Mark 12:28-34 The Greatest Commandment
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.
At the end of the early service on Easter Sunday I greeted people as they headed out the door to their family gatherings. One parishioner leaned in to me as he left and asked, “Did you hear about the bombings in Sri Lanka?” I hardly understood his question because it was whispered with a line of people behind him. It didn’t compute since my heart was full with the joy of Easter morning. Bombing? Sri Lanka? Where is that? Was anyone hurt? The morning moved on at a fast pace with brunch, the excitement of an egg hunt and the sounds of our choir practicing for the 10:30 service. My mind moved on from this man’s question. I hadn’t yet heard of the bombing—and really didn’t want to!
Across the world the Christian Church anguished over this intentional desecration of our highest holy day. We hugged our children a little closer. We noticed our surroundings more intentionally. We prayed for people in another part of the world that many of us had to look up on our phones or computers. Where does Sri Lanka sit on our globe? What are these peoples’ customs? Who would do this to them?
We learned that it is a Muslim extremist group who claims that the Easter massacre was to avenge the slaughter of the Muslim devotees in New Zealand. Unbelievable, I thought. It seems painfully clear that two wrongs do not make a right! I thought of the outpouring of the world to those impacted by the loss of life in New Zealand. People of different nationalities, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds decried the act of violence. Folks offered prayerful and financial support to people we acknowledged to be our brothers and sisters. Did the Sri Lanka sleeper cell notice the global outpouring of support? Sadly, we know that they did not. Their “us versus them” take on the world did not allow for “the enemy” to be seen in a positive light. Their minds were closed to new perspectives and revenge was their only thought.
In Mark’s gospel we see in Jesus a remarkably different model for communal living. We have to pull back from our specific story to understand the setting for this conversation. The Jewish leaders were dogging Jesus’ every step, threatened by His fame. He arrives in Jerusalem at the peak of His popularity, having won people over by His miracles, teaching and compassion. He interpreted the scriptures with authority and throngs of people hung on His every word. He blasted the power-hungry rulers who cared only about their own clout and paycheck rather than the congregation of lowly folks entrusted to their care. When Jesus called them out on their wrong priorities they set to work with a goal of destroying Him.
So the passages that precede this one depict His engagement with priests, scribes, and Sadducees. They throw one challenge of the faith after another at Jesus. Jews loved to debate religious minutiae so this arguing would not have seemed out of the ordinary. But Jesus knew that their motive was to trip Him up. We’ve all been drawn into debates that we know are un-winable. Undoubtedly you know what topics NOT to bring up around your Easter dinner table, even with those who are closest to you! Politics and religion are famously areas to avoid conversationally if you wish to preserve healthy relationships! But these Jewish big-wigs are hell-bent on exposing Jesus’ apostasy so that the crowds would abandon Him. But Jesus answers with such wisdom that their plot fails and they are left speechless. They re-dedicate themselves to the cause of killing Him off but it would have to be out of view of the adoring crowd.
In Mark 12: 28 a teacher of the law (which means “Pharisee”) has been taking in this debate. He asks a difficult question of Jesus but his motive seems different from the other rulers. The Jews lived according to the 10 Commandments given to Moses. We completed a Bible Study this winter on these ten rules for living and discovered that they are not as cut and dry as we might think. In His teaching, Jesus expanded the traditional understanding about these rules. Don’t pat yourself on the back just because you didn’t murder someone today. If you harbor hatred in your heart toward someone, you have already sinned. Even if you never do murder them, the fact that you have wished them ill, is a spiritual death. How about adultery? I know of one marriage that nearly ended because the husband developed an on-line relationship with a woman. He’d never met her but regularly exchanged intimate messages with her. He argued that it wasn’t adultery when his wife discovered this “other woman.” He had to come to terms with the fact that he had been untrue to his wife in his heart. So he either had to repent and end the on-line tryst or sacrifice his marriage. What appears to be ten black and white rules need interpretation and the Jews of Jesus’ day had 613 laws they needed to obey.
So, when the Pharisee asks what law is most important of all the commandments, Jesus is stepping into a minefield. As we read through this conversation we understand that this man is genuinely interested in Jesus’ answer. He is impressed with Jesus’ spiritual intellect and wants to learn from Him. His colleagues are satisfied with check-mark religion. This allows you to give yourself a good report card at the end of each day if you manage to follow the letter of the law. But this Pharisee understands the intent behind the rules God delivered through Moses.
Jesus’ answer has to do with love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. To the Old Testament wording, Jesus added the “mind.” We are, whether we think of it or not, theologians. We are students of God. Whatever we believe about who God is, what it means to follow Jesus, how we discern the will and presence of the Holy Spirit, this is part of our theology. Jesus affirms that we use our mind with just as much importance as our heart, strength and even our soul! We need to be good theologians which means we must know in whom we believe.
We must also love our neighbor. We start with a love for God and then turn to our responsibility to deeply care for our neighbor. In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear WHO the neighbor is by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. It had the same shock value for His contemporaries as if I extolled the virtues of a good Islamist Iraqi in my preaching. Jesus’ parable would have felt like a punch in the gut because He changed the rules on who was an outcast. An admirable Samaritan?? Never! So Jesus sums up all the laws that weighed down His people with a directive to love God with our whole being. Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Corinthians: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.”
The Pharisee understands how beautifully Jesus has answered and commends Him for His wisdom. The Pharisee is a Jerusalem insider but is open to God’s leading. His theology is not buttoned down and closed off. He is teachable! He knows that a simple checklist at the end of the day doesn’t add up to our spiritual report card. When this leader acknowledges that love for God and neighbor is more important than any other religious act, Jesus commends him with a high compliment: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Amidst jealous and murderous plotting, one man is willing to learn from Jesus. They have an open conversation in which there is a give-and-take of deeply-held beliefs. They affirm the Jewish traditions which urge the community to care for the most vulnerable members of society. Their conversation underscores that the Good News Jesus preached doesn’t coerce or mandate love. It evokes worship of God and a willing obedience to a holy way of life. Love covers all the other obligations we accept as followers of Jesus Christ.
What comes with that love is sacrifice. Any of us who have children understand that love calls forth sacrifice. Anyone who has stood at the altar and made vows of faithfulness to a spouse understands that this commitment to love for a lifetime requires sacrifice. Holy Week includes the cross and resurrection. The cross completes the story about love. A love that is not willing to sacrifice for another is not love. Some of us understand, because of who lives next door to us, that loving our neighbor does not necessarily come naturally. We may be irritated that the guy next door only mows his lawn once a month. I know people who were reprimanded by neighbors in their condo association for leaving the trash can on the curb for more than 24 hours. So if little things like this can set us off and dominate our dinner table conversation, how do we negotiate differences in religious convictions or political persuasion?
On Easter Sunday the life of Christian discipleship was clearly defined by the bombing of joyful churches celebrating the resurrection. It was the cross the Sri Lanka Christians encountered instead. Rather than a willingness to engage in open dialogue about differences, the Islamic terrorists defiantly sought revenge. It feels like our world has ramped up such a violent game of hatred as if someone can keep track of the score. In a conversation with a Pharisee, Jesus sets up a safe space for the two men to talk about their most cherished beliefs. They come to a shared perspective, reminding us that the maturity of any congregation is measured by their ability to embrace diversity and talk openly about differences. This is continually a difficult lesson for us but it’s crucial for us—for our world—that we re-dedicate ourselves to getting it right!