Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
What is the most important thing? When I was in school my classmates and I would often ask questions of our teachers trying to learn what the minimum requirements of the class were. Many times we would spend more energy trying to figure this out than actually doing the assignments, and if we would have just done the work we would have been fine. The economy of the classroom is often that way. At times the questions were to gain clarity but all too often it was to get out of doing what we knew we should do. Our teachers knew what we were up to, probably because they had done the same when they were students. I observed something as I progressed through my education, usually I did better on my papers if I just did the work without trying to negotiate the requirements. When I would just did my work my own way the professors usually gave higher marks because of the creativity factor. On one of my assignments my professor actually wrote on the paper, “I do not know what to do with this papers because I have never had one written in such a way, but since you fulfilled the requirements you get an A.” I guess most people do not write theology papers in a narrative format.
Teachers are around to pass on knowledge. Part of our human nature is to be curious. We want to know things so we study, investigate, question, and observe. Teachers are around to assist parents with those constant questions of our youth, as we grow teachers continue to pass on knowledge even though they may not have the same titles. Jesus was one of these teachers. Many called Him a rabbi, meaning teacher, but he did not officially hold that title. He traveled from town to town teaching, preaching, showing people how to life a life devoted to God. Although He did not have the credentials of the various scribes, they all recognized that He taught with authority, just prior to this exchange of ideas there was another discussion between the teachers, like many discussions they build and grow. They observed that Jesus had some very good things to say. This discussion that we did not read today was over the deep theological debate over the resurrection.
The laws of what Christians call the Old Testament stated that if a man dies without a child his wife is to marry his brother and the first child from that union would be considered the child of the first husband. It’s quite a confusing ordeal. The questions that was being discussed was not if this law was acceptable in the contemporary time frame, but over whose wife this woman would be during the resurrection. This was a debatable issue because the issue of resurrection of the dead was debatable. Some of the teachers of the law believed that the first husband would be the primary husband and so she would be bound to him. Other teachers did not believe in resurrection at all so they did not see the point of debating the issue. Jesus was brought into this discussion and was asked what He thought, and his response was that people would not marry or be given in marriage. He did not say that there was not a resurrection of the dead, but that marriage was not part of it. This answer did not take either side of the issue totally, but was different. They recognized the uniqueness of this answer. In their debating they did not even consider that the things just might be totally different in the life to come.
After hearing this discussion an eager scribe thought that this man might be able to answer some of his questions. In essences he asks, “What is the most important thing?” This man is a teacher of the law, and he devoted his entire life to learning and following the law. Through all of his studies he had learned many things, there were laws, interoperations of the laws, and a life to build around each. These teachers and lawyers would determine how best to pursue this life and teach it to those around them. These teachings were often called the yoke of the rabbi, used in this way because it was a burden to bear. There were expectations that needed to be met, so people would constantly be asking how best to live.
He asks this question both to test Jesus’ commitment to His faith as well as to answer his own personal desires. To live a disciplined life takes hard work. It truly is a burden. What must I do? It is a question that many of the scribes and several others have asked. By his question he was asking a multitude of things, firstly he wanted to know how his teaching compared to the teachings of Jesus. The answer Jesus gave was, “’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 second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe was excited to hear these words being uttered from the mouth of this teacher. He answers back by saying that Jesus had answered wisely and that these were things more desirable than all the sacrifices and offerings.
There is no other commandment greater than these. The wording of that sentence is a bit odd. Jesus gave two sets of commandments yet he says there is no other commandment greater than these. There is a singularity in the plurality. The two parts cannot be separated. In another gospel Jesus says that the second part is like the first. I have often wondered about this wording, not that I do not agree with what is being said but how it is worded. To love God is to love your neighbor and to love your neighbor is to love God.
You can attend meetings for worship everyday, you can give more half your income to the church as an offering, you could even go to the farthest reaches of the globe to show your love and devotion to God, but if you do not love your neighbor He does not even see it. You could also feed thousands, house the homeless, educate those without the ability to pay for an education, and show the greater love for your neighbor than anyone else but if you do not do it out of love for God then it is nothing more than empty hope. Jesus taught about these things several times. The rich young ruler went away from him because Jesus said that to inherit eternal life he would have to sell all he had and give it to the poor. For that man, he showed the greatest devotion to God, he kept the commandments to the letter but he did not love God with everything he had, because he loved his money just as much as God if not more. When it was said that to have eternal life all he would have to do is give it all away, he could not make that sacrifice and instead turned his back on Christ. Jesus also taught about people that came before him claiming to have healed many and spoken prophetic words in his name, showing grace and mercy to their neighbor, yet he also turned these people away saying, “I have never known you.” They loved their neighbor but did not love God.
