May 27, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
The Greatest Commandment
In the Gospel of Mark, Chapters 11 through 16 cover the final week of Christ’s earthly life. It is extremely detailed. We read about Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna’s. Then, on his way to the Temple, he curses the fig tree when it doesn’t produce fruit, a parable for the nation of Israel who is in love with their religion but not with its people and who is not producing fruit for God. We read about Jesus cleansing the temple, destroying the stalls of the money changers who have made the Temple a place of exploitation instead of a house of prayer.
And once again, we find Jesus debating with the Sadducees on church doctrine, as Jesus teaches the crowds in parables of the tenants of the vineyard, of paying taxes to Caesar, and of marriage at the time of resurrection. And now, one of the teachers of the law, a scribe, asks Jesus an important question about the greatest of all the commandments. And the answer is all about love.
I read somewhere that a new Guinness World Record was set for the world’s shortest sermon. An Episcopal priest stood up one Sunday morning, walked to his pulpit, stood there for a moment, and said one word: “LOVE.” Then he sat down. Now I know some of you would like me to attempt a sermon like that. But it’s not that easy.
The word “love” is capable of many different meanings. Love is what a mother gives to her children. Love is what a thrice-divorced Hollywood actress is supposed to have for a five-times divorced actor. Love is what a heroic soldier who gives his life for another’s in wartime is supposed to have. And love is what God is supposed to have for us as it says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” In each of these, love has a different meaning. But in today’s scripture, love means total commitment. Would you pray with me?
In the gospels, Jesus is asked 183 questions. But there are only three that he directly answers, and one of those is in today’s scripture. Jesus didn’t see a need to answer all the questions. Instead, he used the questions to open new ways of thinking that led to parables and sometimes even more questions.
The scribe in our scripture, probably coming to witness the confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees, can’t resist asking Jesus a question. Now, there was no love lost between the Sadducees and the scribes. The scribes were experts in interpreting the 613 commandments of God, the Jewish law. They knew all the rules and regulations pertaining to the commandments. But the Sadducees did not accept the oral law and politically, were more in cahoots with the Roman government than with the Jewish religious order.
As William Barclay says in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “This scribe came to Jesus with a question which was often a matter of debate in the Rabbinic schools. In Judaism there was a kind of double tendency. There was the tendency to expand the law limitlessly into hundreds and thousands of rules and regulations. But there was also the tendency to try to gather up the law into one sentence, one general statement which would be a compendium of it whole message.”
And so, this scribe could contain himself no longer and asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” This scribe wanted one statement which summed up all of the law of Israel. And Jesus, in his wisdom, gave a direct answer.
The first part of Jesus’ answer would have been known to everyone listening, for it was the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel,” the opening sentence of every synagogue worship service. The Shema was from Deuteronomy 6:4, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. It is still used today to open every Jewish service.
The “Shema” was also repeated by every pious Jew morning and evening every day. In fact, it was worn by the devout in a tiny leather box, called a phylactery, on the forehead and on the wrist while in prayer. Godly households also hung the “Shema” on their doors in a small box called a Mezuzah.
Everyone knew this part of Jesus’ answer. Dr. Kent Hughes in his commentary on Mark says, “It was the creed of Israel, Heart, soul, mind, and strength were not intended as a breakdown or a psychological analysis of human personality, they simply meant that everything was to be devoted to loving God. It does not take much of a [person] to be a believer, but it takes all there is of him [or her]!”
So, Jesus says, love God with everything that is you. But he also said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Jews also knew this. It was from Leviticus 19:18. For centuries, the thoughts of loving God and loving humankind had been voiced by other rabbis and scribes, but this was the first time any rabbi had fused these two specific Scripture references together. This was the genius and wisdom of Jesus. And here’s why.
First, the two of these fused together summarizes the entire Ten Commandments. Our love for God summarizes the first four commandments of having no other Gods, no idols, no misusing the name of God, and remembering the Sabbath. The second part of Jesus’ answer summarizes the final six, which have to do with our love for humankind: honoring our father and mother, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying, and not coveting others’ possessions. Jesus’ answer encompasses all these things.
