God's Story, Our Story: The Greatest Commandment

Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Mark 12:28-44

It was a sincere question.  It wasn’t intended to test Jesus or pigeon hole him.  Not like the questions of the Sadducees, the group of Jewish aristocrats who ran the Temple, who were debating with Jesus and trying to entrap him.  The scribe we meet in today’s story isn’t being crafty or disingenuous.  He has a burning question for Jesus and he really wants to know what Jesus thinks.

Here’s his question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  In other words, of the 613 commandments in the Law of Moses, which one is the greatest—which one supersedes them all?

The first part of Jesus’ answer is no surprise.  In fact, it is the answer that most devout Jews would have agreed with.  Jesus summarizes the shema, the central confession of the Jewish faith.  We find it in full in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear (shema), 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 strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and your gates.

So important and foundational was the shema that it was (and still is) the very first prayer that a Jewish child was taught to pray.  The shema gave shape to the way one was called to live all of life.  To love God with your entire being—everything you have, everything you are.  To make the one true God and his will the very center of your whole life.

Jesus gave a good answer; the right answer.  But then he does something that is surprising.  He adds more:  “And a second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

It’s not enough to love God with your whole being.  You also must love your neighbor.  It’s not the command to love one’s neighbor in and of itself that would have caught the scribe by surprise.  Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Loving your neighbor was one of those six-hundred plus commands.  What’s so surprising is two things.  First, that Jesus would add this command from Leviticus to the Shema, therefore elevating it to a place of supreme importance.  Sure, loving your neighbor is important, but it’s not the most important commandment.  But Jesus has the audacity (or the chutzpah) to add to this sacred, core confession. 

Think of it like this.  Imagine someone adding another line to the Apostle’s Creed or a couple more phrases to the Lord’s Prayer. Even if you wholeheartedly agreed to what was added, it just doesn’t seem right to add to these sacred words!  You just don’t fuss with sacred creeds and prayers like these.

But that’s exactly what Jesus does.  He takes this sacred confession, the very heart of the Jewish faith, and he adds love of neighbor to it.  In effect, Jesus is saying that the Greatest Commandment is to love God and your neighbor.  You can’t obey one and neglect the other.  They fit together like a hand fits in a glove.

But here’s something even more shocking about Jesus’ teaching.  It’s not only that he elevates love of neighbor to the same plane as love of God, but it’s the way he answers the crucial question, “And who is my neighbor?”

When Leviticus speaks of neighbor-love, what it means is “your own people,” those fellow Jews.  But Jesus tells us our neighbor is not only the person who is just like us but our neighbor is anyone—and I mean anyone—who is in need.  Jesus illustrates this most powerfully in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan—do you remember that one?  Where the Samaritan, the least likely of persons, demonstrates love of neighbor by caring for the wounded man alongside the road.  Jesus breaks through the boundaries of religion and ethnicity, social class and gender, and anything else that we would use to justify not acting in love towards a person in need. 

This is the heart of Jesus’ mission—why he was sent by the Father into this world.  To show us what it means to love God and others.  And to make it possible for us to love God and others too.  This is the mission that Jesus gives us as his disciples, captured in our mission statement here at Fellowship: our mission is to love God and others, as an accepting community centered in Christ, focused on developing faithful followers of Jesus.

The scribe may have been caught by surprise when Jesus adds love of neighbor to the shema, but there is something in Jesus’ answer that resonates with him.  “You are right, Teacher,” he says.  “God is one and besides him there is no other; and to love him with all the heart, and with all understanding, and with all strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”   He gets it.  The scribe really seems to get what Jesus is saying.

Mark tells us: When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any more questions.  You are not far from the kingdom of God.  What does Jesus mean by this?  Do you find it a curious response to the scribe, especially since he got the right answer?  If he answered correctly, why doesn’t Jesus say, “You have entered and received the kingdom of God!”?  Jesus seems to be saying, “You’re so close, standing right on the border of the kingdom of God, but not quite there.”

Why is he not quite there?  I wonder if it is because just getting the right answer isn’t enough.  As we’ve seen in Mark’s Gospel, true faith goes beyond intellectual assent and requires action.  If we want to cross the border and enter into the kingdom—enter into the life of God made accessible to us in Jesus—we have to go beyond just answering correctly.  Faith is about acting on what you know and say you believe. 

Jesus then goes on to warn the crowd to beware of the scribes who think they have all the right answers but then live in a way that keeps them from actually loving God and neighbor with their whole heart.  Beware of those who walk around in long robes, expecting everybody—including those in need—to bow down to them.  Beware of those who want the best seats in the synagogue and think God favors them because of their knowledge and religious piety.  Beware of those who use their religion to actually harm their neighbors—especially the poor and the vulnerable in society—who devour widows houses by taking their money and using it for their own gain.  To sum it up: Jesus says watch out for those who have all the head knowledge and act religious—go to church regularly and put money in the offering plate and attend Bible studies—but who don’t actually get into action around really loving their neighbor—especially those whom society ignores and rejects.

All of this raises some questions for us.  Questions like who is your neighbor? Let’s begin literally—who are the neighbors that live around you?  Do you know their names?  How about their stories?  Of course it goes beyond just those who live by us—neighbor refers to those we work with and who are on the traveling soccer team with our kids and the cashier we meet at the grocery store.  Neighbor refers to people we may not encounter—who are part of different circles and groups than us.  What was Jesus’ definition of neighbor? I remember: any person in need.  Here’s the next part of the question: how are you getting into action around loving your neighbor as yourself?  What is keeping you from getting into action?

