THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL – REV. PAUL DAKIN

THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL

A sermon on Mark 12:28-34

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

November 4, 2018

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

During the sermon over the last several weeks, we have spent some time considering a number of singular episodes in the life of Jesus as he and his disciples were making their final journey to Jerusalem. It has almost been something of a series of sermons that could have been given a title like “On the Road with Jesus.” Or perhaps, if we had been slightly more daring, to parody the title of a popular children’s book series, it could have been called “A Series of Unfortunate…Questions.” Three weeks ago, the first of these encounters was between our Lord and a rich young ruler who sought to know how to receive eternal life. The next week, two of the disciples had to be set straight after they were angling to receive the places of honor by Jesus’ side. And then last week, our Lord met a blind man—an outcast who was improbably asked what he most wanted to receive.

 

In the today’s text from Mark, Jesus is once more asked a question from someone in the crowd. Unlike some of those earlier instances, our Lord gives the man an answer that was not entirely unexpected. Yet at the same time, the man gets more than he had bargained for. And in doing so, Jesus gives us the essence of what life in the Spirit looks like…

 

Today’s passage begins by telling us that one of the Temple scribes came near to Jesus as he taught the crowd. Perhaps the first thing that we should do is to define who a “scribe” in Jesus’ time really was…

 

Scribes, from all the way back in the Old Testament days, were scholars whose business it was to study the Old Testament law, to transcribe it, and to write commentaries on it. They took their duties very seriously. They would spend much of their days meticulously copying and recopying the Scriptures. In order to make sure that the new copy was absolutely correct, they would even go to the extreme of counting the exact number of letters and spaces in the new copy to make sure that nothing had been added or omitted. In Israel, scribes were regarded as the primary teachers and interpreters of the scriptures to the people. Their prodigious knowledge of religious matters made them widely respected in their communities.[1]

 

Every town that had a synagogue had its own scribe. In addition to their religious duties of instructing the people in the Old Testament law, they were also civil servants. It was the local scribes who were tasked with drawing up legal documents like land transfers and marriages and divorces. And it was their job to keep those records on file.

 

In the gospels, the scribes are often mentioned in the same breath as “the Pharisees.” In truth the two groups were not the same. A Pharisee might be a scribe, but scribes were not always Pharisees. In any case—especially in the gospel of Mark—the scribes are usually seen in a negative light as the adversaries of our Lord.

 

For example, earlier in Mark we are told that it was the scribes who accused Jesus of blasphemy when he forgave the sins of a paralyzed man. (Because everybody knows that only God can forgive sins.) Mark also tells us that they were shocked when Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors. (A good religious teacher would certainly not hang out with such riff raff, right?) A little bit later, the scribes accused Jesus of being able to do miracles because he was under the influence of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They were scandalized when they witnessed that Jesus and his disciples did not follow the hand washing rituals of the elders. They then questioned Jesus as to where his authority came from, because, as religious professionals, they were pretty sure that it did not come from God. And then later on, we are told that it was the scribes in Jerusalem who colluded with Judas to betray our Lord over to the authorities…[2]

 

But the encounter in today’s conversation between a scribe and Jesus is different than those other encounters. Instead of the usual attempts to trap our Lord into saying something that would discredit him in the eyes of the people or could even form the basis of criminal charges, this scribe seems to be genuine. He seemed to be open to whatever Jesus had to say…

 

In verse 28, the scribe asks Jesus a question that was popular in the religious circles of the day. He asked our Lord, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Or to put it in different terms, “Which is the most important commandment of all?”…

 

That is an important question. When we think of the God’s law, it is usually the Ten Commandments that immediately spring to our minds. That’s fair enough. The Ten Commandments are certainly a part of God’s law. But that is not all of the law—not by a long shot. There is a whole lot more besides those ten laws. Someone with WAY too much time on his or her hands has calculated that there 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament that are to be obeyed. 613! Who could possibly keep up with all of those rules and regulations—let alone perfectly follow them? It would make sense that folks would want to try to boil them down to just a smaller number that they would be able to remember and obey. That would make it a bit easier to live a godly life, now wouldn’t it?

 

Jesus gives the scribe the answer that he was expecting to hear…and then an answer that he was not. In verse 29, Jesus answers, “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God 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.” What Jesus is doing here is quoting the Old Testament passage that was read earlier in the service—Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This passage is known as “The Shema” from its first word in Hebrew. The people of Israel considered this to be the cornerstone of their religion. It was so important that devout Jews prayed this as part of their daily prayers twice a day. It was also a part of the rituals in the Temple—especially on high and holy days. It was something that every Jew knew and could recite from memory from an early age.

