Deuteronomy 6:3-9; Mark 12:28-34
Dr. Danielle Wood, a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and Director of that school’s Space Enabled Research Group, spoke this week at the Westminster Town Hall Forum as part of the current series on climate change. As a scientist, Dr. Wood uses technology deployed in outer space to combat climate change and increase equity on earth. It’s fascinating work.
In my office before she spoke, she told me how pleased she was to be at Westminster. Then she asked, “Why is a church concerned about climate change and inviting a scientist to speak?”
She seemed genuinely perplexed, as if we had wandered into surprising, unknown territory. My quick answer went to the climate change part of her question. I said that our congregation has deep commitment to care for the earth. She nodded and smiled.
If only I had had the time, I would have told her about the Presbyterian Church’s historic emphasis on education – which goes to the science part of her inquiry. We do not check our brains at the door of the sanctuary. I might have mentioned that this very week, on the second Sunday of Lent, we would be exploring a discipline of Christian faith that we believe belongs in the silence of this season and every season, and that is study – feeding the life of the mind with a commitment to learning. Education is at the heart of how we practice our faith, I would have told her.
That’s why we’re concerned about what’s happening in Minneapolis public schools. For the first time in 50 years our city’s educators are on strike. The lack of agreement between the union and the district has created new challenges for exhausted teachers, students, and families after two years of remote schooling. Many Westminster households are affected.
Since the Covid pandemic began two years ago this week, we’ve discovered the importance of those we now call essential workers. Teachers are among them. Educating our children is essential. Children need to learn. In watching our two grandkids – now two and a half years old and two and a half months – it’s so clear that a human being, even infants, naturally longs to learn, and needs to learn.
No matter how we feel about the teachers’ strike, this is a good time to remind ourselves that as Presbyterians we stand in support of public education. In 16th century Geneva, our forbear John Calvin and his colleagues instituted free public education for all. An educated citizenry, they reasoned, would help reform church and society. Literacy for elementary students was a priority so they could learn to read the Bible. Secondary students were taught to think critically so they could interpret scripture for themselves and apply it to their own lives and the life of the community.
Everywhere the Presbyterian Church spread, to France, Scotland, and Holland, and much later to parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, education became a high priority. In the US, including here in Minnesota, Presbyterian ministers established – and often led – the first public schools. These were not parochial, religious institutions as we see today with Roman Catholic and evangelical private schools. Presbyterians in this land have held fast to a commitment to the singular importance of free, quality, equitable public education for all children.
A recent statement by the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA affirmed…
“The long-standing commitment of the PC(USA) to public education as an essential institution contributing to the common good in a democratic society.” (https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/acswp/pdf/lovingourneighborsk-12.)
The crisis in our public schools today affects all of us. Ninety percent of K-12 students in the US – nearly 60 million children – attend public schools. The future of our nation is being worked out in public school classrooms. We all have a stake in the outcome of the negotiations underway between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the District. Let us add them to our daily prayers – the teachers and students and their families, and administrators, and do what we can to support them.
The Presbyterian emphasis on education has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Jewish tradition’s focus on teaching children. We hear that in Deuteronomy:
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
In ancient Hebrew households, educating children was a paramount responsibility of each family. As in our time, providing for an educated people was crucial for the vitality and sustainability of the community.
We don’t know much about the education of Jesus as a child, but like other Jewish boys of his time, he must have attended the local synagogue school. The rabbi in Nazareth was probably Jesus’ first teacher – how would you like to be in his shoes…or sandals! Jesus’ parents also would have participated in his education, remembering the admonition in Deuteronomy.
Jesus would have memorized key parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, keeping them in his heart as his parents taught him to do. At the local synagogue school, the scrolls of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures would have been the only “textbook” used. We know from the gospels that Jesus had good knowledge of the Bible; he often quoted it in his preaching and teaching.
So, when religious leaders and lawyers challenge Jesus, he’s ready. A scribe tests him by asking the question any Jewish child would have heard a hundred times at home or in school.
