A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 12:28-34 on Sunday 24 February 2019
Our message today begins near the end and in the middle. It begins near the end of a series of conversations between Jesus and his opponents. After all, in today’s passage, it is still Tuesday, two days after Palm Sunday, three days before the first Good Friday. Jesus is still teaching in the temple courtyard, where he’s been since Mark chapter 11. And he’s answered questions on his authority, on paying tax to Caesar, and on the resurrection of the dead.
But our message also starts in the middle. The man who came to Jesus with his question had been standing in the middle of the crowd, listening to these questions and answers. He was a teacher of the law. He was not a neutral observer. He had a stake in the conversation. If he was not one of the rulers of Israel arguing with Jesus, he was at least one of their assistants. Maybe a Pharisee or Sadducee or one of the other factions. The question of Jesus, of who he was and of what he came to do, affected this man as well.
But we don’t know much else about him. We don’t know what was going on his mind. We don’t even know what motivated his question, whether it was genuine or meant to be a trap. We only know four things. He was a teacher of the law. He was listening to the debate. He noticed that Jesus gave a good answer. And he asked his question. “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” The commandment that must be obeyed before all others.
This teacher of the law wanted to put first things first. He wanted to sweep away all the arguments and opinions and get to the heart of the matter. He wanted an end to talk about ideas and theories so he can know what he must do to please his God and to fulfil the purpose of his life. It is one of life’s great questions. Its answer should concern us all.
“The most important one is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jesus’ answer is love. The greatest commandment is love. Now, just stop for a moment and think about the source of Jesus’ answer. The first half comes from Deuteronomy chapter 6 and the second half comes from Leviticus chapter 19. That’s two books from the Old Testament. Because a lot is made of the difference between the Old and New Testaments. People say that the God of the Old Testament is an angry God and that the God of the New Testament is a loving God. People say that the Old Testament is all about judgment and that the New Testament is all about mercy.
But notice how Jesus’ answer shows us that love is the thread that runs through both the testaments. Love is God’s first word and his last word. It is his old word and his new word. Because of love, God made the world. Because of love, God called Abraham. Because of love, God rescued Israel from its slavery in Egypt. Because of love, God raised up David, a man after his own heart, to be the king of his people. God is and always has been a God of love, and all his commandments are fulfilled by love. His wrath is the burning of his holy love against sin. His judgment is the victory of his love against injustice. His salvation is the establishment of his rule of love forever. What is new in the New Testament is that that love is most clearly seen in the life and death and new life of Jesus Christ and is planted in the hearts by the Holy Spirit.
In his answer to the teacher of the law, Jesus said three things. Firstly, God is one. It’s not about mathematics. Like, how many continents are there? Well, there are seven. So, how many gods are there? Only one. No, its message is more profound.
Jesus is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy the people of Israel are just about to enter the promised land. It had been forty years since Moses had led them out of slavery. In that forty years, the generation that had crossed the Red Sea had passed away, and another generation had been born, not in Egypt, but in the wilderness. They had not seen the wonders God did to set them free. They hadn’t heard God’s voice thunder from the mountain. So before they went into the land of Canaan, God told Moses to repeat his law. The name, Deuteronomy, means “a second law.” It’s the same law just repeated.
And in that second law, Moses said, “Hear, O Israel.” Listen up. Pay attention to what I’m about to say. “The Lord our God”, the Lord who saved us, the God who belongs to us, the God whom we belong to, our God “the Lord is one.” This was Israel’s great claim to the rest of the world. Their God was the only God. Israel’s personal God, the one Jesus called “Father”, made the land and sky. He made the mountains and the sea. He didn’t make just Israel’s land. He made all the lands and all the people that live in them. Our life comes from him. We all go to him. Everything we have is from him. He is the Lord of our birth, our life, our death, our present, past and future. No other power can match him in power or wisdom or glory. Any other god that we may serve, whether Baal or Zeus or Allah, whether our race or nation or community or family, whether we bow down to money or to our career or our popularity, they are only idols, deaf to our prayers, blind to our problems, powerless to help. Only Israel’s God, the Father of Jesus, can save. He is the only true and living Lord of all. He is one.
