Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 31, 2021
Mark 12:28-34 Commentary
The text’s message this week is simple. It’s the all-encompassing nature of the application that gets overwhelming.
Did you know, for instance, that there are 613 commandments in the Pentateuch? Summarizing and prioritizing, as Jesus does here, was a normal practice among the rabbis and scribes of Judaism, not to mention that it’s a helpful practice for remembering the spirit behind each of the particular laws. Each of the laws existed for a reason, we might even say a message—they weren’t there to simply be obeyed and checked off as “kept.” In actuality, each commandment had a purpose and communicated something bigger about God, God’s design and intent for the world, or were pointing to an important truth about human preservation and flourishing. Both the all-encompassing love for God and the act of loving our neighbours as ourselves are commands found in that set of 613.
What Jesus does here is very important, and worth highlighting again and again. The scribe asks him for the “greatest” or “first” commandment, and no one would be surprised to hear him answer with the shema. In fact, the shema had become a cornerstone for the people of God, recited regularly by individuals each day. But Jesus doesn’t stop there; he treats the shema and loving one’s neighbour as one thing. First is love of God, then second is love of neighbour; using the plural “these” Jesus recognizes that they are two different actions, but he also connects them as one commandment (notice that the word “commandment” is in the singular).
What are we to make of this grammar? I think it’s clear that Jesus is saying you can’t really do one without the other. We can’t say, “I love God and that’s enough.” Nor can we know how best to love our neighbour without loving God with all that we are. The implication for the shema having first place in the pair is that being “all in” through love of God will produce love for neighbour that matches the love we have for ourselves. Basically, though, the grammar stands as a stark truth that we don’t get to choose who we love or treat with love; God does, and God says we ought to love God, ourselves, and others. From these three directions for love to flow and extend, each of the 613 commandments find their source and purpose.
Jesus does another interesting thing through the words he chooses for the shema. Along with the traditional heart, soul, and strength, Jesus adds mind, placing the last piece of the human puzzle in place. The heart was thought to be the seat of our spiritual life, or inner being; the soul referred to one’s emotions and desires; and strength was understood as one’s power or ability to take action. Adding the mind meant adding one’s understanding and intelligence to the equation. Every facet of what leads to our human activities, then, is involved and called upon to love God as heart, soul, mind, and strength are able.
Notice, though, that the scribe leaves out the mind but refers to understanding instead of the soul… this implies that Jesus is expanding the meaning—just as he does by adding love of neighbour as the other side of loving God.
There’s one more part to take note of, and it’s this tidbit that really connects today’s passage with the narrative we’ve encountered over and over in Mark. The scribe praises the answer Jesus offers and speaks another truth: to God, loving God and neighbour matters more than performing any other religious duty, task, or keeping any specific law. It is this insight that Jesus takes note of as a sign of wisdom. He tells the scribe “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But is this a compliment, a statement of fact, or a warning?
Remember the rich man (chp. 10)? He too was not far from the kingdom and understood what Jesus was telling him, but he could not do what was required of him. He was close, not far from the kingdom, but he was not in it. Or consider the conversation Jesus has with the disciples after rebuking Peter. Jesus tells them that to follow him, they have to be “all in” and “ruin” their lives by taking up their crosses and following him (chp 8). And what about the repeated message about welcoming and centering people from the margins in all of the accounts of Jesus and children—that our service to others is the way that we serve God (chp 9 & 10)?
The message of the gospel of Mark has just gotten a little clearer. Agreeing with and understanding the idea/the law/the commandment get us close to the Kingdom of God, but obeying it through action is what actually shows that we are part of God’s Kingdom of flourishing. How we live shows whether we have gone “all in” for the love of God, ourselves, and others.
According to Jesus Christ, holistic love is discipleship, and it is much better for ourselves and for the world, than piece-meal offerings and sacrifices. The 613 commandments were the component of the Old Covenant, and Jesus became the New Covenant for us. But the strength and power of both of the covenants remains love: God is love and God loves his world. The Holy Spirit’s invitation to discipleship is to enter the never-ending love that sustains all that exists, to receive and to give without pause and hindrance in the name of Christ, the one who showed us love in the flesh.
Without love, we gain nothing (1 Cor 13). We don’t know what the scribe did—did he walk away thinking his compliment had been returned, or did he understand that Jesus was telling him he was not quite there yet? Did he find love?
May we have the greatness of what the shema commandment holds before us: To have the spirit of love, to understand love, to feel love, to act love. To be all in for love in the way that God is all about love.
We have another turning point here, as cued by the second half of verse 34: “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Since Jesus entered Jerusalem (at the beginning of chapter 11), the religious leaders have been peppering him with questions, baiting him for debate, hoping to catch Jesus making a precarious claim. The scribe who credits Jesus with being wise asks the final question. Immediately, Jesus takes the driver’s seat and sets the direction of the conversation through the end of chapter 13.
According to Morgan Cutolo from Reader’s Digest, “Close, but no cigar!” appears to have originated at 1920s carnivals, where games were for the adults, and the prize was a cigar. If you missed the target, the person running the game would declare, “Close, but no cigar!” Consider another idiom: “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Both of these sayings help us remember the metanarrative message about discipleship in the gospel of Mark: we can’t just know things, we have to know them by doing them. Further, the agenda of what we are to do is set by Christ, not ourselves (think of the rich man or when Peter is rebuked). Jesus says that the scribe is not far from the Kingdom, but he hasn’t said a thing about the scribe’s faith, nor do we read that the scribe became a follower (like Bartimaeus did). It turns out that discipleship is meant to be a bit more like gambling, we have to go “all in”: heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What does “love” for neighbour look like? That’s a big question and a big scope, so sometimes it’s easier to think about what is not loving rather than what is. I’ve been thinking even more about this because last month (September 2021) there were a number of protests (anti-Covid public health policies and mandates) in my province. There’s nothing wrong with using one’s democratic right to protest, but the issue became about where the protests occurred as large groups gathered outside of and around hospitals—who, of course, had nothing to do with writing the policies being protested. In the city of Vancouver alone, 1000s of people blocked the streets and sidewalks that sick people (think ambulances on the way to the ER, and patients going for cancer treatment and surgery) needed to use. Many of those affected took to social media to describe the ordeal: ambulances blocked, immunocompromised patients yelled at for wearing a mask as they tried to make their way into or out of the hospital, tired patients and staff listening to the cacophony outside while trying to recover, rest, and serve. Could these protests have been done in a more loving way? It appears so, for even the organizers changed plans for subsequent protests, promising to not exercise their rights outside of hospitals.
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