 

This answer concerning The Shema was probably what the scribe expected to hear from Jesus in response to his question. But as was Jesus’ custom when asked a question, he threw a curve ball in as well. He went on to say “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 

Once again, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament law, although this second law was a bit more obscure than the first one. The command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” in found in Leviticus 19:18. While The Shema was widely known and quoted throughout Israel, the second commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself”—not so much.  It seemed to be of secondary importance. But Jesus makes a point of linking them together—to say that they are both equally important…that both are vital in biblical faith…

 

Hillel was a rabbi who has been called “the preeminent sage of First Century Judaism.” The story goes that he was asked by a prospective convert to teach him the whole of God’s law in just a few words. Hillel is said to have replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary.”[3] It seems to me that Hillel’s comment could just as easily be applied to Jesus’ words in this passage. To paraphrase the ancient rabbi: “Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the whole of the law. Everything else is just commentary…”

 

In his response to Jesus, the scribe does not skip a beat. And perhaps he surprised even himself in the process. Although the scribes have been generally antagonistic to our Lord, this scribe actually finds himself in total agreement with Jesus’ answer. He compliments Jesus on his answer and echoes some of the Old Testament prophets when he says that obeying those two laws is more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices prescribed in the Bible.

 

Do not miss the delicious irony here! This scribe is a man well-versed in the Old Testament scriptures. He is considered to be a learned man, respected in his community for the breath of his knowledge of the scriptures. And here he is commending the very Son of God himself for the “wise answer” to his question. It is comical, isn’t it? Do you suppose that the scribe would have been so quick to reply to Jesus in this fashion if he had had any inkling of who he was really talking to? That the One who was standing in front of him was in fact the very same God who was responsible for giving the Old Testament law in the first place? I do not know for sure, but I have a feeling that the scribe’s comment to Jesus revealed that he did not have a clue…

 

But our Lord is gracious in his response. In verse34, Jesus returns the compliment. He tells the scribe that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. And with that, their conversation is at an end.

 

Jesus tells the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of God. What do you suppose that meant? In his encounter with the rich young ruler in Mark 10, Jesus was asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After discussing several of the Ten Commandments, Jesus told him, “You lack just one thing. Go, sell everything that you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” And Mark records that the man went away very sad, because he had a lot of possessions.

 

We were told that the rich young ruler was not far from the kingdom of God. The thing is, he was unwilling to take that final step that he needed to do in order to follow Jesus. In today’s passage, our Lord tells the scribe that he also is not far from the kingdom of God. He was close, but he was not there yet. The rich young ruler let his attachment to his possessions keep him from the kingdom. What do you think might have been keeping the scribe from taking that final step to be a part of God’s kingdom?

 

We do not know for sure. Unlike the story of the rich young ruler where Mark explained to us that his riches were keeping him out of the kingdom, we have no such comment about the scribe. What do you think it was that the scribe lacked? What was keeping him from the kingdom—so close and yet not quite there yet?…

 

Maybe it was his profession. It would hard in that day to remain a trusted scholar of the scriptures in the eyes of the people and still be taken seriously if you became a follower of Jesus. Being a scribe was his livelihood. That was how he made his living. If he decided to follow Jesus, it might mean the end of a good, prestigious and lucrative career. I imagine that he thought long and hard about those implications if he chose to follow Jesus…

 

Or perhaps he was not ready to make a change. He could not see himself surrendering a life of obeying the strict, fundamentalist rules of his religion in order to breathe in the fresh air of the Spirit—the abundant life that Jesus offers his followers. It is always easier to try to live a religion that majors on following the rules. Lots of people find that easy, even if the rules are rigorous. Following rules is an easier way to be religious than letting the indwelling Holy Spirit take control of your life and change you from the inside out. A lot of people have a hard time letting go of rules that they believe will bring them closer to God. It was true in biblical times…and it is still true today. The only problem is that it just doesn’t work. Perhaps the scribe was not yet willing to let go of the way of the rules that he had been taught all his life…

 

Maybe the opinion of others held him back. As detailed earlier in the sermon, the scribes as a whole did not have a very high opinion of Jesus. As a group, it would be fair to say that they considered our Lord to be a fraud at the minimum—or a godless blasphemer at worst. If the scribe were to follow Jesus, he would be turning his back on his friends and colleagues. As far as they were concerned, the scribe would be considered as someone who had forsaken the one true religion. He would have become an outcast to those with whom he worked and lived. That was something to weigh as he made his decision…

 

Or maybe it was something else. Perhaps this is the first time that he had ever heard our Lord say something that really caught his attention—that made him consider that maybe Jesus was not just another rootless, itinerant rabbi making the rounds. Maybe there was something to this Jesus after all. Perhaps the scribe was still struggling within himself as to what it all meant. He heard and understood something that day about Jesus—but he was not ready yet to say “Yes!” to him. At this point in his life, he was not yet willing to take that next big step. And so, consequently, Jesus told him that he was not far from the kingdom.

 

Jesus tells us that the greatest love of all is loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. This is the essence of the Christian faith. This is the core meaning of what it means to follow Jesus. As you take a moment to consider your life this morning, do those things characterize your life? Loving God with all that you are and loving your neighbor as yourself? I pray that you will reflect upon those words of our Lord as we come to his table this morning. I pray that the Lord will open up the eyes of our hearts to show us how we may better fulfill what he requires off us in obeying these two commandments—loving God and loving others.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

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Hymn 323   Let Us Break Bread Together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Taken from www.gotquestions.net/Printer/scribes-Jesus-PF.html (Accessed October 30, 2018)

[2] Mark 2:7, 16, 3:22, 7:1, 5, 11:2728, 14:43.

[3] www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hillel (Accessed November 3, 2018)