Secondly, this one God, our only Lord, deserves our love with all we are and all we have. Jesus said, still quoting from Deuteronomy chapter 6,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Love is the response of gratitude to God’s amazing grace. Love is the expression of our praise and devotion. It is love that seeks what is good and best for others, and love for God seeks his glory and his will. We are summoned to love the God who saved us with our heart and soul and mind and strength.
The heart is the source of our will. It expresses our true desires and goals. The mind is the source of our thinking. It expresses what we know and the connections we’ve made and the patterns we’ve seen based on our experience. Our soul is the source of our individuality. The bit of me that makes me me. And our strength is all our resources of muscle and determination and courage. These four qualities sum up all we are and all we have, every resource at our disposal.
And it is well worth pointing out that in the cross of Jesus, we see our God give us his best, his all for us. Such an extravagant love demands a similar love in response. A love for God that does not try to save some small part of us just for ourselves. A love that doesn’t say, “Here God, take my money, just let me have me.” But rather a love that trusts that we most surely gain our true selves, when we most extravagantly lose ourselves for God and for his kingdom.
The teacher of the law wanted to know the most important commandment. He wanted Jesus to put first things first. Jesus’ answer was to put God, our only Lord, first in all things. Before our career. Before our retirement. Before our family. In fact, the great secret of the gospel, the one true thing that most people don’t know, is that we love the people in our lives most, when we love God even more.
I’ll even go so far as to say this: the best way to stamp out domestic violence against women is to get men to love God more that their wives, because then, and only then, will they be able to love their wives like Christ loved the church and gave his all for them. We love our children most, when we love God even more. We love our neighbours most, when we love God more than them. And we love our country best, when we do not worship it as an idol, but bow our knees to the only true and living God, the Lord of all nations.
The worst crimes in all history have been committed in the name of some sick and twisted love. But if we love the good and holy God most of all, all our other loves will be wholesome and true. Love for God doesn’t leave us empty, but it leaves us full of love for others. Love for God overflows into all our other relationships. If first things must be first, then God must be first in everything.
But, thirdly, this vertical dimension of love for God has a horizontal dimension that cannot be left out. The teacher of the law wanted to know the most important commandment, but Jesus couldn’t help adding a second. He said, Love your neighbour as yourself.
The quote, this time, is from the book of Leviticus. It wasn’t invented by Jesus. It wasn’t a product of a more enlightened time. No one said, “Guys, let’s stop sacrificing sheep and goats. Let’s just love one another.” It was right there in the books of the law from the very beginning. These two dimensions of love for God and for our neighbour form the foundation of all the commandments. From “you shall have no other god before me” all the way to “you shall not covet your neighbour’s donkey.” Because we cannot say we love God, if we don’t love our neighbour. And we cannot truly love our neighbour, if we do not love God first.
This, again, is what we see in the cross. Jesus, out of love for his Father, truly loves us and calls us his brothers and sisters, carrying our load, and paying our debt, sharing with us our life and death, immersing himself into our whole life’s experience, bearing the brunt of God’s holy love, consuming the poison of our sin so that it dies with him. In the cross, we see both the up and the across, we see the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Jesus’ love, his love for God, his love for us.
And it summons from us a similar love. From the cross, Jesus says, “Love each other as I have loved you.”
The teacher of the law replied, “Well said, teacher. To love God with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” No ritual that we can perform, no song of praise that we can sing, no prayer that we can recite, comes closer to the heart of what it means to be a child of God, saved by Christ and led by the Spirit, than these two commands of love.
And Jesus said to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Whatever happened to that man, whether it was while he was listening to the debates, or whether it was only as Jesus was answering his question, God had opened his eyes to the truth and brought him closer to himself.
How far are you from the kingdom of God? What gods are you serving? What other loves are stealing your heart and leaving you empty? Is your life driven by an extravagant love for the Lord? Or are you holding something back for yourself? Is your heart overflowing with love for others, or are you storing it all up for yourself?
Look to the cross. See Jesus love for his Father and his love for you. May its truth and power draw you closer, so that you may not just be near the kingdom but that you may enter it.