March 6, 2016
“The Great Commandment(s)”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
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?” 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.” 32 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’; 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,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 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 question.35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?
36 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.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
38 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 marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”
There was a time in recent memory for me when there was someone in my life who I had great difficulty loving.
And this difficulty loving them took many forms. I wasn’t sure that I could trust that what they were saying was the truth. I questioned their motives. I assumed they had the worst intentions rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. I watched every word I said and every word they said.
Every interaction felt like work, just to choose to be kind and to listen and to be compassionate.
And maybe you know what I am talking about – I felt mean inside, and generally grumpy, and reactive.
What surprised me most about this experience was the toll it took on my relationship with God. It was as if God was like the sun and a dark cloud had rolled in so that it was harder to see God and it was harder to see the world around me lit up by God.
I often find myself praying as I walk the dog – those kind of prayers are called sweaty prayers – and I remember so clearly this moment of realization as I was walking that what God commands us to do, and what Jesus states again in today’s text, love God and love neighbor, these commands are so hard – sometimes it takes everything I’ve got.
What our faith calls us to do takes strength and perseverance and work, and letting go, and even dying to ourselves. It is not for the faint-hearted or the half-hearted. Sometimes I worry that we rattle off these commandments like they are easy – as if, if you can say it in five words, then it takes little effort to actually do it.
Our text today describes one of the most interesting interactions in Jesus’ life.
Mark tells many tales about Jesus arguing, having it out with the religious leaders of his day.
The scribes were among the religious leaders always watching critically Jesus’ activities.
They judged Jesus theologically, charging him with “blasphemy” because he forgave someone’s sins (2:7); they evaluated who Jesus ate with (2:16); some scribes accused him of being in league with the Prince of Demons because he was excising demons (3:22); they questioned the hand-washing practices of Jesus’ followers (7:1, 5); they wanted to kill Jesus because they were afraid of his popularity (11:18, 32; 14:1); they worked with Judas to capture Jesus (14:43); and near the end of the story, in Mark’s final reference, they “mocked” Jesus on the cross saying “he saved others; he cannot save himself” (15:31).
As our text today begins, it appears that an argument between Jesus and the religious leaders is already in full swing.
But this scribe, likely associated with one of the Pharisees, listens, really listens to the answers Jesus is giving, and hears honesty and trustworthiness and truth.
And so he asks Jesus a question that the faithful had been asking rabbis for hundreds of years (my paraphrase here) , “Of the 613 commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures, which do you think are of utmost importance?”
It was a question debated again and again – what is it that is most essential? Which commandment should come first?
I have two little boys and they are always jockeying to be first – first to get a hug, first to use the stool in the bathroom so they can wash their hands, first to get in the car, first to get out of the car, first to push the elevator button.
But “first” carries a different meaning in the scribe’s question. First means foundational – as in the first stone laid when you build a structure – the cornerstone on which everything else depends.
What is the commandment on which all the other commandments depend?
And Jesus answers with the statement of faith, the Shema, a standard daily prayer, that the Jewish people had been using for hundreds of years from Deuteronomy; clearly, the right move for a Rabbi.
There is a story about the rabbi Hillel the Elder, born about 40 years before Jesus, who was challenged by a Gentile who said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
So basically, this is what Jesus has done, and depending on your balance, he has done a pretty good job of keeping it short and sweet.
He is asked which commandment is first of all, but you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t give just one answer but two, and this is the really remarkable move.
Jesus connects two commandments from different parts of the law of God – which has entirely new implications for Christian faith and life. It turns out that the grounding of everything — how we relate to God, how we relate to other people, and even how we relate to ourselves — the grounding of everything is in love.
And here is the beauty of the narrative lectionary because if we take a step back and look at the whole arc of the gospel story, and go back to the Genesis story about who God is and how God shaped the universe, we can see how the truth that Jesus shares with us here in Mark, has always been true.
As part of my daily devotion I’ve been reading meditations by Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan friar, and sometimes it is really refreshing to hear the perspective of an entirely different tradition.
He writes that “In the beginning Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, ‘Let us make humanity in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves’ (Genesis 1:26). The use of the plural pronoun here seems to be an amazing, deep time intuition of what some would later call the Trinity–the revelation of the nature of God as community, as relationship itself, a Mystery of perfect giving and perfect receiving, both within God and outside of God.”
The shape of the universe, and our very lives, reflects this.
So we read the whole Bible as a “school of relationship”, as Richard Rohr puts it.
Still, knowing what God commands and actually doing it, are too very different things.
Why is it so hard sometimes to love another human being? I’ve been giving this a lot of prayerful thought (and you may disagree with me and let that be the beginning of a conversation), and I think what makes it so hard is that sometimes loving feels like losing.
There is this sense we have of what is fair and what is balanced, and as long as what I give, feels about the same as what I get, I’m good.
But love requires what feels like loss – sometimes love involves loving someone who won’t or can’t love you back in the same way, the same amount, perhaps because they are your enemy, perhaps because you’ve hurt them or they’ve hurt you. Love means offering forgiveness before the other person admits wrong doing. Sometimes love means choosing not to be right or righteous, and it feels so good to be righteous.
But the alternative, not loving, is far worse, and it does not feel like winning.
In the movie adaption of the novel “The Enchanted April” by Elizabeth Van Arnim (if you haven’t seen it, I don’t think I’m going to ruin it for you) one of the characters Lottie, is a drab middle-aged house wife, and she and three other strangers rent an Italian castle for a month to get away from lives that they feel trapped in.
In the movie Lottie decides to invite to the castle her husband, Mellersh, who she left behind, because she has come to a realization about love. She says, “The important thing is to have lots of love about. I was very stingy with it back home. I used to measure and count it out. I had this obsession with justice, you see. I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back exactly as much. And as he didn’t, neither did I. The emptiness of it all.”
Love requires that we say, “I am no longer the center of my universe” and loving God, the first commandment, on which all others rest, firmly displaces us as the center of our universes. So loving God comes first, and it is by loving God and knowing ourselves loved by God, that the sometimes seemingly impossible task of loving people, becomes possible.
Richard Rohr notes that this is how love works, “It always overflows, reproduces, and multiplies itself.”
But it isn’t always easy.
Jesus and the scribe were political and religious enemies, and in the middle of a running argument with the leaders of the religious establishment, they agree on the things that matter most, transcending “us” versus “them” and all the hostility that divided them – and they love each other like neighbors and the debate is silenced at the sight of it. And in this remarkable moment Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Returning to the person who it felt like was not trying to love me as much as I was trying to love them – in truth, I failed.
I couldn’t do it on my own. I couldn’t overcome whatever this thing is inside us that wants to push people away and judge them and write them out of our lives when we don’t like their opinions or actions.
The second piece of the greatest commandment cannot succeed without the first – and so we first have to love God, and pray for the strength and the wisdom and the courage to love other people. Loving people is something we grow up into, and we discover along the way that what we thought was losing – admitting wrong, asking for forgiveness, offering forgiveness, loving without expecting the same in return – all that starts to feel like winning – starts to feel like peace and wholeness and grace. And that’s when we find that we have come very near to the kingdom. Amen.