The 12thchapter of Mark has an ominous soundtrack. When you read it from beginning to end you can almost hear the wisecracks, the sniggers from the guys who are pelting out the questions. Actually, it sounds like our political debates - Jesus has an opening statement, about the vineyard owner who sends his son to collect the rent and the son gets killed, and so the owner boots out the tenants and gives the vineyard to new folks. And the guys who are listening do not like the sound of that.
The Scripture quoters are alarmed at the implication that there’s something rotten in their world and – it’s them. Jesus is challenging a lot of values here, about what makes a good person good.
So the fellows who’ve been reading their Bibles come up with some posers. They throw out fast balls, hard balls, curve balls. They pose the kinds of situations that are heavy with nuances, and whatever way you answer, someone will be really offended by what you say.
There’s the question about taxes and Caesar, and staying on the right side of the law, and which country’s banking system (money) you are using.
And there’s the question about a poor, mythical woman who was married to seven men, and after the last one died she died, and went to heaven, and the question is, which man is she supposed to wait on there? If you are wondering why I name this crowd as guys, here’s your answer: no woman would come up with this question.
It’s a blood sport, this public debate. And the crowd is looking for a kill. Jesus must have wished he never got out of bed.
The questions haven’t changed, have they? The debates and the campaign have focused on such questions about taxes - whether involving other nations and their money in our personal taxes and in our national tax situation is kosher or not – and whether women have to bow to serving the will of others, or are free to make their own decisions about their lives and how they use them.
The campaign is a blood sport, and a lot of folks would love a kill.
Jesus dances a Texas two-step around the questions, parrying the fine points. And then something unexpected happens. A stranger emerges, and asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus answers, Love God completely, and love your neighbor as yourself. The stranger says, You’re right! And this is far more important than these details. The stranger interjects a different spirit. And changes the day. Jesus tells him, you are not far from the kingdom.
At Easter, another stranger will listen to the bickering between dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus, and will interject a different spirit, urging them toward a different view. At first they will think the stranger is an idiot. At last, as they enter one another’s hearts, they will see they are not far from heaven, though all day they have been telling him they were in hell.
For an Amen, we have a reading of a small portion of the story of Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law. Both women are widowed and penniless, they are part of the 47% of America who have nothing and cannot pay anything, but they live in a time and place without any safety net. Naomi urges Ruth to go home to her own people, but Ruth can’t turn her back on someone she has come to love. She casts her lot with Naomi in hardship, and in affirmation of their lives. Not a Jew, Ruth becomes a heroine of Israel and a foremother of Jesus.
The Gate of Heaven swings open, it seems, not on a hinge made of our piety, prayers, or even good deeds. The hinge of heaven is in our welcome.
The Gate slams shut on the push of suspicion. When we swing our hearts open to the stranger who draws us toward a good that does not grasp but shares, we are not far from God.