Text: Mark 12:28-34
What do I love? I love Dolly Parton, any kind of pizza, collecting old watches, discussing theology with colleagues and friends, and watching the TV show “The Mentalist.” I love riding motorcycles, cooking a good meal, reading a good book, looking at religious artifacts, and listening to Dolly Parton. I love beautiful, well-crafted furniture, sharing a cup of hot tea with a friend, being a pastor, and oh, did I mention that I love Dolly Parton? These are some of the things I love.
But “What do I love?” is not the real question for us today. The real question, the serious question is, “What do I love when I love my God?” The greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to “love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” In other words, the most important thing Jesus says I can do is to love God with my whole being – with every part of who I am. So, I am wondering, “What do I love when I love my God with every ounce of who I am?” And “What do you love when you love your God with every ounce of who you are?”
By the time we reach the 12th chapter of Mark, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a kind of theological cross-examination free-for-all. Priests, scribes, elders, and other assorted defenders of the letter of the law are swarming all over him in a frenzy of entrapment.
First, there’s a question about divorce (with a follow-up from his own disciples), and nobody likes the answer. Then a question from a rich man about what he must do to inherit eternal life, and the answer is: the one thing you’re not willing to do. Then, acting like jealous siblings, the disciples squabble over seating arrangements in the kingdom. To which Jesus, somewhat bluntly responds, “You really don’t know what you are asking do you?” It is at that point that Jesus stops his own parade to heal a blind man named Bartimaeus, and curses a poor little fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season.
Then the questions get personal. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Translated: we’ve got him now. Then comes the dark parable of the wicked tenants, and a question about taxes to test his citizenship. And finally, a real brainteaser about seven brothers who do their brotherly duty by marrying each other’s childless widow, only to find themselves all in heaven without a clue as to who gets to call her “my wife.” Again, with a deep sigh, Jesus says, “Honestly, you just don’t get it.”
That’s when a nameless scribe, who has been hanging out on the fringe of the crowd makes his move. Hey holy man, “Which commandment is the first of all?” It’s hard to know if the scribe was being sincere with his question or once again trying to entrap Jesus. It’s obvious the man knew the commandments – you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not make wrongful use of the name of God; remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; honor your father and your mother; you shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against your neighbor, nor covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. So God has taken all the rights and wrongs of the world, and has handed to Israel a tidy list of 10 rules to follow. And yet, the questioner wants to know, which one counts the most? It’s as if he’s asking, if I can only keep one, which one should it be. Or in other words, I know we’re supposed to follow them all, but which one is going to be on the test? Sound familiar? It is our human dance with boundaries of all kinds. When the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, we calculate in our heads exactly how many miles over we can be without getting caught. When I am buying a bag of cherries in the grocery, and I know I’m paying by the pound, I reckon that I can eat 2 of the cherries to “test” them, but if I edge up to 5 it would definitely be stealing. The question asked of Jesus is both a picky legalistic one, and a profoundly human one, trying to get to the bottom of what will we really be held accountable for.
“Which is the greatest commandment of all?” the scribe asked. Of all the commandments, which will I be held most accountable for; which one counts the most? Jesus answered, “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” As I was reading the various commentaries, they would often condense Jesus’ answer to, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” This condensing caught my attention and I wondered why Jesus just didn’t say, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Why delineate with the words heart, soul, mind, and strength? And furthermore, why did Jesus add “with all your mind” for in Deuteronomy 6:5 we read, “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might?”
Did Jesus think it would be our minds that would distract us from truly loving God, so he felt it necessary to remind us that our thoughts, our reasoning, and our rationalizations needed to be centered and grounded in our love of God and not simply in the pursuit of high-wire intellectual acrobatics? Did he add “with all your mind” because those to whom he was speaking were more focused on right answers than right relationship? I don’t know why Jesus added the words “with all your mind,” but I would bet all my Dolly Parton memorabilia that there was a good reason. And maybe it was this: he wanted to drive home the point that to “love God” meant that we couldn’t hold anything back. We can’t hold on to or protect or squirrel away or separate out any part of ourselves away from God and truly love God.
