Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2015
Mark 12:28-34 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
Today Jesus would be seen surrounded by reporters and cameras, with a half-dozen microphones being shoved toward his face. Today Jesus would be hounded by paparazzi as the center of a small media blitz. Passersby would be leaning in, camera phones held out in front, to take a selfie with the rebellious rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus had made quite a splash, after all, entering the city to fanfare and then causing a huge kerfuffle at the Temple. He was, for the moment, famous.
And everybody wanted to ask Jesus a question, too, starting with the movers and shakers of the religious establishment in Jerusalem who tested Jesus’ theological mettle with a series of inquiries that clearly had just one ultimate purpose that went beyond idle curiosity.
They wanted to get Jesus into trouble.
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
“Should we heed the Roman IRS and pay taxes to the Caesar or does God come first?”
“When the resurrection happens, who gets the girl in case she married seven guys from the same family?”
Calmly and deliberately Jesus answers each question. Reporters scribbled down what he said. Camera shutters went click-click-click. And the wise in the crowds around Jesus smirked at how well he was getting himself off each hook with which the authorities were trying to snag Jesus.
Finally one teacher of the law asks the ultimate question, especially for religious folks whose sole focus is keeping the Law of God peerlessly: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” People today hear that question and think of just Ten Commandments. But the people in Jesus’ day knew better. The strictest folks among the Pharisees paid heed to—and punished infractions of—somewhere in the neighborhood of 613 commandments.
So when a teacher of the law asked Jesus about “all the commandments,” it was a pretty big list to ponder (the whole list is found here: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm ). But Jesus goes for a couple near the top of that long list in quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 and its call to know that God is one and that our highest duty is to love this God with everything we’ve got. And oh yes, right next door to that commandment is the one that says to love your neighbor, too, because—as the Apostle John will point out in his first epistle—you can’t say you love God but then hate all those little images of God that surround you in your daily life.
Now if you look at the list of the commandments, you might think in one sense this was a fairly obvious choice for Jesus to make. You would, after all, be rather taken aback had Jesus elevated to Commandment #1 something like “Not to eat chametz after mid-day on the fourteenth of Nissan” or “The King shall not acquire an excessive number of horses,” which are two of the 613 commands on the master list. But Jesus was not simply selecting a commandment that was somewhat high on the list. Instead he selected a commandment that in one fell swoop encompassed the entire list because it undergirds the entire list.
In the above paragraph I purposely chose two semi-obscure laws from the big list (there are lots of others like those, however!) but the fact is that whether a particular law is obscure or not, your heeding any of those laws makes no sense unless there is a real God behind those commands. (If there is no God, then these are all random hoops through which we’re told we must jump.) What’s more, you will not feel the least bit motivated to heed any law—much less the whole lot of them—unless you truly love that same God. And since a good many of the things God had to say in the Bible looked toward the welfare of neighbors—a group of people that included strangers within your gates and most anyone else you ran across anywhere in life—your love for God had to transfer to those people, too, or you’d find all kinds of ways to skirt your obligations toward also those people.
But as the rest of the gospel makes clear, precisely that kind of skirting of the law was a commonplace among the hyper-religious of Jesus’ day. Or as Jesus put it on another occasion, they found ways to keep the outside of the cup looking nice while on the inside the cup was filled with horrid stuff. Real love could never countenance such a thing, which is Jesus’ point here. Jesus meant what he said about love being our highest obligation but at the same time Jesus was offering an unhappy critique of the very nit-pickers who had been trying to trip him up with that recent string of questions lobbed his way. Their own efforts to use the Law as a bludgeon revealed their own lack of love.
Preaching on this text today, however, tempts us to locate that sad state of affairs only in the distant past. As Robert Farrar Capon once wrote, it’s too easy to make the Pharisees the black-hat-clad bad guys in some ancient hiss-and-boo melodrama. What we need to remember is that those folks were—in the opinion of most people back then—actually the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Surely they thought of themselves that way. But so did others. Today we think of ourselves this way pretty often, too. That is, most of us who gather in churches each week are pretty sure we have our pious act together. We love God. And we love our neighbors.
Well, most of them. We like most of the people we work with. And the shank of our own congregation is pretty OK, too. Not everyone, mind you. Some of our fellow believers can be real jerks, after all. There must be some legal loopholes that get us out of our obligation to love those people, right? Can’t we “love” people without being obligated to “like” them? Can’t I love the person I refuse to talk to? Maybe my not talking to him is the most loving thing I could do, after all! Maybe.
