Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 4th, 2018

Text: Mark 12:28-34Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The First Commandment

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 and 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; 33 and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

If there’s such a thing as a “Christian Manifesto,” this is it: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and 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.” Every one of us here this morning can use this as our personal yardstick by which we can measure how well or how badly we’re living up to Jesus’ call to us. No degree in theology, no ordination, no special training, no special equipment is required. Just willing hearts tuned in to the “Jesus frequency.”

Once again, we need to note that the conversation this passage records comes toward the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jerusalem is barely ten or so miles away now, and within a few short days will come the triumphal entry, followed by the trial and the execution on the cross at Golgotha. The tension in the air is electric. Jesus’ enemies are gathering together to finally put an end to this upstart young rabbi from nowhere.

So it’s easy to miss a real glimmer of hope in all the darkness. That glimmer of hope is the interchange between Jesus and that scribe which makes up most of today’s passage. The “scribes and Pharisees,” two of the leading religious groups in that society time, have repeatedly had their collective nose knocked thoroughly out of joint by this Nazarene – yet here we have an account of a scribe who “gets it.” He affirms what Jesus has been teaching – “You are right, Teacher!” He gets it! And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

It might not seem like it, but this was a profound moment. It’s like when we suddenly hear our kids repeat back to us something that we’ve been trying to teach them. There’s a deep sense of pride, but even more than that, an even deeper feeling of satisfaction in knowing that, yes, we did our job as parents.

Perhaps Jesus felt that same kind of satisfaction – here was a scribe agreeing with him!

But why did this scribe ask that question in the first place? Well, in the Judaism of that day there was a kind of double tendency going on. The first was a tendency to expand the law into literally hundreds and even thousands of rules and regulations, kind of like the exploding diagrams we get when we’re trying to bolt together grills or patio furniture.  At the same time, there was also an equal and opposite tendency to boil down the law into as few sentences as possible – even down to one sentence, one general statement that would cover all the bases.

One of the ancient and revered teachers of the Law, by the name of Sammlai, had taught that Moses had received no less than 613 laws on Mount Sinai. King David had reduced those 613 laws in Psalm 15 to 11. Then the Prophet Isaiah reduced the laws to six. Micah reduced the laws to three – “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, RSV) Isaiah further refined the laws to two: Maintain justice, and do what is right. Finally, the Prophet Habakkuk reduced the law to one statement, which will sound familiar to us: The righteous live by their faith.

So you can see that this was a topic of intense debate in that day and age. It was vitally important. The scribe who comes to Jesus really does want to hear what Jesus has to say about just what the greatest commandment might be.

And Jesus takes two great commandments, puts them together, and gives us The Law of Love.

“’The Lord your God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and your whole mind, and your whole strength.’ This is the second, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The Law of Love. No Rabbi, no teacher, no scribe, no Pharisee, no priest, no prophet had ever before put together that particular combination. But by doing this, Jesus tells us a great truth: Loving God can only be done through faith. And that faith gives us the reason and the ability to love others. For Jesus, the two are inextricably intertwined. You can’t do one without the other. It all boils down to the issue of how we are to live together.

The Law of Love is not just some sappy emotion. The Law of Love takes us beyond ourselves and empowers us to do things we might never consider ourselves capable of doing otherwise. The Law of Love is a real and even an overwhelming force for good in the world.

A true story: “Fifteen-year-old Therese Martin entered the Carmelite convent in France. From the day she entered, she dreamed of doing ‘great’ things for God. The years passed without her dream being even remotely realized. Naturally, she was disappointed. The one day she was reading Saint Paul, where he says [in I Corinthians 12:31-13:13] the ‘best’ way to holiness is not doing ‘great’ things for God, but ‘loving’ things. After this, she wrote in her journal: ‘O Jesus…at last I have found my calling: my calling is to love.’”[1]

The Law of Love. We are its agents and its practitioners: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Let us today open our hearts and our minds and our spirits to follow the Law of Love!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Link, Mark, S.J., Jesus: A Contemporary Walk with Jesus, Allen, TX, Resources for Christian Living, 1997, p. 229