Scriptures: Mark 12:28-3
A lot of people had been arguing with Jesus this day in the temple. This house of worship, where God was to be glorified, had become a hostile environment where different groups with differing religious and political agendas would quarrel about who was right. Our reading this morning is preceded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and these different segments of ancient Jewish leadership. Group after group, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, shuffle on and off the stage with questions to trap or antagonize Jesus. “Where do you get your authority?” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “Is it right to pay taxes to the Romans?” “In the resurrection, who will get to marry the women who had been married to the each of the seven brothers successively?” Each of these questions are meant to either trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble with the local authorities or attempt to find out what side of the religious/political fence he is on. And in each and every case, Jesus offers a variety of responses to the questions that leads the one asking to be rendered silent and amazed.
But then another man enters the scene. Mark just calls him a scribe who has been listening to all the heated conversations. We don’t know much about him. As a scribe, he would have known the Jewish law, the Torah, inside and out and probably would have been asked his interpretation of the law in a dispute. He likes what he has been hearing Jesus say in his discussions with the others who have come before him. He is drawn to Jesus in many ways because of his personal position and Mark casts this scribe as one sincerely interested in engaging Jesus in further discussion not to trap and determine political allegiances, but for the sake of piety, for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of what it meant to be a follower of the God worship at the temple.
This scribe enters the conversation by posing his own question to Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus answers it in two parts, but they are two parts that are so entwined that they can’t be pulled apart. We will discover that the answer isn’t complete without those two parts.
The first portion of the response Jesus gives is rooted in the law in what is known as the Shema, a prayer that has been said by pious Jews throughout history, “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.” The point is to love God completely and comprehensively, with all of one’s being. And that love of God through our whole being begins with worship. NT Wright puts it this way that since we are created in the image of God, “we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, the more we learn to love and worship the one we are designed to reflect. No half measures; heart, mind, soul and strength—that is, every aspect of human life—is to be poured out gladly in worship of the one true God. Whatever we do, we are to do for him” (Mark for Everyone).
The reason this is the first and greatest commandment is not that God wants us to ponder how and if we are loving God with our entire being, or feel guilty that we may not be loving God enough, but it is there to help us respond to the love of God that is poured out upon us. God is love, and the book of 1 John tells us that we love because God first loved us. We don’t love God to try and get on his good side or get favors; we love God in response to the deep love he has given us. We respond back in praise and gratitude to that deep love in everything that we say, think, and do.
In many ways, what Jesus answered up to this point could be considered a complete answer. What’s the greatest commandment? Love God! And I have always wondered if the scribe expected Jesus to stop there, but Jesus doesn’t. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When he sums it up, Jesus is using a mix of singular and plural words, “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”
But here is why they are one and the same. Loving God fully means living in ways that God’s kingdom is experienced and shared in concrete ways. As we grow in God’s gift of grace and love, we grow in our capacity to love and serve as God commands and we do so both within and outside the walls of the church. Love turns prayer and worship into concrete actions in the world because, above all, it is love made real that reveals the kingdom of God. I think this is why the scribe, in responding to Jesus, says that this is much more important than all the offerings and sacrifices done in the temple worship. It is the love of God that leads to loving the other. If the focus only becomes worship and how to live a holy life before God, that worship is worthless, that life becomes self-centered.
But also notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he talks about the love of neighbor. He doesn’t say, “Love others instead of yourself” nor does he say “When you have figured out how to love yourself then go love your neighbor.”
I don’t usually listen to radio preachers mostly because when I listen to one, I want to hear the entire sermon. The couple minute drive from home to the church doesn’t cut it, so it is usually only on road trips that I tune into the sermons on the airways. On one trip, the pastor was preaching on this particular text, but his main thrust was that the church needed to provide classes to help people love themselves. Now, I’ll be the first to say that it is easier to come worship and praise God when I’m feeling good about myself and it seems much more doable to reach out to my neighbor when I’m not worried about the chaos that is happening in my own life, but that misses the point of this text. Most people, on a daily basis, get up in the morning and dress them selves, feed themselves, make sure the kids or parents (depending on the life situation) are taken care of. We love ourselves and our close clan naturally, instinctively in these ways. This is the love of neighbor Jesus is calling us to, a love that sees our neighbor as part of the family that is enveloped not only in God’s love, but also our love.
But if this radio preacher would have said the church needs to have a class on teaching people to receive love, my response might have been different. In this culture that pushes self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be hard to admit we need to receive love from God and each other. Time after time, when I’ve met with people in need, going through hardship such as illness or loss, when it comes time to pray, they say, “But don’t pray for me, there are bigger problems in the world.” Yeah, there might be bigger problems in the world, but this response says, “I can take care of it myself.” Or it says, “I’m not worthy of receiving love.” This closes the door on love that can be shared, I believe, even the power of God’s love. Take a risk and say “pray for me!”
We don’t know what went through the scribe’s mind as he left this encounter with Jesus. The text said no one dared to ask him any questions. I know I would have had questions. Here Jesus has simplified the life of faith: Love God and love neighbor. But simple doesn’t mean easy. One could get paralyzed by the enormity of what it means. Do I run off to Africa and operate an orphanage? Do I start knocking door-to-door down my street handing out pamphlets about knowing Jesus? Do I sing a little louder in worship on Sunday? As a pastor, do I hand everyone an application to go to seminary as they leave today?
No, I don’t think that’s how it works, even though if you are feeling called to go to Africa to run an orphanage, Amen! But how do we, in our busyness of our lives, live into this commandment?
It boils back down to love. God’s love for you and God’s love for the larger world cannot be separated. Your day-to-day life, which God has given you and lavishly poured his love into, is the place where you can glorify God and love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t mean working harder, it means opening yourself to the Holy Spirit so you can recognize the needs of those around you as you live out your life. Margot Starbuck in her book, Small Things with Great Love, points out that in the story of the Good Samaritan, we don’t know why the Samaritan was on the road to Jericho. For all we know he was on his way to coffee at the Jericho Mall to discuss a possible business merger. He was just on his way somewhere—Walmart? A dentist appointment? Starbucks?—when he recognized someone in need and pulled over his donkey to check it out. The regular stuff of our lives–the commute to work, the workout at the gym or gym class, the church fellowship night dinners, home improvement projects, errands, play dates—these are the places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need.
Friends, today is All Saints’ Day. And being a saint isn’t about knowing the right answers. The scribe knew the right answer, but Jesus says that only brought him near to the kingdom of God. A saint is someone who lives the answer, who participates with God in God’s reign by living joyfully in the love of God and sharing it with everyone they meet along the way. It doesn’t mean adding a bunch of stuff or tasks to your life, but it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable at times. But it’s about taking one step at a time, each and everyday, with Jesus into his kingdom. Amen.