What Does It Mean to Love God?  Jesus and the Bean Counters

A Buddhist Reads the Bible: Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version.  Oxford University Press.

(This is my seventh piece on the Gospel of Mark; the other pieces are here, here, here, here, here, and here.  I’ll blunder along at my snail like pace until I finish.)

The pace of the Gospel of Mark has been headlong from the start, but if anything seems to get more frantic toward the end.  Jesus’ message is increasingly apocalyptic—he talks not only about his coming end (“The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death . . . they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him”) but also, apparently, about the end of the world.  I’d like to address the end of the world stuff in a later post (hoping that the world doesn’t end in the meantime).

The one thing that continues to happen, it’s been happening all through the Gospel, is that the disciples ignore what he says and worry about their status.  It must be discouraging to tell your followers about your impending death, and have two of your favorites react as follows:

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Here we go again, he must have thought.

But he took a deep breath, and repeated what he had said many times.  (This is, incidentally, roughly what the Abbess at my Zen Center says to those who want to become priests.)

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.[1] But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

He’s modeling things for them.  He’s been doing that all along.

There follow the familiar events of Palm Sunday.  He rides into Jerusalem in a ceremonial way, to the acclaim of his followers.  But when he gets there he is disturbed to find people buying and selling in the temple, and the famous incident happens of his overturning the tables and chasing them away.  Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild goes the famous children’s poem, but not on this occasion.  What should be a house of prayer has become a den of robbers, and he has come to Jerusalem and taken on the religious establishment.  They respond as they always do:

“They kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

They begin a series of intense confrontations with Jesus in which they try to trap him by what he says.  No longer are they hanging out at his talks, asking the occasional question.  They’re actively, aggressively pursuing him.

First they ask by what authority he is doing all this.[2]  The answer seems obvious, but they want him to say it, and he replies with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  It’s a kind of practical koan, because if they say it was from heaven he’ll ask why they didn’t believe him, and if they say from man they’ll infuriate John’s followers, who are all around them.  So they say they don’t know, and he, in the same spirit, won’t say where his authority comes from.  Except that he just has.

He tells a parable directly against them, about a man who planted a vineyard and gave it to tenants, kept sending people to collect his share of the produce.  The tenants killed all the servants he sent, so finally he sent his son, and when they killed him, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”  He seems to be predicting a new kind of religion, or at least a major shakeup of the old one, and gives a hint as to what it will be: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  That’s like what he just told his disciples.

They tried to trap him on a matter of church and state, asking if they should pay taxes to the emperor, and he gave his famous answer.  “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Some Sadducees—“who say there is no resurrection”—came and asked the kind of elaborate question that philosophers, and sophomores at college, seem to love: if seven brothers all married a woman, according to the law, after each brother died, whose wife would she be after the resurrection?  Jesus brushes the question aside, saying there is no marriage in heaven; people are “like angels” there.  He also seems to say that the great saints of the past are still alive.  God is the God of the living, but He has also said he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They are as alive as anyone else, he seems to be saying.

But the most interesting encounter with a scribe is the next one, with a man who actually seems sympathetic, and wants to learn.  He asks what the first commandment of all is, and Jesus gives a famous answer.  “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 neighbor as yourself.”  The scribe agreed.  “This is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

As simple as that advice sounds, it was a real stumper for me in my youth.  How do you love God? I would say to myself.  What was it to love this elusive being whom I couldn’t get a handle on?  I wanted to, but didn’t know how.  It made me feel like a failure at religion.  Many things did in those days.

So I gave up religion, and some years later—after I was dragged by my new wife to a class—took up meditation.  I sat every day because the teacher said to, also because—though I didn’t especially believe in it—I was intrigued by the idea of meditation; probably also (this was the part I would never have admitted) because I was spiritually at my wit’s end.  I’d hit rock bottom.  But what I found over time—months and years—is that a certain haze that had settled over my experience (produced by my incessant wants and needs), seemed to disperse, a certain tension, a holding back from life, to loosen and relax.  I began to feel as I sat—not all the time, but predictably at some point during most sittings—a feeling of what I now call joy, a physical feeling of being at one with my experience.  (It is what Chogyam Trungpa, in his book on Shambhala training, calls magic.)  That joy entered my life.  It made me see the world, and live my life, differently.  It wasn’t that I loved Life, or Life loved me.  It was that love was at the center of everything, and radiated out.  The grammarian in me put it this way: love is not a transitive verb.  (That means, for you grammatical knuckleheads, that it has no object.)

I think that’s what loving God is.  I didn’t try to do it.  Trying gets in the way, as I mentioned before.  It just happened.

And loving your neighbor comes out of that.  It’s not a separate action.  It’s the same thing.

I’m not saying I’m never grouchy, or never mean or unloving.  I am all the time.  But I have found this love at the heart of life.  I found it by sitting and doing nothing.

There is an underlying truth to religion, which we discover through what I’m calling meditation, but would just as happily call prayer.  And there is an outward form to religion, which Jesus sees in the scribes and priests, and which he describes.

“[They] like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.”

Those are the people he’s been disputing.  And theirs is the religion he’s come to question.

[1] He might also have been talking about priests at a Japanese Zen center.

[2] The Buddha, confronted by the same question, touched the ground.