James the brother of Jesus in his letter spoke of faith and works. James challenged those that listened to him to show him their faith without works, and he would show them his with. Our faith, our love for God is shown by what we do for others. Our love for others also should be done with praises to God that we have the opportunity to share the blessings He has given us.
Love is greater than all the offerings and sacrifices we can give. Love is a choice and an action; it is not an emotion, although it can stir emotions within us. To share what we have with others stirs within us a strong emotion of thanksgiving and grace. To receive a gift from others also stirs emotions of inadequacy and grace. Each aspect starts with a choice and an action. To give, to receive the emotions of thanksgiving we first choice to share our blessings with someone else and then we follow through with that choice. A gift and a meal must also be accompanied with an equally intentional choice of accepting the generosity and receiving the gift. This is why so many of our strongest memories are around holidays where we give and share gifts and food with our relatives and our friends, like we will do next Sunday evening here at Willow Creek, and like we will do in a few weeks with our relatives.
Jesus looked at this scribe and said something that he rarely said to the religious leaders around him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” I often wonder who this scribe was, could it have been Nicodemus who came at night to ask questions of Jesus, could it have been Gamaliel who was not part of the group but did not wish to persecute the followers of Jesus? We do not know for sure who this scribe was but we do know that he knew something of the light. He knew through his studies of the law and of the prophets that God was more concerned with living the intent behind the law instead of performance and keeping up appearances. He knew that the relationships with God and those people around you are more important than the religious activities one can perform.
We live in a time of change, an era in history where we are at a crossroad. Many believe that we just might be in the end of days, which we very may be in, but I do know for sure that we are nearing an end of an age. We look around us and we see the lowest average church attendance in generations, we see higher crime rates than we ever remember, we see poverty hitting not only “those” people but also our own family members. And we ask why? Just the other day on the radio I listened to a commentator ask what age group was the least religious and his answer was 18-29 year olds, but this same age group is seeking spirituality in a greater way than many generations prior to them. They are seeking hope because just like all of us they see the darkness and they are just as scared. What attracts those people to a church? What are they looking for?
They are looking for people that Love God with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and with all their strength. They do not just want religious devotion but a reality that they can experience. They are also looking for people that love their neighbor as themselves. They are looking for people that are actually believe and live according to their beliefs. They want to see people that serve in the community more than just attend worship meetings. They want to be part of a community that trusts God more than statistics. They want to be a member of a community that actually participates in miracles like the feeding of the 5000, instead of just reading about them. The people that we are so worried about the ones we are afraid will be the undoing of our society, want to love Jesus. They know what He taught and they love his message, but they do not like what His messengers have become. They love Christ but they do not trust His Church. They do not trust us because so often those in the church only live half the Gospel. We either love God or we Love our neighbor, but rarely do we love both.
I mentioned a paper that I wrote for a theology class that my professor did not know how to grade. The paper was not a technical paper; to be honest I did not know how to put the words on paper in a scholarly way so instead of trying to do that I decided to write a story. I wrote a story of a person that was facing incredible stress and as a last resort they decided to go to the church to speak to the pastor, but the pastor was busy talking to someone else. This broken person just sat in the hallway lost not knowing which direction to take, and the church janitor came by and began to talk to them. The conversation continued as the janitor continued to perform his tasks, and the person continued to speak. This simple janitor was able to pass on to this struggling person the truth of the gospel in a way that they could understand. The janitor did not have a degree in theology; he did not have a career that would make people jealous, because he was just the person that cleaned the church. But he loved the church, he loved God, he took the job because he could pray when he took a break and he could read the books of the library over lunch. And he could talk to people as they came in, he loved to greet them and wish them the blessings of God. In my story this janitor walked with this person who was unable to see through the darkness, and was able to shine some light back into their life. In the story the person never did speak with the pastor, they never received the words of wisdom from the great teacher, instead they found hope through the words of the person scrubbing the toilets. The great teacher may not have time, or they may not even have words, but the community can love.
“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. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are called to love above all things, to love with everything that we have, and everything that we are. We are called to share that love with the person sitting next to us, across the street from us, and even the person downtown. As we enter this time of holy expectancy my hope and prayer is that the Spirit of the Living God will teach us, show us, and urge us to fulfill that command here in our community.