Scripture: Exodus 20; Mark 12: 28-34 Nigel Bunce
Medical Aid In Dying: MAID and love of neighbour connect with the scribe, Jesus, and the Great Commandment. But in Canada, currently proposed changes may not make MAID always the ‘least bad option’.
The greatest commandment: context
A scribe asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” The context is that this was the culmination of a series of challenges to Jesus that Mark’s Gospel records in Chapter 12.
First, the Temple elders had challenged Jesus’ authority. In response, Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants. They took over a fine vineyard for themselves, and killed the owner’s son. At the end of the parable, the Temple elders realized that Jesus was speaking about them. They had forgotten that they were only tenants in the Promised Land that God gave them.
Next, some Pharisees asked Jesus a trick question. Was it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor? The Pharisees were scholars who organized worship in synagogues rather than the Temple. Jesus answered, “Give the Emperor what is his and give God what is God’s.” This implied, “If you truly believe that you are made in God’s image, then give yourselves back to God.”
Next up, a group of Sadducees, a Jewish sect that did not believe in resurrection. They spouted a hokey story about a woman with seven successive husbands. They asked “Whose husband is she at the resurrection?” Jesus dealt with them equally effectively. Resurrected souls are not just a continuation of earthly bodies.
The scribe’s question and Jesus’ answer
Finally, a humble scribe asks about the Great Commandment. Jesus answered with the familiar words about loving God and also your neighbour. We will use it later this morning as a profession of faith. Superficially, Jesus told the scribe, “You know this already. You say it every day at Morning Prayer.”
To love God first and foremost followed up what Jesus said about paying taxes to Caesar. The scribe then added that love of God and neighbour is more important than the animal sacrifices in the Temple. To which, Jesus responded “You are not far from the kingdom of God”.
Jewish and Christian hierarchies
There’s a hierarchy here. The Temple elders; the Pharisees; the Sadducees. All people of authority within Judaism. The Temple elders basically tell Jesus, “How dare you challenge us?” We run the Temple. Likewise, the Pharisees were trying to keep up synagogue worship against a tide of Roman paganism.
For the Sadducees, it was a question of promoting their doctrinal position about resurrection of he dead. Only the scribe, a relative nobody, realized that how you treat other people is more important than rituals or doctrine. You could even say that it’s a true reflection of how much you respect God.
Today’s perspective on this matter is actually the same as it was in Jesus’ day. Loving God isn’t just a question of listening to what Church authorities tell you. Whether that so-called authority is a pope, a bishop, or even a priest like me. What counts is what’s in your own heart, in your own conscience.
The Ten Commandments and the Summary of the Law
The scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important?” I expect that the scribe was thinking about how to rank the Ten Commandments in order of importance. Last October, I noted that the first four commandments are about our relationship with God. The five “Thou shalt not” commandments, and the command to honour your parents, are about how we should treat other people.
Jesus called the ancient shema the summary of the law of Moses. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” As Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Thus, you can discover all the nitty-gritties of 1st century Judaism in these two statements. Or, as Rabbi Hillel once wrote, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.”
However, it isn’t heretical to ask, “How are the Ten Commandments relevant today?” A few weeks ago, I said, “Times change and so do values.”
Medical Aid in Dying: MAID and love of neighbour
The Sixth Commandment continues to be a live issue today. ‘Thou shalt do no murder.”
How should Christians, specifically Progressive Christians, address abortion rights and medical aid in dying (MAID)? Do they represent murder, as some would suggest? I have argued previously for MAID as the least bad option to alleviate suffering, even though it contravenes the commandment.
MAID and love of neighbour is very much a live issue right now in Canada. Parliament has until the end of this month to amend the eligibility rules for MAID. This is because of a court challenge to the 2016 law on MAID. John Ibbotson recently wrote in the Globe & Mail that reasonable people can support MAID in principle while having serious concerns with the government’s present proposal. For example, many disability advocates call the proposed expansion of MAID, “a legally- and socially-sanctioned substitute for assistance in living.
Evolution of Medical Aid in Dying
Today, many advocates claim MAID as a right. That everyone should be able to choose when to die. This is probably the end point of the evolving debate. Would MAID still be the least bad option? Already, 1% of all deaths in Canada now involve MAID. That’s ten MAID deaths every day.
At present, society is changing MAID from an alternative to a painful death into an alternative to a painful life. Someone might think their mental or physical illness or disability makes life intolerable. In fact, the real issue may be poverty, or an abusive environment, or inadequate access to treatment.
This is especially an issue for people in long-term care. The COVID pandemic revealed that many people in care suffer from neglect. They may feel that life is not worth living. Should the state assist their death, or instead improve the quality of care? Is MAID still the least bad option?
Concerns about MAID
We picture MAID in a sunlit room, with flowers, family well-wishers toasting the soon-to-be-departed with a glass of wine. But I worry that MAID will evolve from being a sacred act of mercy into an everyday event, of no special importance.
However, I have real concerns about expanding the extent to which physicians become agents of death. One solution might be to replace doctors with people specially trained for this task. But there is always the danger that this could develop into a state-sanctioned way to get rid of the marginalized in society. Canada does not have an unblemished record in this area. Is MAID still the least bad option?
I began with Jesus telling a scribe that our imperatives are to love God and neighbour. I end by asking whether our views on MAID and love of neighbour are congruent? And, what advice might Jesus give to our parliamentarians as they wrestle with this modern iteration of the scribe’s question?