MARK | PART 9: THE GREAT COMMANDMENT
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: 1 John 3:1-10; Mark 12:28-34
As a youth in high school, I thought it was possible for love to change the world. This was a tremendously exciting possibility, for my whole being recoiled from the world; I found it oppressive, and I was careless with its opportunities. I preferred quiet and stillness to noise and activity, nature to cities. I was fond of reading literature, I tried writing poetry, and I enjoyed music. At college, I went to a Bible study where the minister said, “The revolution is Jesus,” and I believed him. Alan Watts asked why anyone would ever run to catch a bus, and I thought, that’s a good question! The robustness that thrived on the fringe of American society in the late sixties and early seventies was both a sign and a shelter for the hope of transformation. The words to the Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love,” was its refrain. The problem was, I didn’t know how to love. I was selfish, and when I acted selfishly, I made bad choices. I hurt others and I hurt myself; so when people tried to love me, I wasn’t able to return love with love. The ideal that enthused me as a youth, failed me in practice, as I grew older.
Jesus, I think, in his pronouncement story, puts his finger on the biggest challenge every one of us faces in this life: how to grow our love. The summary of the law that Jesus gives is the foundation for Christian belief: we are to love God and neighbor. This is enough, Jesus says, to put a person near to the kingdom of God. The challenge is for us to live out the commandment.
Ancient Jewish society was not, as we have noted, an example of a society that valued what we would call love. Slave-holding of foreigners was permissible, and the mistreatment of women, children, and poor relations was common; prostitution, economic injustice, social inequality, violence, and animal sacrifice were all characteristic of Jewish life. Its society was closed: a non-Jewish person was not regarded as a neighbor, but as a stranger, and the commandment to love your neighbor did not extend to non-Jews.
The commandment to love God is also different from what we might think. Jesus says, “He who loves me will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15), but in Jewish Torah, there are 613 Mitzvot, or commandments, all derived from biblical – what we call OT – citations. And all these come from the first five books of the OT: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The point is, there are a lot of commandments, hundreds in fact, that Jesus would be familiar with, which we are not. Even today, conservative Jews would find all of these binding, except those that relate to the Temple, its sacrifices and services (because the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.), and criminal proceedings, because Jews no longer live in a theocratic state.[i] Loving God, therefore, appears to be an impossible task of fulfilling innumerable contractual obligations.
The impossibility of keeping all the commandments is what makes the scribe’s question important. The scribe has been present in the temple where Jesus is teaching, and he is impressed with Jesus’ teaching. He is also concerned about distinguishing the more important from the less important of the 613 commandments. He is probably thinking something like this: if I can’t follow all of the commandments, which can I omit and still be considered pious? This must have been a frequently asked question, and indeed, the answer Jesus gives has the following antecedent: “Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Law while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding.” The same man then came before Hillel, “and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.””[ii] Hillel, who chose to live in extreme poverty, was known for his kindness, gentleness, and concern for humanity, all qualities we regard as expressive of love.
Mark’s rendering of the great commandment joins Deuteronomy 6:4 with Leviticus 19:18. The passage in Deuteronomy begins the Jewish prayer known as the Shema, a confession of faith recited twice daily: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The first words stress the uniqueness of Israel’s God; his oneness sets him apart from the multiplicity of gods in the Near Eastern world. Love is depicted here as the undivided loyalty of a person for his king; indeed, this concept of love is probably derived from treaties between kings, whose friendship and loyalty is often described as love. A similar love binds servants to their masters, vassals to their lords, and subjects to their kings. Noteworthy is the lack of mention of any marriage love in the text of Deuteronomy. The love of God spoken of is closest to what we would call love of country, that is, a loyalty that is established by a willingness to sacrifice your life for it in battle. To the Leviticus passage, which reads, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself,” Shammai, the strict, impatient teacher who debated Hillel, added, “and Hate your enemies.”
In this context, we can see that Jesus, as Hillel before him, is challenging the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ when he says, “Love your enemies.” There is precedent for this in Leviticus 19:34, which reads, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love then as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” And in the ten commandments given in Deuteronomy 5, Sabbath protection from work is extended to “any foreigner residing in your towns.”
