WHO’S ON FIRST? – REV. PAUL DAKIN

WHO’S ON FIRST?
A sermon on Mark 12:28-34
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 31, 2021
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.


One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he [that is,
Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is first of all?” Mark 12:28


It is undoubtedly one of the most famous comedy routines of all time. Bud Abbott and Lou
Costello doing “Who’s On First?” I am sure that you’re familiar with it. It is a routine that they performed
early in their career and then refined over the course of their entire career until it became a classic. The
dialogue, the timing, the pacing can hardly be beat. It must have taken Abbott and Costello countless
hours of rehearsal in order to get it down just right. What’s remarkable is that, even if you’ve seen or
heard it dozens of times, it can still bring a chuckle to you most every time you see or hear it. It never
grows old because it is just that good…
“Who’s on first?” Of course, the routine is about baseball and about the crazy nicknames that
baseball players sometimes have. Today’s passage from Mark is not a comedy routine about baseball.
But instead, in a very real sense, it asks us the question that forms the basis of the routine—“Who’s on
first?” Only this time, the question is not asked for laughs. It is for real. And ultimately, the discussion
leads to what is the essence of the Christian message…
Let’s set the scene. It is Tuesday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus is in
Jerusalem and he is teaching in the outer courtyard of the Temple. He has spent the day talking about
the Kingdom of God and fielding questions from the Pharisees and the other religious leaders. The
questions they asked were not friendly questions. Actually it was more like an interrogation. These
religious elites were trying to trip him up and discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people. Or if they were
lucky, maybe Jesus would say something that would get him arrested by the Roman authorities.
The dialogue covered a wide range of topics. Earlier in the day, Jesus’ authority had been
questioned. In response, he asked them a question about John the Baptist that put them in a quandary.
Then Jesus followed it up with a parable about tenants in a vineyard. You may remember the story.
These evil tenants of the vineyard refused to give the landowner his fair share of the produce.
And then they mistreated every one of the servants that landowner sent. Eventually he sent his own
son. The tenants killed him outright. When Jesus finished the story, those religious professionals
recognized themselves as tenants in the parable. They were incensed at the implication. And they began
to plot for ways to have Jesus arrested.
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Jesus then fielded questions about paying taxes, and then about marriage and the resurrection.
In each case, Jesus answered their questions in a way that completely astounded them. They could not
find anything in his responses that they could use to have him arrested. That brings us to today’s text…
There was one of the scribes present who had been listening to all the back and forth between
Jesus and his opponents. He seemed to be impressed with Jesus’ answers. And so he approached Jesus
with a question of his own. But this time, the tone of the question is much different. He is not trying to
set a trap for Jesus. His question seems to be sincere…
Mark tells us that this scribe asked Jesus a straight-up question. He asked, “Of all the
commandments, which is the most important?”
Here is an interesting point: The religious elites of Jesus’ day—that is, the scribes and the
Pharisees and the chief priests of the Temple—are usually characterized in the gospels as being hardhearted, blind and antagonistic to what God was doing in Jesus. And it is obvious from the gospels that
many of them were. In return, our Lord could also be pretty harsh with them. We are told that Jesus
described the religious leaders who opposed him as “whitewashed tombs…full of dead men’s bones and
everything that is unclean.” Another time he likened them to a “brood of snakes.” On still another
occasion he called them “children of your father, the Devil.”1
Pretty intense stuff, if you ask me…So
much for the commonly held view of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”…
But the scribe who asks the question in today’s text seems to be asking in earnest. He appears
to be one religious leader among the orthodox Jews of his day who saw something in Jesus that many of
his peers did not. He does not give the impression that he is trying to trick Jesus into some misstep. The
scribe seems to be one who is seeking the truth. As a part of his search, he asks Jesus a straight up
question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”
The text reveals another remarkable thing: Whenever someone usually asks a question of Jesus
in the gospels, Jesus seldom gives them a straight answer. For example, a man came up to Jesus and
asked him the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead of saying something like, “Everyone is your
neighbor because everyone is created by God” or some such answer, Jesus launched into the Parable of
the Good Samaritan. And at the end of the story, he asks the questioner, “So…who acted like a neighbor
to the half-dead man?” Not exactly a straight answer to the question….
Another time a man demanded of our Lord, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance
with me!” After asking the man his own question—“Who made me a judge between you two?”—Jesus
told the Parable of the Rich Fool. Honestly, the story had little to do with the man’s request. The parable
is a warning against covetousness…and greed…and of setting one’s priorities on the things of God. Not
exactly what the man asked of Jesus. He got more…and less… than he had bargained for from the
Master…And as one reads through the gospels, it seems that was standard practice for Jesus.