Second, Jesus’ double answer shows that love for God and love for humankind cannot be divided. The Apostle John later built on this statement in the New Testament when he wrote, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
And lastly, Jesus’ command to love your neighbor “as yourself” radicalizes the call to human love. Including “as yourself” provides us with a conscious and conscience-convicting standard, because we sinners all love ourselves. Jesus showed us just how this love was displayed in the story of the Good Samaritan, where he portrayed a neighbor not as a fellow Jew, as the Jews held that belief, but as an enemy, a Gentile, the world next door.
This one statement by Jesus to love God and love your neighbor as yourself was a powerful teaching and the scribe knew it. Religion to Jesus was loving God and loving one another. Jesus would have said that the only way to prove love for God is by showing love for others. Dr. Hughes writes: “The way Jesus said it had never been put so well, or so Scripturally, as now! It was brilliant! It was perfect! It truly encompassed the whole Law. And the obvious [character] of Christ’s person, [because] he was living it, made it all so compelling.”
The scribe was pleased with Jesus’ answer and willingly accepted it. He even went on to say that love was better than all sacrifices. Folks, it is always easy to let ritual take the place of love. It is always easy to let worship become a matter of the church building instead of a matter of the whole life. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite could pass by the wounded traveler because they were eager to get on with the ritual of the Temple. But this scribe saw the value of loving God and loving others as a better way of serving and being in obedience to God.
Jesus certainly saw the scribe’s understanding and appealed to him to move closer to God. Our scripture says, “When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” The scribe had accepted Jesus’ answer and now Jesus was saying to the scribe, “Will you not come further and accept my way of things. Then you will be a true citizen of the kingdom.”
Loving God and loving others as ourselves is something that we do. Love is a word that should tap our energy and flex our muscles. There was a young man who didn’t know that love is something you do when he first got married. He had to be taught. He said to his new wife, “I love you.” He felt it and believed it. But he didn’t do anything about it.
He dropped dirty socks on the floor and said, “Honey, I love you.” He promised to cook supper, but arrived home an hour too late, apologizing with the words, “I love you.” He promised to balance the checkbook but didn’t get around to it until three or four checks bounced. Then he expressed his regrets, adding, “I love you.”
One day his wife said, “You must stop saying that you love me.” He complained, “But I do love you. I feel it; I say it; I think it.” She said, “No, if you loved me, you would do something about it. You would keep your part of the relationship.” She was right, because she knew the full shape of love.
Brothers and sisters in Christ. Loving God and loving your neighbor builds up the heart, soul, mind, and strength. No element of human existence is excluded from this training in faith.
Heart training requires a steady stream of endurance and commitment to be able to love God and love neighbor. In the Book of James, he counsels us to accept the irritations and trials of life with joy, “because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” So, I ask you, “Does love of God overwhelm and overcome your heart, making every heartbeat keep pace with God’s love for you?”
Mind training requires a mind trained in godliness that can control its selfish or hurtful thoughts and instead choose to focus its thoughts and energies on what love demands. When we do not see any way we can love a particularly unlovable neighbor, sometimes we must simply exercise our mind-muscle, focus on the goal of love, and get through it. So, I ask you, “Does love of God inform your mind, making love the mainspring of all your thoughts?”
Soul training requires that we intentionally turn it toward God, regularly bathing it in love, and exercising it daily through prayer. If we don’t, the soul tends to sour, grow surly, and gradually pollute the heart, the mind, and the body. So, I ask you, “Does love of God penetrate your soul, making your every prayer a plea not for yourself and your own desires, but an offering formed and normed by love?”
And lastly, strength training recognizes that a big part of human existence is sheer physical. We have bodies we must feed, clothe and care for. We are subject to injury, sickness and death. It takes a certain amount of brute strength just to get through each and every day. So, I ask you, “Does love of God flow through the strength of your body, making your every step a step toward love in action?”
Jesus Christ perfectly embodied the mandates of the Shema reflecting God’s love and loving the neighbor with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength. We should do no less.