Monday, February 29, 2016

The Greatest Commands that are Never Followed

If you read today’s Gospel lesson from the book of Mark, you may scratch your head a little bit–especially if you were raised in the church. Because, if you were raised in the church, you would have heard, more than once I hope, that God considers a sin a sin no matter how big or how small. God hates sin, and so He judges all of them harshly. Starting with that premise, one might come to the conclusion that all of the biblical Laws or commands in the Bible are on an equal footing. All should carry the same amount of importance and weight. So one might think that the scribe asking Jesus to rate which Law or commandment is greatest is a head scratcher. Shouldn’t Jesus have answered, "They are all important."?

Well, in a word no. Why? We will take a little bit of time this morning to find out.

You see, it is in the nature of humankind to make distinctions and ratings. We have to work through things to figure out what is important and what isn’t important. We have to have a discerning eye when it comes to following the laws which are written, supposedly for our own good. Now, some might be a little uncomfortable with this line of reasoning so far. You might think I am going to try and excuse you from following the commandments of the Bible. I hope you will not come away with that conclusion. We will get to the commands of the Bible in a minute, but first, let’s start with a few commands that are actually on the books in the state of Texas. I got this information from the website Some of these laws were verified on other sites. I hope they are all dependable. In this day and age, one truly never knows. Now, onto those laws:

•It is illegal to take more than three sips of beer at a time while standing.

•It is illegal to drive without windshield wipers. You don't need a windshield, but you must have the wipers.

•It is illegal for one to shoot a buffalo from the second story of a hotel.

•It is illegal to milk another person's cow.

What do you think about those laws? Reasonable? I can go around this room this morning and point out several of you who have broken that first one about taking three sips of beer at a time while standing. I’ve seen you at the Ag Hall at weddings and dances and stuff. Don’t deny it. I have to ask Sheriff Jack if he’s ever arrested anyone for taking more than three sips of beer while standing before. My guess is, he probably hasn’t because it really is a stupid law. It’s of minor importance compare to much weightier matters.

And that is the fact of the matter. When it comes to following the rules and regulations in this world, we are always having to make such judgments. We are always having to discern whether we should or should not follow a given set of laws. For instance, some communities have made it illegal to feed the homeless. That, of course contradicts what we Christians have been taught to do according to God’s will. So, which do we follow? Which command is most important? We must make a decision.
If you really read through the Bible, you will see such decisions being made about all of the commands introduced throughout the Bible. You will see all sorts of conundrums being presented.

You will see people violating direct commands given by God to the people. The Jewish scholars had worked their way through the Old Testament and had declared that there were 613 commands of prohibition and of subscription given by God. And, even with that seemingly few amount of commands, they oftentimes came into conflict with one another. Therefore, the Jewish scholars debated with one another about which commands carried more weight. Which commands were the heavy commands? Which commands were lighter? Which ones must be followed at all cost? Which ones could you let slide if necessary? These debates were commonplace, and there was a running debate throughout the decades about which commandment was the most weighty. Which commandment was the most important and demanded the most adherence to? This was a legitimate question for many, many people.

And so, it is not surprising that one day, Jesus was asked such a question. Our encounter takes place after Jesus had successfully circumvented two attempts to discredit Him. The Pharisees and Herodians had tried to catch Him by asking him about paying taxes. The Sadducees tried to trap him by asking him about the resurrection. In each of these encounters, Jesus shows a masterful ability to answer questions. Seeing Jesus’ masterful answers, a very curious scribe approaches.

As one commentator pointed out, this is the first time in Mark that an individual approaches Jesus with such a question. All of the other times, groups of people come forward to trap Jesus. In this instance, there isn’t a group. It’s one person, and the exchange doesn’t seem to be loaded with any sort of animosity or anger or entrapment. The scribe who comes forth really, genuinely seems to want to know which commandment is greatest.

And Jesus does not respond like He did with the other groups. In those cases, He used rabbinic technique to respond with a question to those questioning. Here, Jesus gives a straight-forward answer. I think it is because the scribe who asked Him is genuine and really does want an answer.

Jesus responds by quoting two places in the Torah. This is an important thing to see. For you see, in our society today, there are those who bemoan Christians quoting from the Old Testament. Even on my Facebook feed, I have had folks post a meme that has Jesus holding His head in His hand and saying, "I gave them the Beatitudes, and all they quote is Leviticus." You know, I hate that meme. Why? Well, when answering the scribe’s question, first, Jesus, quotes Deuteronomy, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength." Then, Jesus quotes–guess which book? You guessed it, He quotes the book of Leviticus chapter 19, "And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’" Jesus Himself quoted Leviticus!!! And He was absolutely right to do so.

