We Define Ourselves by What We Are Not

There’s a conversation in one of my favorite novels between a father and his six year old daughter. Scout is confused by the anger and tension that is going on in her town of Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus joins Scout on the front porch swing and begins talking to her about what’s going on. He says to her, “Scout, you know what a compromise is?”

“Bending the law?” she responds.

“Um, well, not exactly.” He continues to explain that if one side will come to the table with another side, the two can begin to have a conversation. The point of the conversation, Atticus says, is not to look at what is wrong with your opponent but instead look at what is not necessary within yourself, and let that go. While sitting on the swing, they decide that if Scout will continue to see the need to go to school, Atticus will continue to see the need to read with her every night.

Our gospel passage this morning tells us of the scribe, the Sadducees, and Jesus. What struck me about this passage, however, was how out of context it is. Here we we have a lone scribe watching the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees. We can infer from the passage that the exchange is a bit contentious.

But, before I was able to unpack this specific text, I needed to go wider into Scripture. When we back up our reading beginning in verse 18 of this chapter, we will see that the Sadducees were arguing the truth of the resurrection and can a widow marry her husband’s brother. That text discusses how the Sadducees, who say that there is no resurrection, ask Jesus questions about who will be the husband to a woman in Heaven. She has been married to seven brothers and never had an offspring. Jesus responds that they completely misunderstand his message. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. He concludes by saying: You are quite wrong.

So, in this exchange between the group of Sadducees and Christ, the scribe was the outsider. He had a different perspective. The details of that conversation floated below the surface, but what rose to the top was the most powerful lesson in all the world. What the scribe saw, in the periphery of his engagement, was the heart of the exchange. He saw what the Sadducees could not, did not.

When I was fifteen, my parents and I went to visit my Uncle Don. My cousin John was staying with Don that summer, and he and I decided to go to see the movie Aliens. It was opening weekend, and it was supposed to the the blockbuster of the decade. We walked into the theater, and the only two seats available together were on the very front row in the very center. For 2 hours and 34 minutes we cocked our heads back and stared wide-eyed as the movements and sounds bombarded our senses. I was thrilled! Partly because I was a naive 15-year old seeing the biggest movie on opening night in Dallas and partly because I always idolized my 21-year old cousin and he wanted to hang out with me.

But, years later, I saw that movie again. And you know, it was amazing what all I missed when I saw it the first time! Seeing it again on my DVD player was like watching a brand new movie. Sure, I could still see the details. But what I could really see was everything at once. All the movements flowing and jumping and colliding together.

Our scribe saw through to the very heart of the issue: the Sadducees quibbled over details of marriage and widows and rules and “supposed to.” He saw what they said and knew it wasn’t what was real. The scribe new the law; he’d been writing and rewriting the law his whole life. And he new the law was important, but it wasn’t the most important thing. Our gospel says that the scribe saw that Jesus was answering them well. He stepped in and asked Jesus which commandment is the first of all. Then, Jesus told him what the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. In my opinion, it seems quite audacious for the scribe to tell Jesus that He’s answered rightly. What courage! There is something in the scribe’s strength and honesty that Jesus recognizes and appreciates.

John and I were watching the Godfather II yesterday. Michael tells Carlo, “Admit what you did, Carlo. Only don’t tell me you’re innocent because it insults my intelligence.” I see Jesus as Michael Corleone. The scribe understands the heart of this conversation is not about the rules. It isn’t about marriage. It isn’t about the widow and if husbands and wives will know each other in heaven.

The heart of the issue is love. Love for God. Love for one another. The Sadducees are really sad, you see, because they view love as subordinate to law. However, Jesus recognizes the pursuit of love in the scribe. The scribe knows how one side will never see the other.

So, what do we do with this? Where are we in this story? Well, we see a comment online or hear something in the office or from a neighbor that is frustrating or hurtful or, in our opinion, just plain stupid. Okay, we say, I’ll show him! I’ll tell him how wrong he is or how stupid he is. I’ll cut him down with a verbal retort that will strike him to the core, and he’ll finally see how shameful his perspective is. And the words pierce out of you razor sharp and you feel smart and powerful and vindicated and triumphant. But then, if you really care more about how that person is a sinner and child of God just like you are, you’ll realize what an arrogant idiot you are and you’ll have a twinge of regret. Yes, you’ll try to squash that regret saying that you were justified, you were doing the right thing, you have no need to feel badly. That regret, that twinge, my friends, is the Holy Spirit. If you came to the conversation with anything other than love and compassion and faith, you were wrong. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus told the Sadducees? He actually said, “You are quite wrong.”

It’s when we put our rules and our well-defined boxes and our comfort zones above our relationships with family, with friends, and yes even with enemies that we are wrong. We have to stop defining who we are by what we are not. Instead, we should be willing to climb on the front porch swing with another person, figure out what really isn’t that important, see that person as a child of God, and be willing to put their humanity above our own systems of rules and guidelines and definitions. Until we do that, we are the Sadducees arguing with Jesus.

After the beauty and teamwork and compassion that I have seen from this family over the last months, and especially in the last 72 hours, this family is closer and closer to our scribe, though, than the Sadducees. And I pray that, like our scribe, Jesus says to us, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

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