The Greatest Commandment
Mark 12: 28-44
Our second reading today is from the Gospel of Mark – again. We have been journeying with Jesus and the disciples through this particular gospel over the last several weeks and throughout our time in Mark, Jesus has been moving ever-closer to Jerusalem. Last week, in our preaching series, Jesus arrived in the city where he will be crucified and rise again. He is days away from the pinnacle moment for the Gospel of Mark. The stakes are high – and we can sense the author’s ardent belief that the kingdom of God is at hand. The author’s desire that the readers of this Gospel be prepared for God’s kingdom is becoming more and more evident.
Our passage this morning begins with Jesus teaching at the Temple, and in typical fashion, the religious authorities of the day were challenging Jesus on many of his teachings and looking to trap him in complex lines of questioning. But, as you will hear, things don’t play out exactly as we would expect today. So as we read the text this morning, I invite you to listen for something new. I encourage you to pay attention to the scribe’s interaction with Jesus, listen for what sound the widows’ pennies might make, and may we all open our hearts to what God has for us in this text.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, as we hear the words of your commandments – open our hearts, our minds – and shore up our strength to live into your love. Illuminate your Word for us – may we know more of your love. Amen.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 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”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 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 questions.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
As I mentioned, we have been journeying through Mark and one type of character we have not spent much time reflecting on is ‘the authorities’. So I want to take a moment to lift up their role in the gospel. Throughout Mark, the Pharisees, scribes, legal experts, and Roman authorities are depicted in strong opposition to Jesus. In society, the religious leaders believed they had “God’s authorization to rule.” But at the same time, they were dependent upon and accountable to [the Roman political authority.] “In order to stay in favor with the Romans, [the religious authority had to] keep the people under control. Therefore, they fear[ed] the people” and religious and secular leaders alike did whatever was expedient to maintain power and control. Throughout the Gospel, we see the political and religious authorities accusing Jesus, and attempting to entrap Jesus, fearing that he would undermine their power. (Rhoads) The authorities did everything in their power to discredit and destroy Jesus. And this contrast between Jesus and the “authorities” helps the author of Mark emphasize Jesus’ message of God’s peace, God’s love, God’s gracious and healing presence in contrast to the worldly values of power and control. But, amazingly, today’s lesson is an exception to that dichotomy. When it comes to the Greatest Commandment to love God and love neighbor–the clearest distillation of our theology that we have as follower’s of Christ–the Gospel of Mark uses a scribe, a symbol of authority, to help Jesus convey his message.
So, let’s take a closer look. Our text this morning starts as we would expect: with religious authorities arguing with Jesus. But then, one scribe approaches Jesus and asks a question with a more curious posture. He asks Jesus what the first commandment, the greatest commandment is. Choosing from the 613 commandments articulated in Jewish tradition, Jesus responds by reciting the commandment from Deuteronomy 6: 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, Jesus goes on to say, “The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” The scribe, rather surprisingly and in a manner that is out of character for a person in his position, affirms Jesus in his response. And then, even more out of character for a scribe, he goes further to say, “this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” Out of the mouth of the scribe, a declaration that loving God and loving neighbor is more valuable than symbolic piety.
Now, this scene is essentially the biblical equivalent of a spit-take, a wait/what?!-type scene. Hearing the scribe saying something like that in Jesus’ time would elicit the same kind of reaction that you might have if – say – you heard that President Obama endorsed Donald Trump or if you heard Ted Cruz say that he wants to increase the size of the federal government. It is completely out of character for the scribe to be in agreement with Jesus – and by using the scribe in this way, the author is indicating that something profoundly important is happening and we ought to pay attention.
So, let’s pay closer attention and listen for what Jesus is declaring. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and all your strength.” This first commandment speaks of God’s desire for our love. With all of who we are, we are called to love God. The good and the bad, the parts of ourselves that we like and the parts we wish we could change. With the first commandment, Jesus removes all measures of unworthiness or hierarchy. God declares that each of us has love to give, and each of us has a heart, mind and strength that are valuable to God. And, furthermore, what this text underscores by using the scribe to help convey the Great Commandments, is that truly this commandment is for all people. All of God’s children are worthy to love God – scribes and disciples alike – No one, no one, is excluded from the call to love God. And no one is excluded from God’s love.
And Jesus doesn’t stop there.
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and all your strength. And second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “Jesus will have nothing to do with a piety that has only a Godward dimension. His twofold response to the question about the “Greatest Commandment” rules out any religious practice that neglects human obligations.” This second commandment is born out of the first – that in loving God, with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength, we are then freed up to love our neighbor as ourself. This is world-upending stuff here. Living by these commandments first means that we are called to operate out of hope, not fear. We are called to delight in a world in which all people are free to not only to love God but to also love one another. We are free from selfish motivation, free from self-centeredness, from pursuit of power over others. We no longer need to be beholden to our pride, to our greed, to our arrogance. We are free to lift our eyes up from the floor in front of us, we are free to see that we are not alone – to see that there are others around us in need of love and in recognizing that if our love is good enough for God, it will be good enough for our neighbors too. We are commanded to recognize that every person we encounter is a beloved child of God – and should we obey these commandments, we will discover the kingdom of God drawing near.