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus quickly answers by reciting what Jews call the shema:
“The first,” Jesus says,
“Is ’Shema, Israel…Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.” (Mark 12:28-30)
Of course Jesus would know this, thanks to his lessons as a child. It was not a particularly difficult test. But in his response, he goes beyond mere recitation of the old text from memory. Watch what happens here, as it illustrates the importance of education and the life of the mind.
Jesus would have learned the words as they’re found in the Hebrew of Deuteronomy: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Heart, soul, strength.
But Mark’s gospel has Jesus saying something different in Greek: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus is, in effect, conducting a Bible study here, in response to the scribe’s question. He’s offering an exegesis of the ancient words, thinking critically about them. He’s teaching us to use our minds when it comes to understanding and interpreting scripture.
Jesus demonstrates here what became a basic practice for Christians: intellectual preparation. You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind. Engaging in regular study of scripture and nurturing the mind through reading and listening and research, not only in theology and Bible, but also in science, the humanities, and the arts. They are essential disciplines for a healthy, dynamic faith. That’s why we would invite a scientist to speak in our sanctuary.
In the silence of this Lenten season, we can adopt study as a daily practice – maybe starting with only a few minutes. Reading our way through the gospels, a chapter each day; or reading poetry or Westminster’s Lenten booklet, or an online devotion every day; or making our way this season through a novel or some other book that raises questions that stir the heart. Using the mind to nurture the spirit is central to feeding and sustaining our faith.
Back in the days when the Presbyterian Church was in turmoil over the question of the place of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church, those of us arguing for full inclusion would often be accused of denying the authority of the Bible. People would cite certain texts as if they could have only one, definitive meaning – what we call proof texting.
We would counter with critical reflection on those same biblical passages. They were called the “clobber texts” because of how they were used against people. We would offer an alternate biblical understanding. Using the power of the human mind to interpret scripture and testing that interpretation by the law of love – Does our reading of scripture show the love of God? – led us to a different conclusion from those who opposed us.
Jesus also could have been accused of rejecting the authority of scripture by inserting his own interpretation of the “greatest commandment” and tweaking the wording of it. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to name a second commandment that is like it.
Here Jesus uses his knowledge of the whole of scripture to interpret what God commands faithful people to do. He quotes Deuteronomy- the expected answer – and then pulls a text out of Leviticus and offers his view that it is of equal importance to the greatest commandment. (Leviticus 19:18)
“The second is this,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12:31)
To his credit, the scribe agrees.
In this teaching of Jesus, we witness the result of a lifetime of scripture study. Love of God and love of neighbor become the heart of the gospel because of the intellectual work Jesus does in understanding the grand sweep of what God is up to on this earth as told in the Bible.
Call him the thinking Jesus, the studious Savior. He’s no proof-texting Messiah, but a teacher and a learner willing to use his intellect in a dynamic conversation with scripture to understand the hope of God for the human community and for all of creation.
Christianity has always been a faith that depended on the use of the human mind. Early church leaders were among the greatest scholars of their time. Often, they were the only literate people in a particular region. During the most difficult centuries of European history the quiet work of monastic scholarship bore along the memory of the best of human endeavor for future generations.
The Reformation democratized learning and scholarship in church and society, especially with the advent of the printing press and growing literacy. Our Presbyterian tradition undertakes the study of scripture and the writing and work of others, of scientific texts, of poetry and literature, not for their own sake, but for how our study can help us understand that we belong to One who has gifted us with minds to learn and hearts to love.
I wish I had had the time for a more complete response to Dr. Wood, our speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, when she asked why a church would have a scientist come talk about climate change.
My longer answer would have described the insistence in our stream of Christian faith on using all our God-given intellectual capacity to understand the world and, based on that understanding, live in a way that reflects God’s will.
It’s why we do not see science and religion as being opposed to one another.
It’s why we have depended on the best medical science to guide our response to Covid.
It’s why we bring critical thinking to biblical scholarship.
And it’s why regular and careful study, whether personally or in the church – or in our public schools – is an essential reflection of God’s will for us.
Thanks be to God.