This legalism is the context for the pronouncement of Jesus, who has now completed his journey from Galilee, through Perea on the east side of the river Jordon and then back across close by Jericho, which he went through, before beginning the climb up to Jerusalem. Jesus is teaching in the temple, where the scribes are again trying to trick him into saying something he can be indicted for. This is what the others have been doing, but one scribe perceives that Jesus answers them well, so he asks a real question that he has been mulling over, “What commandment is foremost of all?” And he agrees with Jesus, when he affirms the answer: to love the one God and your neighbor is superior to sacrifice. This is argued in 1 Sam 15:22 and stated in Proverbs 21:3. And when Jesus sees that the scribe answers intelligently, he says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that all the scribes stop their questioning of him, because Jesus speaks the truth.
How, then, do we get from there to here, that is, from treaty love between kings to marriage and romantic love? From contractual love to mystical love? To freedom and obedience?
Maximos the Confessor, in the 6th century, compiled a manuscript of 400 quotes on love, drawn from church fathers, 100 quotes from each of the first 4 centuries. Many of these had to do with ascetic practices, in which the Christian withdraws from the activity of the world and tries to discipline his mind and body. By controlling his thoughts and desires, he is able to contemplate God, and grow his love for God. In the 4th century, Maximos turns to the theme of love as a quality of friendship “between brothers.” Love is destroyed by envy, by being the cause of a loss, by revilement, and by suspicion. When our relationships with others become troubled, we should pray, accept the excuses of others, and, Maximos says, “regard yourself as the cause of the trial and resolve to endure until the cloud has passed. Pay heed to yourself lest it be in you and not in your brother that lurks the evil that cuts you off from him; and hasten to make your piece with him, lest you forsake the commandment of love. Fear keeps the old commandments, but love keeps the life-giving commandments of Christ.”
As Israel distinguished between the people of Yahweh and foreigners, Maximos draws the distinction between the church and the world: “the friends of Christ love all truly but are not themselves loved by all; the friends of the world neither love nor are loved by all. The friends of Christ persevere in love to the end; the friends of the world persevere only until they fall out with each other over some worldly thing.”[iii] Maximos is elaborating on the words of Jesus found in John’s gospel: “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you love one to another” (Jn 13:35).
The distinction between church and world survives through the Middle Ages, and it is one of the great accomplishments of the Reformation to recognize in family life and particularly in marriage a structure for growing love. The Kingdom of God “has been the essence of Jesus’ proclamation from the beginning,” and to be far from the kingdom of God “recalls exile and diaspora.”[iv] Jesus brings the far near; only wealth and a lack of repentance stand in the way of a person’s full restoration. The division of the one church into its national and denominational parts has the effect of bringing the gospel into the household hearth, where the Word of God speaks directly to the husband and wife, and they in turn teach their children. In the process of this domestication, what it means to love God and neighbor is defined more practically: keep the ten commandments and treat others the way you would like for them to treat you. When you make a mistake, don’t make it again. Put good habits in place of bad habits. If you can’t handle the traffic, stay off the streets. And in all things, look to Christ for comfort and strength.
Love is circular. To love, one needs to have been loved, and a child may or may not have loving parents. Love is closely tied to trust, and trust to dependence. A child depends on his parents, and when the child gets from them what is needed, the child trusts his parents. If his parents are trustworthy, when there is sharing and joy around exchange, the child’s increasingly conscious familiarity can develop into love. The circle, however, is fragile; when it breaks at any point, love is compromised, issues around trust arise, and violence of one kind or another emerges. All of us are too familiar with the pattern of abuse.
At stake now, as in Ancient Israel, is our humanity. We are called to be a holy people, because we are called to love, for the essence of holiness is love. Our friends, spouses, and parents may or may not prove trustworthy, but the love of God can be depended on. And because God loves us, we can love him. John Wesley called love God’s “darling attribute.”
The love of God is the root of all hope. Love can and has changed the world, and as the world has changed, our understanding of love has changed. God’s love effects change that human love cannot, because God’s love is the source of all love and has its being outside of the world. God’s love is infinite, and through the energy of its infinity God’s love expands the circle of love we describe in the world. There is no circularity in God’s love; God’s love is a steady stream of uninterrupted light that he sheds abroad in our hearts.
God will grow our love for us. He recognizes our selfishness, our violence, our difficulties with trust and how deeply rooted we are in sin. Our love is the work of God in us, and only because God loves us, are we able to return love with love; without the love of God, even our best efforts are tainted. God’s love is the foundation for trust and every good desire. Each one of us can love our neighbor as ourself through “a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that he loved me, and gave himself for me.” Amen.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
[iii] The Philokalia, Vol 2, 52-113
[iv] WBC, 34b,