And maybe not. Jesus says that there is a strong cord, a golden thread, that connects God’s every desire for our lives in his creation with a fundamental love for both God and neighbor. In our everyday actions, we can either trace what we say and what we do along that thread and so let it lead back to the love that is supposed to permeate our every action and word or we find that the thread snaps at some point and we’re left with just a frayed edge that doesn’t end up being loving at all.
The bad news is that we run into that kind of fraying on a pretty regular basis. And if preaching is supposed to do no more than make people feel bad about themselves, then you as a preacher could point that out and leave it at that. But assuming you think preaching is supposed to deliver Good News, grace, and hope, you may want to point out that what undergirds our love if God’s great Love and that even as that Love was able to reach out to us “while we were yet sinners,” so there is more than enough grace in that Love to forgive our failures of love now, too. We don’t rest cheaply on that grace, nor treat it as “cheap grace,” but we take comfort that the divine Love that lies at the heart of everything is always ready to assist us and goad us toward a greater faithfulness in our desire to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
Probably the only real mistake we can make in all this is precisely the thought that since we are mostly loving toward most people, we’re all set on that front. The Pharisees, after all, were aware that they were not quite loving toward everyone but found clever ways to skirt all that as a way to avoid fixing what was broken in their heart of hearts. They didn’t take comfort in God’s grace so much as they convinced themselves they didn’t need any grace unto forgiveness in this area to begin with.
And that is a difficulty that may well prevent a person from even being interested in entering Jesus’ kingdom (itself a gift of grace) much less dwelling happily within the kingdom.
In both Matthew 22 and here in Mark 12, when Jesus quotes the Shema, he changes it just a touch. Deuteronomy 6:5 says to love the Lord your God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” But in the gospels, Jesus adds “and with all your mind.” As Neal Plantinga has noted, surely people took note of this. If some night at bedtime your toddler prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my BRAIN to keep . . .” well, you’d notice! A welter of possibilities exist to explain this change. But for now just one possibility to ponder: the religious leaders in Mark 12 were using their minds to cook up clever ways to trip Jesus up. Did Jesus think to throw in loving God with also our minds as a subtle rebuke to these people whose own minds were, just then, in the service of something profoundly UNloving!?
Writer and poet Kathleen Norris sometimes gets asked to come into schools to help students learn a little bit about writing poetry. One day Norris was in a 5th grade classroom where she asked the kids to write a poem using some similes. To Norris’s surprise, one little boy wrote a strikingly good poem entitled, “My Very First Dad.”
I remember him/like God in my heart, I remember him in my heart
like the clouds overhead,
and strawberry ice cream and bananas
when I was a little kid. But the most I remember
is his love
as big as Texas
when I was born.
Norris was impressed with the poem but this little boy’s teacher was stunned by it. For one thing, the teacher said, this boy was not a very good student. But what was really surprising for Norris to discover was this child’s history. Yes, he had been born in Texas but he had never known his father–the man had skipped town on the day this boy was born. “I remember him like God in my heart,” the little boy wrote. But what he really meant was there was nothing to remember–no father, no love, and maybe no God either.
A second story comes from the life of Winston Churchill. When Churchill was still very young–seven or eight years old–he was packed off to boarding school. Not surprisingly, he quickly became enormously homesick. So he would write pathetic letters home to his mother, begging her to come visit him, pleading with her to arrange it so he could come home for the weekend sometime. But Winston’s mother had never really had much time for her son–she was far too wrapped up in a busy social life.
So when she received her son’s earnest letters begging for some love and attention, she usually just tossed them aside. Indeed, Churchill biographer William Manchester once made a sad discovery. While looking through some boxes of Churchill’s old letters and diaries, he ran across one of those letters in which young Winston begged his mommy to come visit him at school. But not only had his mother ignored this plea, she had even used the backside of the letter as scratch paper on which she scribbled out a guest list for a party she was planning to throw the next month!
In both of these stories it is not difficult to imagine how much damage was sustained by the hearts of these boys. And in both instances it was a failure of love that did the damage. There is so much that we can deal with in a context of love. We can forgive people easier where love is. We can put up with foibles and faults where love is. We find it flat out possible to go on with life in a rough world when love is present.
But take away love and we wither. We can’t go on. We’re damaged maybe beyond repair. There’s a reason Jesus chose what he did as “the greatest commandment.”
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