Written by Pastor Ed
The Most Important Thing
November 1, 2015
Mark 12: 28-34
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I get really tired of church. No, not of worship or the people in church. Not even of the structures, since I’ve always enjoyed the organizational part of the church and how people interact. But I get really tired of all the energy that goes into discussing various issues in the church, what I would call, church politics. Yes, I have been involved in some of that as well, particularly in my role as a conference minister, but it does get tiresome.
And I’ve seen a lot of it in the past 40 years. When I began ministry it was the issue of women in ministry and over the years it seems there was always something, abortion, homosexuality, issues of dress, alcohol, lotteries, and the list could go on. Countless hours and lots of energy have gone into those and many other issues, and they have been, and continue to be, the cause of splits, schisms, and more.
And so I am drawn to our lectionary passage for this morning. Now Mark’s gospel is carefully crafted, so I don’t know if these events all happened in the order Mark presents them, but Mark too seemed to recognize our tendency to argue over issues. This section of Mark begins in Chapter 11 with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which we often call his triumphal entry. It marked a high point, because things begin to go bad after that.
Mark presents a whole series of incidents and questions that heighten the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple. The chief priests and scribes question Jesus’ authority and he answers with a parable that seems to point an accusing finger at them. And then there is a series of confrontations around issues of the day – paying taxes to the emperor and questions about marriage and the resurrection. These were issues that the Pharisees and Sadducees spent a great deal of time debating.
And then a scribe comes to Jesus with a seemingly simple question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Now we need to realize that this was not a simple question, for it too was the subject of much debate among the religious leaders. For many 1st century Jews, the most important commandment was that of keeping the Sabbath and much time and energy went into defining exactly how one kept the Sabbath.
There were regulations on how far one could walk, how much one could carry, whether you could help a neighbour or how much, and so on. This was serious business, as evidenced by how often Jesus and his disciples were called to task for violating some Sabbath rule. So the question posed to Jesu was not without some substance. But Jesus seems to recognize the sincerity of the question and so, unlike some of his other responses, gives a clear and straight answer.
29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.”
Whoops, maybe it’s not so straight after all, for Jesus doesn’t stop with one, but adds a second and then seems to conflate them by lumping them together as only one. But the questioner complies and says that Jesus is correct, and then he (or Mark) twists the knife just a bit by adding, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And Jesus commends him for his answer, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And, Mark notes, after that no one dared ask Jesus any more questions.
Now, it’s easy to read this and say, “yes, of course these are the greatest commandments, and we should try to do that.” But I wonder if there isn’t another message here, or you can tell me if I’m just reading something in to the passage. You see, for all the other issues that Jesus is questioned about, he gives somewhat ambiguous answers. “Give the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s ,and to God the things that are God’s.” You can continue to argue about that one.
But when it comes to what is most important, Jesu is quite clear. “Love God and love your neighbour.” This is more important than keeping the Sabbath, or how you do your worship, or anything else you can come up with, even the issues we are dealing with in the church today.
I wonder what it would mean to take this seriously? I think it would mean we could spend a whole lot less time debating the issues, and a whole lot more time putting that love into practice. And remember Jesu was asked by another questioner, “Who is my neighbour?” to which Jesus replied that it wasn’t about defining who your neighbour was, but about who you were neighbour to.
We are constantly being told that one of the reasons people are turned off by the church is that they see the church as fragmented, argumentative, and out of touch with the real world. And clearly, when the church is caught up in controversy and argument, they aren’t a very good example of what Christians were first known for, when people said, “See how they love each other.” Now days it seems people might say, “See how they fight with each other.”
Now clearly we all have opinions on issues of the day. And it’s not wrong to have opinions and to discuss those opinions with others, hopefully both those who agree with us as well as those who disagree. That’s how the Spirit works in the church, I believe. But the bottom line, to me, is the whether what we do together shows love of God and love of neighbour. As you have heard me say before, “My salvation doesn’t depend on my being right on every issue.”
But it does depend on these two commandments – love of God and love of neighbour. And as James says ,you can’t say you love God while still hating your neighbour. As the song said, it’s just not possible. We’re not talking here about how you feel about someone; there will always be people we don’t like very well. But Jesus is talking about how we treat the other person. Even your enemies, Jesus says, deserve to be treated as children of God, created in God’s image and loved by God.
Today in the church calendar is All Saint’s Day, a day to recall those people who have made a difference in the life of the church and in our lives as saints of the church. And I suspect that if you think about the people that you would consider saints of the church, it is not because they were the champions of some major theological argument or issue. We generally don’t remember people because they were “right” about something, but rather we remember them because of how they personified these, the greatest commandment to love God and love their neighbour.
As the Psalmist said in Psalm 146, it is not the rulers, those in authority in whom we should put our trust, but rather we should trust and take our example from the God who looks after the poor and oppressed, who watches over the stranger, and cares for the widow and orphan. Those are the things that show love for God and love of neighbour, and if we would spend as much energy on that as we have spent in the past on debating who is in and who is out, or who can or can’t do what, the church would, and can be as relevant today as it was in the past.
I think it was Mark Twain who said something like, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, but the parts that are clear.” Jesus is quite clear in his response to the scribe and I believe calls us to hold lightly everything else. To love God and to love neighbour as oneself, these are the greatest commandments. If we’d only practice that, wouldn’t church be a much more inviting place to be?