A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pent 24 ~ Mark 12:28-34
Mark 12 is a really interesting chapter. It begins with Jesus telling a parable about how God sends messengers of love, and light, and grace – but those in power keep rejecting and even killing them. Of course, he tells the parable to a bunch of people in power – chief priests, scribes, and elders! In other words, “in your face!” Which, of course, they don’t like very much!
So these powerful people send two groups of authorities to try to trick Jesus into saying something wrong that will get him in trouble, so they can do exactly what Jesus’ parable said they would do!
First it’s some Pharisees who tried to get him on the paying taxes thing. Jesus shoots their arguments full of holes and says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s!” (Mark 12:17)
On come the Sadducees, which were a powerful elite group. They come at Jesus with a riddle about the afterlife, which they didn’t even believe in, and Jesus slices and dices their theological shortcomings and zings them with, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:27)
Then a Scribe comes to Jesus. You almost get the sense he quietly came over when no one was looking – it’s a lovely little encounter.
Mark 12:28 – One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
There’s no animosity in the question. This Scribe seems legitimately impressed with Jesus’ answers and he honestly wants to hear Jesus’ views on what the greatest commandment was.
It’s not like there was a set answer.
There are 613 laws or rules or commandments in Jewish theology. It’s not like they were numbered!
There was no consensus about what the most important one of all was.
Different Rabbis and Pharisees and Priests would emphasize different things – just like here at Faith I probably emphasize different things than my colleagues do at our nearby sister churches.
So the Scribe wants to hear what Jesus might emphasize, because he was impressed by how Jesus handled the inquisition!
He wants to know which commandment Jesus thinks is the most important, the principal idea, job #1.
It’s a great question.
If I asked you what your most important value or character trait is you’d probably need some time to answer, you wouldn’t like limiting it to one, and your answer would tell me a lot about what kind of person you are. Same goes for the Scribe’s question to Jesus. Of all those 613 wonderful commandments and laws, which one does Jesus think is the most important of all?
And more than that, the word “all” here does not just refer to all commandments but to all of everything. So, “Which commandment is the most important thing of all?”
And Jesus brilliantly and insightfully answers by quoting the Shema!
Mark 12:29-30 – 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.’”
That’s the Shema, well, the start of it anyway. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen”. It’s from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – “Hear (Shema), O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
The Shema is traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start and conclusion of each day. In other words, they knew it by heart – it’s a heart prayer.
They know it as well as you know “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
So Jesus does two key things with this.
First, he connects his most important teaching to something that the hearer already knows, by heart.
You already know most of the answers that you need for your life.
You probably don’t need a fancy, utterly unique new insight to dazzle you into enlightenment.
You’ve got everything you need already. It’s in your heart.
My job is to remind us of that.
So, first he connects it to the heart, and the second thing Jesus does with this most important commandment is to innovate the saying just a tiny bit to make it stand out. If I changed or added a word or two in the Lord’s Prayer it would immediately catch your focus and make you think. Jesus references a memorized heart prayer and adds a word – and instead of the listener just going on auto-pilot and not thinking much about the teaching he is grabbed by it.
The Shema version from Deuteronomy says heart, soul, and strength. Jesus’ version in Mark says heart, soul, mind, and strength. And just to complicate things, in Luke it has all four, but in Matthew it says heart, soul, and mind (but not strength!). Either way, it’s an innovation. And here’s what I think it means.
It’s not that Jesus wants us to focus more on our intellect. I think it’s actually meant to amplify the word all.
The greatest commandment 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 Greek word for all here is hólos which sounds like…whole, or wholly (not holy, but wholly) as in completely, in its entirety, undivided, to the full extent possible.
Love God with your whole heart, with the entirety of your soul, with the undivided attention of your mind, to the full extent of your strength. Adding in the mind here emphasizes that our love of God really does encapsulate your entire being.
Your whole self.
Your whole effort.
Your whole ability.
Your whole commitment.
Your whole life.
The religious authorities’ arguments were full of holes.
Jesus’ argument is full of “wholes”!
The greatest commandment a person of faith can follow is to give to God your wholeness – your everything – your all.
I think it’s safe to say, and I say this about myself too, that generally speaking we tend to love God with as much of ourselves as we think we can spare on any given day without it getting too much in the way of our day.
And no, I don’t mean that you’re a rotten Christian if you don’t come to church every week, and you don’t spend 12 hours a day on your knees in prayer.