And maybe that is why we are told that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind. To love God means that we surrender our whole selves, every part of who we are, every ounce of our being to God and God alone. To hold anything back, to leave any part of who we are out of loving God not only impacts our capacity to love God, it also diminishes our capacity to know and feel just how much God loves us. This is not just adoration love, this is relationship love. And so Jesus answered, “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
And the second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In answering the scribes’ question, Jesus combines Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18, “…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” No one in the crowd that day, neither opponents nor admirers, would dispute the “love of God” as the greatest commandment. But when Jesus goes on and links it to, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he attaches the welfare of one’s neighbor above all other duties and obligations, including religious ones. And since Jesus is saying this while standing in the courtyard of the Temple just days before Passover, one of the most obvious implications would be, as the scribe himself says,
“to love one’s neighbor as oneself” – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Notice that the scribe doesn’t just say, “more important,” he says, “much more important.” There is nothing more important than loving our neighbor as ourselves. Coming to church, following all the rules, saying all the right things, living a good life – there is nothing – NOTHING – more important than caring for the welfare of and being in relationship with one’s neighbor. And we know, from another story, that our neighbor is not just the person who lives beside us or in our neighborhood.
There are not two greatest commandments. There is one: Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength AND love your neighbor as yourself. In responding to the scribes’ question, Jesus reminds us that to love God is to love your neighbor. The neighbor across the street whose political sign reads different from the one in your yard; the neighbor across town who sleeps under the bridge; the neighbor who labors in the field for less than minimum wage to pick the food you have on your table; the neighbor who works two jobs and is still unable to provide for her children; the neighbor in Afghanistan who goes to bed at night not knowing if she will be alive at daybreak.
Loving one’s neighbor can be an investment in an ongoing relationship, like Ashley and Eleanor’s relationship, or it can be a simple one-time encounter with a stranger. As some of you know, I was in New York last week beginning a course of study with two Union Theological Seminary professors. On Monday, they had arranged for me to meet with a church staff to discuss worship and the arts. Now, Union Seminary is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the church I was visiting is located in the East Village of Manhattan. This meant that I had to figure out, on my own, how to get from the Upper West Side to the East Village. And just so you will know, until this visit, all my subway experience had been with seasoned locals.
Standing in front of Union, totally disoriented as to which way I should walk to even get to a subway station, I panicked and hailed the first taxi I saw. I gave him the address of my destination and sat back relieved that I would at least get to my appointment on time. Which I did, after paying $48.00 for a 20-minute cab ride. I knew at that moment that I would need another plan for my return ride to Union. As my meeting ended, I asked one of the minister’s how I might return to Union via the subway. Here were my directions: Walk down St. Mark’s Street and just after you pass the “cube” (I had no idea what the cube was) you will see the N/R line to uptown. Take the N/R line to 56th Street and then transfer to the 1 Line. That will take you to 116th Street.
Great. I did as I had been told. I found the cube, literally a black cube in the middle of an intersection, and made my way to the N/R uptown subway station. There I purchased my Metro card and waited for the N/R train. Once it approached, I tentatively stepped inside secretly wondering if I would ever see anyone I knew again. Standing, because there were no seats, I turned to the woman beside me and asked, “Is this train going uptown toward 116th street?” Yes, she replied, “Where are you going?” Union Seminary. Oh, she replied, “I’m headed that way just stay with me.” I won’t go into our full conversation, but she learned I was from Raleigh and I learned that her husband went to UNC-Chapel Hill and currently serves on a Board there. I also learned that she knows Rabbi Dinner at Temple Beth Or and had recently attended a Bar Mitzvah there. In a twenty-minute period we discussed religion, politics, and our families.
When it came time to transfer trains, she cared for me carefully making sure I was behind her, close by, and that there was room on the train for both of us before she got on. When it came time for me to board the last train, that she would not be taking, again she gave me careful instructions. Wait here and when the 1 train comes get on it and stay on it until 116th Street. With that, I thanked her and stood among the crowd waiting for the 1 train. Within a few seconds of her walking off, she turned around, came back to me and said, “Just stay right here and the train will be here soon. It was very nice meeting you.” Again, I thanked her and said goodbye. She walked off. But what she didn’t know was that I watched her out of the corner of my eye and I saw that she stood at the bottom of the exit stairs waiting and watching until my train arrived and she saw that I was safely on it.
From her own Jewish faith tradition, for sure she knew the Shema – “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” And for certain, from her own faith tradition she knew the commandment to “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.” It was her daily practice and that day I was the neighbor. To love one’s neighbor is to care for another’s welfare and build relationship.
When Jesus connects Deuteronomy 6:4-5 to Leviticus 19:18 his message is this: loving God is not about rules, but about relationship. And when we connect loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to loving our neighbor we, too, are not far from God’s realm.
What do I love when I love my God? I love my neighbor. I love my neighbor!