And, this brings us to this last portion of our reading – which is the relatively familiar story a poor woman giving everything she had. In the Revised Common Lectionary, this story is included in the calendar sometime in the fall – eerily coinciding with most churches stewardship seasons. Therefore, this text is often lifted up as a picture of financial giving – that we should follow her lead, giving sacrificially out of our pockets. But, I would suggest that this interpretation might miss the deeper, more live-giving point. As we’ve learned from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is never so simple.
As you know, this woman was impoverished. Throughout scripture, we see “widows and orphans” used to represent the most vulnerable in society. Women were valuable in the community as the property of their fathers and then their husbands. But once a woman was widowed, especially if she was beyond child-bearing age, she was viewed only as a drain on the community, incapable of adding any value. But, sitting there, among the crowds at the temple, Jesus sees her bring her offering. As he hears her two coins hit the bottom of the treasury pot, Jesus he see her whole heart, her whole mind, her whole strength – everything she has – given to God.
It was the custom at the time to bring offerings to God there in the temple treasury. Burnt offerings, sacrificial offerings, monetary offerings – it was the custom to give. And, we can relate to that – when we see the offering plate go around, even if we don’t have any cash on us, we at least feel a sense of responsibility to contribute, to put something in that plate. But, what Jesus draws our attention to in this story is not the monetary value of one’s offering but the equalizing experience everyone has in giving out of the resources from within. He does not to point out that the wealthy have the ability to make change from their deep pockets and the poor woman doesn’t so she just gives it all and isn’t that wonderful. Rather, Jesus draws our attention to the fact that the woman—the most marginalized in the community—is able to participate fully in God’s work in the world. Though believed to have nothing and no value, Jesus sees that with all her heart, all her mind and all her strength, she has the ability to love God and to love her neighbor – this is the offering he sees.
This text isn’t about money and how much we have to give, or that we should give everything we have. Rather, this is about value – human value. Jesus draws our attention to these valuations not to uphold these binaries that pit rich against poor and poor against rich, but rather to highlight the structures which have been created by men – by humanity – that have broken down and it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus reminds us that our value is not found in our pockets, our wallets, our bank accounts. Rather, our value is found in our humanity, our identity as children of God, our hearts, our minds, our strength. The kingdom of God draws near not by being honored according to our customs – but rather, the kingdom of God draws near as we love God and love our neighbor – all our neighbors – neighbors who seek honor and neighbors who seem to have nothing at all.
The scribe, who was part of the authority that was at odds with Jesus throughout his ministry – he was the one who was able to understand Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor. And it was the impoverished, marginalized woman who was able to participate meaningfully in the work of God’s church by giving what she had. Isn’t that incredible? The expectations we have for each of these characters are based on our societal ordering, our valuation of the roles they play – these expectations are not from God, they are human made. And, consistently Jesus shows us a different, more meaningful way of ordering ourselves, by engaging unexpected people in unexpected ways to remind us that God is God and we are God’s beloved – all called to love God and to love one another.
The Gospel of Mark constantly emphasizes the nearness of the kingdom of God for all of us – that Jesus has come into this world to upend our ways of functioning so that we might no longer be broken, that we might no longer be subject to the ordering and suffering we have brought upon ourselves. In conversation with the scribes, Jesus reminds the disciples and us that all of the Law, all of our understanding of our piety, our faithfulness, it is all through the lens of loving God and loving one another as ourselves. The wealthy neighbor is the easy neighbor to see – it is easy to praise that neighbor, to thank that neighbor for their generous contributions to society, to the church. But, how might the world be healed if we were able to see value in all of our neighbors? Jesus draws our attention to the least, the lost, and the lonely because when we are able to see value in all of God’s children – the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the black and the white, the gay and the straight, the young and the aged, the hip and the nerdy, the book smart and the street smart – when we discover the value in all of God’s children and release our hearts to the work of loving God and loving all our neighbors, the kingdom of God draws nearer.
Church, the Greatest Commandment is foundational to our Christian faith. This is the lens through which we move and breathe and have our being in the world: Our love is wanted. Our love is worthy. Each of one of us on this planet – whether we are a scribe, a disciple, a widow or a Presbyterian, each one of us has a love that God desires for us to share with God, and with one another, and we are called to love with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength. It’s not going to be easy – it is not easy for a scribe to say that love is more valuable than a whole burnt offering and it is not easy for society to see value in the widow. But, O, to have confidence in knowing that our love has the power to delight God’s heart – to know that loving our neighbor as ourselves has the power to heal the brokenness that permeates our world – indeed, dear ones, the kingdom of God will draw nearer. With all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength – may we go out into the world and love. Amen.