1 Matthew 23:27, Matthew 23:35, and John 8:44.
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But notice what happens in today’s text. The scribe asks Jesus a question concerning which of
the 613 commandments of the Old Testament law is the most important. And instead of giving the man
an answer that only addressed his question obliquely or telling a parable or something, he does
something unusual. He actually gives the man a straightforward answer! He says, “The first
[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 second
is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Sometimes even when Jesus did answer a question directly, though, his answer could be
frustratingly ambiguous. For example, earlier in Mark 12, Jesus is asked if it is right to pay taxes to
Caesar. You no doubt remember what Jesus said. Jesus replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and
give to God what is God’s.” Hmmm…It is not exactly a clear answer, is it? These words from the lips of
Jesus could be open to a variety of interpretations…and they have been throughout history. After all,
what belongs to Caesar? And what belongs to God? Psalm 24:1 tells us that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and
everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” That seems to indicate that everything belongs to God
and nothing really belongs to anyone else.
So…does that mean then that it was not incumbent upon his followers to pay taxes to the
Roman government? I don’t think that was the point that Jesus was making. Later on in the New
Testament, the Apostle Paul writes, “Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if
revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”2
It seems to me that Paul is
giving a clarification of Jesus’ confusing answer…
But today’s text is different. Jesus actually gave the scribe a straight-up answer to his straight-up
question. And this is why I think he did that. Jesus gave the unambiguous answer that he gave because
he wanted to be crystal clear. The question that the scribe asked him is at the very heart of the gospel
message. And Jesus wanted to be very clear in his response. He did not want to take any chances in
being misunderstood. Because, in those two commandments, lies the most important part of the
meaning of Jesus’ life and message.
Here is the main takeaway from today’s sermon: The Christian faith has always viewed “The
Great Commandment” as the lens through which to view the Old Testament law. And that is valid. It is
100% true. But I think that it goes further than just helping us to understand the Old Testament. Let me
suggest that The Great Commandment is the lens through which the followers of Jesus are to view all
of life.
Notice that the scribe immediately grasped what Jesus was saying. He replied to Jesus that
loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves is more important than all the burnt

2
Romans 13:7.
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offerings and sacrifices to God that one can make. And noticed how Jesus responded. He commended
the man, telling him that he was not far from the Kingdom of God.3
The Great Commandment is the lens through which the followers of Jesus are to view all of life.
Sometimes we as Christians get all tangled up in stuff that we think is important. But Jesus teaches us
here that nothing is as important as our obedience to these two pillars of our faith. The truth is that we
can sometimes get bogged down in stuff that is secondary to obedience to the Great Commandments.
And in doing so, we settle for less in being and becoming all that God has created us to be.
Ever since the earliest days of the church, followers of Jesus have squabbled over issues that
were not of primary importance to the faith. Even a cursory reading of the book of Acts and the Epistles
will reveal how Christians—mind you, these are devout Christians, some of whom actually had seen and
talked with Jesus personally in the flesh—argued about some of the finer points of theology and social
concerns. Questions over whether or not non-Jews could be Christians…Questions over the place of
women in church leadership…whether or not it was okay to eat leftover meat that had been previously
sacrificed to pagan idols…These were concerns that rocked the early church and threatened to polarize
it. It seems to me that if those early believers had just paid attention to the words of Jesus in Mark 12
about the two greatest commandments, a lot of that dissention in the early church could have been
avoided…And it is no less true in our day as well…
Loving God and loving neighbor should be the lens through which we view every single aspect
of our lives. Not just our religious beliefs and practices—but all the areas of our lives. Every attitude that
we harbor…every action…every thought…every motive… EVEYTHING in our lives should be judged by
how it relates to the two Great Commandments. And if something in our life does not express what it
means to love God with all of who we are or express a profound and deep love for others, then
something in our life is clearly amiss…
Think with me for a few moments about some of the different aspects of your life. For example,
consider your interactions with family and friends. Do those interactions reflect what it means to love
God with all that you are and to love others as much as you love yourself? If not, Jesus says that we are
to bring those relationships in harmony with the Great Commandments.
Or how about our finances and how we spend our money? Does how we spend our money
conform to what Jesus said about loving God with all that we are and loving others as we love
ourselves? If not, then why not? Or how about how we spend our time and energy? Is how you spend
your time and energy reflective of the Great Commandments? How might that need to change? Or how
about our political views. Do the Great Commandments inform our choices when we vote? If not, then
why not…

3
I confess that I find it a bit amusing that the scribe tells Jesus, “You are right.” Think about that. The scribe is
telling the Son of God that he was right in his interpretation of the scriptures. The irony is not lost on me…
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I imagine that there are places in each of our lives where we are not following the Great
Commandments as well as we should. Or as well as we can. Or well as we ought to. Take a few moments
to consider you life and the choices that you make every day. Do they reflect the two greatest
commandments? How can the commandments to love God and love others more completely impact my
life? What needs to be affirmed? What needs to change? Remember that at the end of their
conversation—when the scribe told our Lord Jesus that to obey those commands was much more
important than burnt offerings and sacrifices, Jesus told him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of
God…”
You should have received an insert with your bulletin as you entered the sanctuary. The hymn is
that classic African-American spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.” As we sing this hymn together, I
prayer that you will sing the words meaningfully. Make the words your prayer to God this
morning…Lord, I want to be a Christian…Lord, I want to be more loving…Lord, I want to be more
holy…Lord I want to be like Jesus…in my heart…
And to God alone be the glory! Amen