“A Wise Answer”
Mark 12:34 – November 1, 2015
Rule books are handy things to have around.
What about the rules of the road? Doesn’t it help everyone to know and understand the rules of driving? Plus, the rules of the road give us a handy guide for safe, reliable, consistent driving. Also, we can think of rules in sports; in football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, just to name a few. All of these rules help teams, individual players, and referees to understand what to do—and what not to do in a game.
Do you know one particular person who knows the rules of one particular sport backwards and forwards? I mean, this person can call balls and strikes faster than an umpire behind the plate. Or, can figure out exactly who went offside before a football snap, or when a player got fouled in a fast-moving hockey game? It doesn’t have to be one of these sports, but any sport. And, that person is really proud of their exceptional sports knowledge, too?
That’s a lot like the situation Jesus is dealing with. As one of the commentators said, “Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the scribes [and teachers] were always evaluating Jesus’ activities. They judged Jesus theologically.” The Rabbi Jesus and some high ranking teachers of the Law are having another in their series of continuing discussions. These teachers really enjoyed discussing the Law, and both the major as well as the minor points of Judaism. Some teachers would get all excited and rub their hands at the prospect of a good argument! I mean, discussion.
That’s where we pick up our thread of the narrative. Different rabbis or teachers had different opinions on what was the greatest of all commands. I am certain some of these teachers wanted to know what Jesus considered the “most important” of the 613 laws in the Mosaic law code, which was (and is) the official, orthodox Jewish rule book.
Jesus does not name one of the “big 10,” the Ten Commandments. Instead, He responds with the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” from Deuteronomy 6:5-6.
Are you familiar with the Jewish custom of the mezuzah, put on the doorpost of observant Jewish homes? I quote from www.chabad.org: “Regarding these words, G‑d has commanded us, “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your home, and on your gates” (ibid., verse 9). Hence the mezuzah: a parchment scroll inscribed with the verses of the Shema prayer is affixed to the right doorpost of every room in a Jewish home.”
“Why a Mezuzah? In addition to its role as a declaration and reminder of our faith, the mezuzah is also a symbol of G‑d’s watchful care. The name of G‑d, Sha-dai, which appears on the reverse side of the parchment, is an acronym for the Hebrew words which mean ‘Guardian of the doorways of Israel.’ Placing a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants—whether they are inside or out.”
Just from this short excerpt from Chabad, an orthodox Jewish website, you can see how serious this was to the scribes and teachers of the Law, in Jesus’s day as well as today. So, yes. Keeping rules properly was really high on the observant Jew’s priority list.
Going back to Jesus, and His response, what IS the greatest commandment, anyway?
Jesus did say that the greatest command was the Shema, a basic, fundamental, foundational statement of faith. Love God. Period. This was also a standard daily prayer in Jewish tradition. I suspect everyone in the room with Jesus knew Deuteronomy 6:5-6 so well they could say it backwards, or in their sleep.
But, Jesus doesn’t stop there! No, He makes another definitive statement. “31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Did you follow that? Jesus made “the greatest command” into a two-part command.
Love God, love others. Two sides of the same coin.
Jesus quoted from another verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviticus 19:18b. Yes, it was included in the Mosaic Law Code. In the Jewish rule book. Except this particular law wasn’t considered so all-important in Jesus’s day. That is, until Jesus reached back and pointed to it.
Love God, love others.
You’d better believe this two-part law applies to a modern world torn apart by arguments, resentments, mourning, sadness, bitterness, and downright hatred. Not to mention war, violence, drought, hunger, and natural disasters, just as much as it applied to similar situations in ancient times and places. Even though this modern world finds it difficult to come near to God, even to believe in the concept of a Higher Power; this two-part law still applies.
Yes, this two-part law also applies to us, today. I encourage us all to avoid the trap of thinking that those old stories from the Bible, and from the Gospels, just apply to those people, two thousand years ago. False! Wrong-er than wrong! Jesus’s words apply just as much to us, today. To modern people, running on the treadmill of our daily routines. Yes, us up-to-date folks, who don’t have time for God, or for church. “Don’t you know? My life is so full I won’t have time to make it to church this week.”
Love God, love others. Remember, these are the words of Jesus.
In this vignette from the Gospel of Mark, one particular scribe engages with Jesus. “Well done, Teacher!” the scribe responded. “You’re right when you said: ‘He is the only God and there is no other god besides him,’ ‘Love the God with everything you have,’ 33 and, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Obeying these commandments is worth far more than all the worship in the Temple at Jerusalem!” These words are not combative, or argumentative. This scribe agrees with Jesus! The Gospel describes this teacher as sincere, affirming of Jesus and His statements. Plus, this teacher acknowledges that the institutional aspects of Jewish ritual and observance are less important, secondary to loving God and loving others. Isn’t it true that religious ritual so often gets in the way of truly loving?
This scribe, this important teacher of the Law gets where Jesus is coming from. Listen to what Jesus responds: “34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to [the teacher], ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”
Summary statement? “When we hear these words, we know that we are close to the center of Christianity, that we are close to the heart of God. The cross of Christ, the most important symbol of the Christian faith, has two dimensions: a vertical love to God and a horizontal love towards our neighbors.” (from a Gospel analysis by Edward Markquart)
The simplicity, truth and wisdom of love is at the heart of the Good News. Are there things we are engaged in right now that are secondary, less important that Jesus and His call to love God and love others? Think about it. If we truly love, what else is necessary?
Love God, love others. Jesus’s greatest command.
Thanks to Rev. Edward Markquart and http://www.chabad.org for their assistance in the formulation of this sermon!