This Week’s Sermon – First Things First

SCRIPTURE – Mark 12:28-34 – One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

First Things First
Mark 12:28-34
Nov. 11, 2012

Well, after our detour last week into politics we’re back to the gospel of Mark. It’s nice to be done with all that political stuff, right? Wrong! The very first line of our passage today says, “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with each other.” Oh great, a story about a journalist covering a debate! I thought we were finished with that. Verse 35 says, “And then, the fact-checker arrived on the scene…”

Actually, it seems as if Jesus is never finished with debates. The religious leaders are constantly trying to paint him into a corner, to get him to say something incriminating that will give them a legitimate reason to arrest him and get him out of the way. This passage in Mark takes place during Holy Week, as Jesus nears the end of his earthly mission. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and is now trying to teach in the Temple. But every time he opens his mouth to give a lesson, a debate breaks out.

This story in Mark comes at the end of three such debates, each instigated by the religious leaders. The first one dealt with Jesus’ authority, the second one with paying taxes, and the third one with marriage. Debates about authority, taxes, marriage…didn’t we just have a series of those? Who says the Bible is out of touch with today’s world! Two thousand years later we’re still arguing about the same things. In each instance Jesus answers the leaders in such a way as to avoid their trap, which only makes them madder. Jesus may be popular with the crowds, but he’s not winning any votes from the Pharisees and Sadducees.

In the midst of this contentious time, we have today’s passage. A Jewish scribe who’s overheard these confrontations comes to Jesus with an additional question. Scholars debate whether the scribe was trying again to fool Jesus or if he was honestly seeking guidance. I would like to think it was the latter, that this scribe saw something more in Jesus than a threat to the established order.

His question cuts to the heart of Jesus’ message: “Which commandment is first of all?” The Torah, the law of God that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, had 613 laws in it, covering a wide range of topics from purity to family relations to dietary restrictions. An observant Jew’s goal was to follow the law as faithfully as possible, but as you can imagine, when you’re trying to remember 613 laws, it’s easy to lose track of where you are on your checklist. So this scribe wants the Cliffnotes version of the Torah. If you had to boil it down, Jesus, what’s the top bullet point on the list?

Jesus must have been in “question avoidance” mode because instead of giving the scribe just one commandment, he gives him two. The first is this: “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.” With this answer, Jesus is quoting one of the most famous Jewish prayers, the Shema, which pious Jews say every morning and every evening.

One of the purposes of the Shema was to assert the one-ness of God in the midst of the polytheistic pagan religions that surrounded Israel. When all the other nations were worshipping multiple gods, it was quite a statement to say that we have only one God, and that God deserves our whole allegiance. Now, you could argue that the Shema is much less relevant today. We Christians are monotheistic, worshipping one God, shown to us through Jesus Christ, living in us and around us through the Holy Spirit. OK, you could argue that’s actually three versions of God, but we ministers aren’t so good at math, so I’m stick with my “one God” theory. Do we really need to be reminded that we are to worship our God with our whole being when we only have one God to worship? Or do we?

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.” Maybe that question is better asked this way: How much of “all” is enough? I mean, it can’t really mean “all,” because then there would be nothing left. So how much is really “all”? If you go to church every Sunday for 75 years, you’ll spend about 3900 hours in worship. Some of us may feel like we’ve already met that quota. That’s about 1% of your waking life spent singing hymns, staying awake during prayers, making your grocery list on the bulletin during the sermon. Is 1% enough?

Maybe that’s unfair, because many of us do more than just come to church on Sunday. Let’s say we do that, plus go to Sunday School, plus attend a ministry team meeting or education event during the week. Let’s say we spend around six hours a week at church. That’s about 5.3% of our waking hours each week. Is 5.3% enough? Let’s not talk in terms of time. How about money? The Bible says we are to give 10% of what we have to God, right off the top. Some of us do that, others more, others less. What about 10%? Is that close enough to all for God?
“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 heart is the more than just a pumping station. The Jews believed it was the command center of the body, the location of our innermost being. The soul was what God gave breath in the creation story, the source of our vitality. The mind is where we do our thinking and reasoning, balancing our emotions with intellect. And our strength is not only our physical abilities but our resources and possessions. That pretty much covers everything we have. And God wants it all.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. I mean, that’s plenty, right? But Jesus says there’s another commandment that’s so important it has to be added: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This was not a new concept to the scribe. He had surely heard the original version in Leviticus, as well as the teachings of the famous rabbi Hillel. Hillel was asked this same question as Jesus, and he responded, “What you hate for yourself, don’t do to your neighbor. That’s it. The rest is commentary.” While Jesus’ second commandment is commendable, it wouldn’t have been particularly earth-shattering.

But there are two things going on here that ARE earth-shattering. First, the Jewish definition of “neighbor” and what Jesus means here are much different. The original Hebrew word for “neighbor” could be translated “one’s own kin” or “sons of your own people.” So that concept of “neighbor” had some pretty narrow parameters. Jesus explodes those. When he’s asked this same question in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jew is left beaten and robbed in the middle of the road. One of his own kin comes along…and passes him by. Then the son of his own people comes along…and passes him by. Who stops? A foreigner, an outsider, someone who didn’t look or talk or think the same way. It’s hard to put a boundary around Jesus’ definition of “neighbor.” Jesus’ neighborhood isn’t 1% of the people or 5.3% of the people or even 10% of the people.

The other thing that Jesus does here that would have been a radical reinterpretation of these two commandments is that he puts them together. You can’t have one without the other, he says. Your love for your neighbor originates in your love for God, and your love for God emanates from you into love for your neighbor. Jesus calls us to love vertically toward our God and horizontally toward our neighbor, which ends up looking a lot like a cross.

That kind of love is very, very difficult. Often times we’ll end up doing one or the other, but not both. Sometimes our love for God doesn’t always translate into a loving attitude toward each other. Sometimes our efforts to do good and help our neighbors are motivated by selfish reasons other than our love for God. We try to give God our all, and God turns around and gives it to someone else! We give God our heart, and God calls us to love a stranger. We give God our soul, and God calls us to breathe life into someone else’s hopelessness. We give God our mind, and God asks us to teach what we know to someone else. We give God our strength, and God shows us someone who needs to be uplifted.

It would be so much easier to just do one or the other of these commandments! Can’t I just love God and not worry about other people? Can’t I just help others and not have to give so much to God? Henri Nouwen says, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to live life.” Yes, it is! But walking down those paths take us further and further from the kingdom of God, not closer to it.

Jesus lets the scribe know that a person who knows these two commandments is on the right path. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” That statement hangs out there like an invitation, doesn’t it? The scribe agrees with Jesus’ teaching, saying it’s even more important than the sacrifices offered in the temple. But our journey of faith doesn’t end with saying the right things. We can’t love with our whole being a religious principle or theological tenet. Instead, we are called to love a personal God, shown to us through Jesus Christ, to love with all we have and all we are. This is not called the Greatest Commandment because Jesus said it. It’s called the Greatest Commandment because he did it, showing us the way to live it out.

God does not love only certain portions of who we are. God doesn’t portion out grace in fractions or tithe 10% of God’s love to us. God loves all of us – the warts, the selfishness, the disease, the brokenness. God loves it all. Thank God we don’t get only 5.3% of God’s love, right? We get it all. So, can we do anything less than to love God back in the same way, with all we have and all we are, all our heart and soul and mind and strength? In response to God’s love so lavishly poured out for us, can we do anything less than to love our neighbors, not just those we want to love, but those who need to be loved? Can we do any less than put God first of all?


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