Love Rules


Mark 12:28-34
Fourth Sunday before Advent

This time last week the east-coast of the US was being warned about the impending disaster of Hurricane Sandy. I expect many people were faced with the difficult decision as to what they should try to save from their homes. That’s a question we quite often think about as a way of finding out what is improtant to people. Lots of people say photos which highlights what is really important in our life doesn’t it? And its a bit like the question in our gospel reading today.

The question ‘what is the most important commandment?’ was not a new question - the scribes had been debating it for centuries. There were 613 commandments in the Law, 248 positive & 365 negative. No-one could ever hope to know and fully obey all of them. However you need only break one law, to be guilty before God. “For whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

This man seems to have asked his question out of respect - he was probably an honest and sincere man. Not all of the Pharisees were hypocrites - Jesus commends him for his intelligence and honesty showing that He thought the man’s heart was sincere which must have given his fellow Pharisees a fright.

Jesus answer was both conventional and new. He used 2 texts commonly used in Jewish ethical discussion but 2 texts that had never been singled out together before. The answer was in fact two commandments with the addition of an assumption. The commandments were 1) to love God and 2) to love our neighbour … with the assumption was that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. (First 4 commandments help us to love God and the remaining 6 how to love our neighbour.)

In answering by appealing to Scripture Jesus showed that there was no conflict between the commands of God as received by the Jews in the Old Testament and the demands of the Gospel as revealed in Jesus.

Jesus quoted what is called the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4), a statement of faith that was recited twice daily by every orthodox Jew. (The word “Shema” comes from the Hebrew word which means “to hear.” The confession of faith begins with, "Hear, O Israel!") The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are and have — heart, soul, mind, strength, possessions, service. To love God is not to “have good feelings about Him,” for true love involves the will as well as the heart. Where there is love, there will be service and obedience.

The Shema in Deuteronomy says to love God with all your heart, soul and strength, but Jesus says with all your heart, soul and mind. Certainly in the Old Testament obeying the Law never really seemed to allow for thinking so much as obedience. Also strength may have been more applicable in the conquering of the land and ‘mind’ may indicate an intellectual commitment. In the beatitudes Jesus links our thought life with our actions and in Romans sinful practices are linked with reprobate minds.

In any event ‘heart, soul and mind’ signifies the essential nature of a person and his ultimate loyalty rather than a superficial allegiance. Loving God means loving God with all that we are and all that we have. Loving God with our heart, our soul and our mind is not about loving Him with different parts of our selves but rather about loving Him with all of ourselves. There must be no part of our life that is not centred on loving God.

But love for God cannot be divorced from love for others; so Jesus also quoted Leviticus 19:18 and put it on the same level as the Shema. All of the Law and the Prophets hang on both of these commandments.

If we have a right relationship with God, we should have no problems with His commandments. Love is the basis for obedience and if we love God, we will love our neighbour; and if we love our neighbour, we will not want to do anything to harm him. But putting these 2 commandments together, love for God and love for neighbour highlights a source of tension.

A tension we all feel between the ‘otherworldly’ and the ‘this-worldly’ demands of discipleship. For however close we seem to get to God there always seems to be someone in our lives whom we find it hard to love.  And yet It is clear that Jesus’ use of the word ‘neighbour’ here means not just a friend, not even a friend with whom we have a problem but also an enemy.

However hard we find it to love someone we have to do it. Loving someone doesn’t have to be confused with liking them. I’m sure that Jesus didn’t like the man hammering the nails into Him at the crucifixion. But I’m equally sure that He loved him.

Our loving may initially stem from duty, but if we are faithful in prayer then God is able to do more than we can ever imagine.

The term ‘our neighbour’ is also seen as being people forward in time - in the Deuteronomy passage it says ‘children’s children’. Which I think gives us the obligation to do something about preserving and passing on our faith.

Finally lets look at the assumption Jesus make, that we love ourselves. For we cannot love our neighbours as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves. And it is surprising how many people don’t love themselves. Sometimes it’s because others have put us down so much that we begin to believe it. Sometimes because we see ourselves as being horrible and unlovable.

But Genesis says that we are the crown of God’s creation. However lovely and beautiful the sunset or anything else in nature is, we are beloved children of God. We are the ones who were born only a little lower than the angels and we are the ones He died for.

And if we dare to presume that we are so unlovely, that our sins are just to horrible for God to love us then we are in effect guilty of pride in a way. How can we presume that our sins - our horribleness - is too bad to be dealt with by the cross.

The cross was for each and everyone of us - because God loves each and everyone of us that much. And if He does then so must we. And if we can’t love ourselves it actually makes it harder to love others.

These 2 commandments of the law stand together because each depends on the other. The command to love our neighbour arises from the command to love God because the love of God is empty unless its actioned in the love of our neighbour. When Jesus answered this question the Jews thought that the way to show love of God was in extravagant offerings and sacrifice. Jesus was telling them that the real demands of God are not in these things at all.

The thing that God demands of us is love - which is not always an easy option. Sometimes it might be a whole lot easier to be able to bring some sacrifice to God rather than love someone we dislike. Love is sometimes hard - but we have no choice - we have been commanded to do it. True faith observes both of the commands mentioned here.

Sometimes Baptism couples, after hearing that Baptism is about joining the church and repenting our sins and turning our lives over to Christ, quite openly say ‘oh we
don’t want to come to church - Sunday’s our day for a lie in’. It’s a catch 22 situation - because they won’t give anything up for Him they don’t come to know the wonderful benefits of knowing Jesus - and of how He can transform their lives for the better.

There are always blockages in our lives that make it hard to love God with ALL of our being. We need to check out what those things are and remove them. When we make Him number one in our lives we are that much nearer to hearing Him say to us that we, too, are not far from the Kingdom of God. Amen