Maybe its busyness.  Life is so full and overwhelming right now, you don’t have the time or energy to care for somebody else, especially somebody who may be different from you.  Maybe it’s that we’re moving at such a hurried pace that we don’t even notice our neighbor—we don’t see the people God has put around us, not even right in front of us.  Maybe we’re afraid of being uncomfortable, of having our lives disrupted.

Some of us hear this sermon today and we feel a rush of guilt and shame.  I know, I know, we think.  I’m not doing enough.  I’m not helping others enough.  I need to do more.  But how?  I’m exhausted.  But what if this call to neighbor-love is not primarily a call to “do more” or “help more.”   What if it is more about who we are—how we “be”—than what we do?  What if it is a call to be with others?

Ken gave us preachers away last Sunday when he pointed out that most often, the preacher is really preaching to him or herself.  So I’ll just be direct.  One of the challenges for me personally when it comes to really loving my neighbor goes beyond busyness or not having enough time and energy.  For me, those are excuses. 

I had an epiphany this past week when I was re-reading Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong.  She confessed that the greatest obstacle for her when it comes to loving others is that when we encounter others in need, they hold up a mirror and expose our own need.  And that makes us feel too vulnerable.  Those of us in places of privilege and power don’t want to have to acknowledge we have needs.  We want to meet the needs of others, do the helping.  That makes us feel good, powerful, even righteous.  Brene writes: “Helping is courageous and compassionate, and a sign that you have it together.  Asking for help is a sign of weakness.” Can you relate?  I know I can.

So here is something that is going to sound very counter-cultural to so many of us.  What if loving your neighbor is more above learning to “receive” and “be helped” by others—especially those who are different than you—then you being the one who does the helping and giving?  What if we received the gift from our neighbor that we, too, have needs and that it is ok and really important to acknowledge that?  In fact, acknowledging our own need may be the first step to really entering and receiving God’s kingdom—our need for God’s grace; our need to be loved and accepted by God and others.

What if we asked God to help us “see” our neighbor—really see them—not as an object for us to fix or help but as a gift to be present with?  What if we saw the mutuality in the relationship?  That we all have needs, and that we give and receive—and in the giving and receiving we love each other well and acknowledge dignity in one another?

I wonder if this is why Jesus lifts up the poor widow in this story as the example of everything he’s been talking about—love of God and love of neighbor.  In fact, Jesus lifts her up as the primary example of a disciple.  In contrast to the religious leaders who act like they have no needs and have it all together and simply give out of their surplus, Jesus lifts up a person who knows she has needs—everybody knows.  And yet even in her “neediness”—she knows she has something to give.  She gives all she has out of genuine love for God and others, she gives out of her poverty.  And Jesus says she’s richer than the person who put in the most money that day in the Temple treasury.  She understood it and lived it—that loving God and others was about both receiving and giving—that you need both to enter into loving relationships.

When I was serving my first church out of seminary—a church in a community of about five thousand people in northwest Iowa, there were train tracks that literally separated the “have’s” from the “have nots.” So when we talk about people from the “other side of the tracks,” this was literal.  An influx of people from the “other side of the tracks” started coming to our church and wanted to join our church family.  Most of these folks had never stepped into a church before, and they didn’t know there were rules for how to behave in church.  They didn’t dress up, didn’t put on a façade, didn’t act like they had it all together.  They came as they really were.  It was beautiful and incredibly disruptive for us good church people.

There was a man named Robert (not his real name) who started coming to our church who was a registered sex offender.  You can imagine how uncomfortable this was for many people.  As I got to know Robert, I learned that he had been sexually abused himself as a child, and he had mental health issues—all of this contributed to his behavior.  But Robert was a child of God, and he was kind and gentle and had a big heart.  Robert managed to get a job that paid minimum wage, but he was still well below the poverty line. 

One day he stopped by the church unexpectedly and said that he had a gift for me.  To be honest, I had packed my schedule tight that day and had no room for margins, so I really didn’t have time for this interruption.   But here Robert was, standing before me, holding a plastic bag from Hy-Vee (the Iowa version of Meijers).  He told me how much he appreciated me, and that had gone to Hy-Vee and bought some food to make me a special Pastor Appreciation lunch.  So we stepped into the kitchenette next to my study, and Robert went to work.  He pulled out a sub sandwich bun and a variety of meats and lettuce and tomato and all the fixin’s.  I’ll never forget the smile on his face as he went to work making that sandwich.  And he bought his favorite potato chips and two 20 oz bottles of Coke. 

Now I know that Robert didn’t have the money for this special lunch, and yet he gave it to me out of love, out of his own poverty.  For an hour we sat there and ate together, just being with each other.  It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, because of the love and sacrifice that went into it.  And one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.  Robert gave me a gift that day that I will never forget—a gift that went beyond a delicious sandwich.  It was the gift of learning to see someone as God sees them, and to be seen as God sees me.  It was the gift of learning to receive, of recognizing my own need.  It was the gift of learning to “be with” and not to have to “do for.”  It was the gift of learning how to love my neighbor and be loved by my neighbor.

Who is your neighbor?  Who does God want you to see?  And how might you get into action by loving them—a love that begins with acknowledging your own need—of learning to receive even as you give. Next to Jesus, I think Bob Dylan says it best: May you always do for others and let others do for you.   Look for this opportunity this week.  And when it comes, set everything aside to be fully present.

Because just maybe you will find yourself not far from the kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.