This all goes back to my hero Brother Lawrence and his teaching that what Jesus is talking about here is our awareness, our mindfulness, our immersion in love, our constant and full sense of our own presence being constantly and fully in God’s presence.
We can be fully present to Presence all the time and still go about our day getting things done.
It’s like how if you’re lucky enough to have experienced a healthy and vibrant loving relationship with a partner that you are always in love with them. Whether you’re physically with them or not, your love is something that is a constant presence in your life. And when we screw that up by not being mindful of it we call it taking someone for granted.
And I would suggest that that is probably the thing most Christians are guilty of when it comes to their relationship with God. We too often take God’s Presence for granted.
Again, that doesn’t mean we’re expected to constantly be engaged in distinct spiritual practices in order to not take God for granted.
It means that our starting point, our orientation, our stance toward God’s Presence needs to be an open-hearted awareness that can permeate our whole lives.
Love God with your whole heart, with the entirety of your soul, with the undivided attention of your mind, to the full extent of your strength, AS you live your life.
Give to God your wholeness – your everything – your all, AS you’re going about the tasks and relationships that are yours.
Now, in addition to our Godward orientation there’s also the times when we’re given the opportunity to actually demonstrate our love. I love my wife dearly, and I think about her a lot during my day and it warms my heart (awwww), but if I never told her that I loved her, if I didn’t take the time to actually say it, to hold her hand, or give her a kiss, or whatever, then all my thinking about her would only be known to me. My love doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t also take action.
I want to say two things about this.
The first is that words matter.
Not just for the person hearing them, but for the person saying them.
Saying “I love you” matters.
Saying “I love you” to God matters.
Saying “I love you, Jesus” matters.
Saying it changes you.
Now, I want to be careful here. I don’t mean this superficially. (I can feel some of you squirming.)
Done poorly it can lead to sounding like that sappy and weird “Jesus is my boyfriend” stuff.
But done well it deepens and moves us – and it gets us sometimes stuffy Mainline Protestant folks out of our heads and engages our hearts. We’re so analytical most of the time, so cerebral.
Heart talk, love talk, would definitely do us good! Especially in church!
Before the sermon we sang “Father, I adore you, Jesus, I adore you, Spirit, I adore you.” In a couple of minutes we’re going to sing, “I love you, Lord.”
Maybe saying it might feel weird but singing it sounds perfectly normal.
At least, I hope it does! The words matter.
And if saying “I love you God” feels weird to you then my prescription for you is to say it more often!
So speaking love matters – that’s the first thing.
And the second thing I want to say to you is the second thing Jesus said to that Scribe.
In addition to loving God with our whole selves is a commandment to live that love out in demonstrable ways – by loving others, by loving people nearby (which is what neighbour actually means).
Another way to say that is that our love of God takes the shape of love of neighbour. Teresa of Avila, the great Christian mystic and writer, insisted that the thing that mattered most was the love of God, but she was adamant that the only genuine sign that one loves God is how you love your neighbour.
So, how? How do you love your neighbour?
Obviously, acts of kindness are the logical thing, and taking them casseroles when they’re down is great.
But it has to be more than that.
Respecting people, giving them your attention, not being a jerk is a pretty good start!
Here’s a thought.
Does love always look like acts of kindness?
Might love take the shape of correction?
Might love call out bad behaviour or wrong-mindedness when one encounters that in a neighbour?
If I hear someone tell a racist or sexist joke, or see on social media that a “friend” has shared a degrading or incorrect meme, doesn’t love demand that I call them on it?
That’s way harder than a casserole!
Here’s another thought.
Despite our frequent falling short, I really do think all of us here try hard to love God with our whole selves.
We hear Jesus’ teaching, and we get it, and we’re committing our wholeness to it as best we can, because we know that loving God has transformed our lives for the better.
So here’s my question.
If loving God with our wholeness has benefitted us so much, wouldn’t my neighbour also benefit from loving God for themselves?
Helping my neighbour love God more is the best way to love my neighbour.
Give a person a casserole and they’ll eat for a day – show them God’s transformative love for themselves and they’ll become fellow casserole makers! (Or something like that!)
And on that tasty note, I’ll stop.
What’s the most important thing for a person of faith to do?
What’s the greatest commandment, according to Jesus?
Love God with your whole heart, with the entirety of your soul, with the undivided attention of your mind, and to the full extent of your strength.
Love. Love God with your whole self.
Your whole effort.
Your whole ability.
Your whole commitment.
Your whole life.
The Scribe recognized that Jesus’ teaching was truly full of wholes!