Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 4, 2018
Mark 12:28-34 Commentary
Digging into the Text:
The first thing I noticed about this text is that this is that while all the other encounters Jesus has with the Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, are adversarial, this one is positive. This particular Scribe had been listening to Jesus discuss theology with the Jewish leaders, and he was really impressed with Jesus’s answers.
So, he asked Jesus the most basic and important question of all, and it doesn’t appear that he was trying to trip Jesus up but was genuinely interested in the answer. “Which commandment is the first of all?”
The Old Testament gives 613 commands in all, the Rabbis counted them. That’s a lot. So, one of the questions that occupied the teachers of the law was how to rank them. The purpose was not to rank them in importance so that some could be obeyed and others ignored. The idea was that isolating the first, the most important commandment would help them interpret all the others.
Jesus replies by reciting the Schema: “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 Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6, right after the Ten Commandments are given in chapter 5. In a sense it is a commentary, or elucidation of the first commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” but instead of being stated negatively, it’s stated positively, and not only positively, but as an act of love and devotion rather than sheer obedience.
Many scholars assert that by Jesus’s time, the Schema was recited each morning by every observant Jew. It was and still is today the central statement of Jewish faith.
One interesting aspect of Jesus’s statement is that he adds something to the Shema as it’s recorded in Deuteronomy– “and with all your mind.” We love God with our minds. This might be an important point to make in congregations today. In some strains of Christianity today there is a kind of anti-intellectualism, a sense that thinking too much about the faith is dangerous. It was enough to motivate Christian historian Mark Noll to write a book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” in which he decried this anti-intellectual tendency.
Thinking about God, seriously studying God’s Word, speaking for the truths of the Christian faith in confronting the great issues of life in the world today, is an important and necessary way of loving God. What greater activity is there to occupy the mind than to think God’s thoughts after him, to seek to understand the ways of God, to go as far as we can into the beauty of God’s being.
The basic, the most important, the fundamental commandment of all is to love God. It is not to obey God, though that is certainly included in love, nor is it to worship God, though love leads inevitably to worship. God desires our love because God is love. We were made for love. The whole universe is made from love and for love. And the greatest love of all, from which all other loves flow, is to love God. In these words Jesus opens our hearts like sunflowers to the sun. We are made for love.
The Scribe had asked for the first, the key commandment, but Jesus adds a second. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19: 18) This was not an entirely new coupling, but was already known in Jesus’s day. It combines the two “tables” of the Ten Commandments, 1-4 having to do with God, and 5-10 having to do with the neighbor.
When Jesus calls it the second, he does not mean that it is secondary to the first. He closes by saying, “There is no greater commandment than these.” Notice the singular word “commandment,” and the plural, “than these.” In other words, we should think of these two commandments as one; you can’t have one without the other.
The first is first because it’s the necessary foundation of the second, but the second is just as important as the first. It’s found in every book of the New Testament, but nowhere more powerfully than in I John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars… The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (I John 4:20,21) It’s like breathing in and breathing out. Love God; love your neighbor. You can’t have one without the other.
The scribe’s response to Jesus is surprising because we don’t expect it. This is the only time in the gospels in which the interaction between Jesus and one of the Jewish leaders is wholly positive. Most of the time they are trying to trap him in a mistake or reject what he says. But here the scribe says, “Wow, that was good! That’s exactly right.”
The scribe’s positive response to Jesus is also important precisely because it demonstrates that Jesus is not proclaiming something new. Jesus may be radical in his application of the law, but he understands it deeply and affirms it wholeheartedly. Jesus is also a good Jew. He affirms the Old Covenant even as he inaugurates the new covenant.
To show that they are having a real conversation, and not a “gottcha” session, the scribe wants to continue the conversation. “O yes, that’s so true, and love is so important that the prophets say it is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Jesus’ response to the scribe is interesting and even somewhat hard to pin down. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” It could be heard in several ways. Is Jesus saying something like, “Hey, not bad. You know a thing or two yourself.” Perhaps. It certainly is a positive and encouraging response.
But the scribe is “not far from the Kingdom.” What does that mean, what further steps must he take to be in the Kingdom? It’s important to know and think deeply about God’s commandments. It’s certainly important to know the centrality of love in keeping God’s commandments. But it’s “not far” from the Kingdom.
You’re not there yet until you follow Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He is the love of God and neighbor personified because in his love for the Father he gives up his life for the world.
Preaching the Text:
By combining the Schema with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus offers a truth worthy of some deep consideration. When we hear that loving our neighbor is the necessary corollary of loving God, it doesn’t just mean that loving my neighbor follows after our love for God. It’s the other way around too. I can’t properly love others, even those closest to me, apart from loving God first and most.
What is deeper, more fierce, than the love of a mother for her child. Yet, in the light of Jesus’ words, the mother’s love can only come to its truest, purest expression, when it is firmly based in our primary love for God. When we love our children within the context of our primary love for God, then it banishes all the idolatrous, clinging, self-serving loves that can mar even this close relationship. In the same way, Paul calls husbands and wives love each other “in the Lord.” He meant the love of a man and woman must be lived out in the atmosphere of a primary love for God. Such love preserves the beloved’s dignity, and provides the ongoing basis for fidelity, mutual forgiveness, and freedom.
The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is especially challenging in this time of deep social division and tribalism. As soon as we hear the words, “and your neighbor as yourself” we are likely to think of the neighbor as other people, plural, the masses, humanity in general. In fact, the word is pointedly singular. The love command does not call us to a sentimental humanitarianism. It calls us to a concrete love of the particular neighbor who happens to wander through our life that very moment.
That may be wife or husband, children, friends, colleagues. It may also be the person who personifies everything that I despise, the very opposite of what my tribe believes and stands for. If I love God, I must also love the ones he loves, and that’s pretty much everyone. It’s crucial to keep this commandment in the forefront to prevent us from sliding into cynicism or anger, and to refuse the tit for tat of mocking epithets and that are so easy as we bang out our Tweets and Facebook posts.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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