history, into the very hearts of our leaders, to share love with our neighbors and our enemies as well!  This is all conjecture, of course, but I wonder if that latter vision is more what Jesus had in mind.  Take this cup from me God, this cup of human and historic pain and misery.  Let thy Kingdom come.  Let your loving will be done!   Forgive them, for they know not what they do!

The same works for us at a more spiritual and internal level.  In our ego-driven world, we too often see our selves, our individual lives, as that broadest frame.  In the midst of our crazy busy lives, we may try to cultivate a little space for God’s love and peace to shine through.  Too often, we think spiritual practices as providing some oasis amidst the chaos!  But what if our selves, our souls and egos, are really just the cup, held in a “kingdom of God that is within us,” held amidst an underground ocean of love that is within all of us.  Can we begin to imagine this?

How would these notions of how we locate ourselves and our history change our perspectives on our daily life? How might they change the way we act in our world!  I’m thinking of faithful African American friends of mine who walk around saying, seemingly several times a day, “God’s got this!”  God’s got the whole world in his or her or their hands!   God’s got this!  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done!  And you are not far from the kingdom of God!  What could be a more hopeful or faithful posture?

Back to that hard reality of daily living amidst the Kingdom of Rome, this Kingdom of God language would have been the stuff of insurrection!  As Reza Alsan notes in his book Zealot “No wonder, then, that at the end of his life, when he stood beaten and bruised before Pontius Pilate to answer the charges against him, Jesus was asked but a single question  It was the only question that mattered, the only question he would have been brought before the Roman Governor to answer before the being sent off to the cross to receive the standard punishment for all rebels and insurrectionists.  “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered with a non-answer.  You say so. 

Or maybe, Aslan gets it wrong.  Maybe the only question that mattered was the one he answered far more directly in the chapter just preceding the trial.  Jesus is asked a similar question by the high priest: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”  Jesus said, “I am!”   Questions, questions and more questions!  Back to our theme for this Lenten season:  who do you say that I am?  Perhaps, for now, we can all agree he was the one who preached the Kingdom of God on earth, the one who knew that God was the sole sovereign of the universe, the one who surely had “peace like a river,” “faith like an anchor,” and “love like an ocean” in his soul.  Amen.  




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