The scribe acknowledges the wisdom in Jesus’ answer, and he responds with an absolutely mind blowing statement for a scribe. You have to remember that the scribes were intimately connected to the temple and the sacrificial system of Second Temple Judaism. They were the apologists of that system. They received their status and livelihood from that system, and this scribe whose entire life revolves around that system says, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that "he is one, and besides him there is no other"; 33and "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." That would be the equivalent of me standing up here this morning and telling you stop giving to the church and give all your money to other ministries. I would be shooting myself in the foot. But this is what this scribe says.

And Jesus gives that scribe high recognition, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Indeed. Remember earlier in the Gospel of Mark when the rich, young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit the kingdom? Jesus answered, "Follow commandments five through ten." The young guy responded, "I’ve done that since my youth." Then Jesus looked at the young man and said, "There is one thing you lack, sell all your possessions, give your money to the poor, and come follow me." The young man went away sad because his possessions and wealth were his god. This scribe has just done the opposite. He has shown that his God is the true God, not the temple sacrificial system. He has shown that he loves God more than his job. Is it any wonder Jesus compliments him?

It shouldn’t be. These are by far the two most important commands, and when held in dynamic tension, they provide the best way of following ALL the commands of God. You can neither get caught up in mysticism and claim that you love God so much while neglecting your neighbor; nor can you get so caught up in loving your neighbor that you neglect the worship of the one who created your neighbor. And, citing these two laws give a very good measure of how to wade through the rest of the laws and commands we are called to follow.

Now, this seems to wrap it up in a nice tidy package. In fact, in my younger days, I would have simply stopped right here and said, "Christianity basically boils down to these two commands: love God; love neighbor. Just go and do that even though it is hard." In fact, there are many, many pastors who continue to preach this, and it presents a problem for the Church.

You may ask what problem it presents. I ask you to show me one person who can follow these two commands at all times. Show me one person who actually accomplishes this. Before you start trying to name names, please let me give you an illustration of what it is to follow the first command: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

For those of you who have ever loved someone deeply, I want you to think about that relationship. I want you to think back to the early days of that relationship and how you dreamed about that other person. I want you to think about how you couldn’t wait to be with that person. I want you to think about how your every thought was about how you could please that person; how you longed for that person’s attention; how you longed for that person’s presence. I want you to think about how you daydreamed about that person. Have you ever been at this point? Have you ever been enamored with a person that much? That’s the kind of love we are called to have with God.

We are to think about God at every moment. We are to pray without ceasing which means our dreams are to be consumed with God. Those moments when we have nothing to think about, our thoughts are to be on God. We are to think about Him and how to please Him at all times. We long to spend time with Him and walk daily with Him. We rearrange our calendars around Him and only Him. This is what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Can you do this? Can you live your entire life with this kind of intensity?

And what about loving your neighbor as you love yourself? How do you love yourself? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Most folks see one of two things: they either are very happy with what they see and love themselves a lot or they look at themselves and are not happy with what they see. If you look in the mirror and are not happy with what you see, how are you going to love others? If you do not like yourself, will you like others? And if you look in the mirror and really like what you see, what is going to happen? Do you think you will love others? In a word, no. You will be consumed with yourself and think that others should be just like you. They should think like you, act like you, believe like you. It would be nice if you could love others like you love yourself if you like yourself this much, but the reality is that most folks slip into narcissism instead of humility.

And so we neither love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

And we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves.

We fail. We are far from the kingdom of God.

This is not good news.

But the good news is there was one who did love God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength.

There was one who did love His neighbor as He loved Himself.

There was one who perfectly fulfilled these commands of God, and instead of sitting in judgement of you for your failure, He stretched out His arms and died for you so that you could be brought into the kingdom of God. He loved you with an unbelievable love. He saved you by sheer grace; through no work of your own. He made all things right between you and God. The writer of 1 John put it this way, "10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." The gospel writer John said it this way, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him."

And to the extent that we trust in Christ’s action; to the extent we trust what He did instead of what we do; to the extent that our hearts are captured by the cross of Christ and the love that was poured out there, then we will indeed begin to accomplish the love of God and the love of neighbor. As the writer of 1 John concludes, "11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us." This is what happens–God lives in us and his love is perfected in us--when we acknowledge that we are saved by sheer grace. Amen.

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