Mark 12

One of my college professors had a twisted sense of humor. On exam days after distributing test questions and giving us a moment to look them over, he would leave the room. Just before closing the door, with a twinkle in his eye he would quip, “When you’re finished, you may pass out quietly.”

I never liked tests as a student. Pursuing a career as a professor, I can’t say I like them much better now. Contrary to what we believed as students, most teachers don’t. Tests are two-way mirrors. They reflect how well the student learned and provide a window into how well the instructor taught. Test questions are like boomerangs. They come back to be dealt with by those who threw them out.

When we come to Mark 12, we find Jesus being tested. The class is trying to stick it to their Teacher. On edge because of a parable He recently shared (Mark 12:1-2), they begin posing questions.

First, the Pharisees and Herodians, unlikely study partners otherwise, get together and raise a question about paying tribute to Caesar. The Pharisees liked Caesar about as much Cuban-Americans would like for Fidel Castro to be Governor of Florida. The Herodians felt just the opposite. As much as the two parties disagreed on politics, they agreed in their animosity toward Jesus.

If the Lord had risen to the bait and denounced paying Caesar’s tribute, the Herodians would have accused Him before Rome. Going the other way, He would have incurred the taxpayers’ wrath. He would have also raised the eyebrows of pious Jews who believed the coins used to pay the tribute, coins that bore Caesar’s image, were an abomination. Instead, Jesus answered with those immortal words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Then, the Sadducees came. They didn’t believe in resurrection and so laid-out a test case about a widow and her seven late husbands. Whose wife could she possibly be in the world to come if there was a resurrection? The whole proposition seemed preposterous, but Jesus answered.

His answer proved so wise, so incisive, that a certain scribe seeing how He silenced His critics felt compelled to speak up. Listen to Mark’s record of the dialogue that followed. (Read Mark 12:28-34.)

Scribes started out as human Xerox machines, scrupulously copying the Old Testament. Copy any document often enough and you become something of an authority on it. The scribes eventually earned recognition as Old Testament scholars. Whenever a group of scribes got together, I imagine they talked about the same stuff as us: sports, hobbies, their families, and work. You can almost hear them debating the same kinds of doctrinal stuff that keeps seminary students occupied over lunch in the cafeteria.

One of their more hotly debated topics dealt with the commandments. Out of all the commandments God had given, which was the greatest? Which type of commandment was most important?

The answer is obvious to us. We learned it as 6-year-olds in Sunday school. Try to appreciate for a minute though how debatable the question was before Jesus answered it so definitively.

Jewish rabbis counted 613 commandments in the Law alone. How do you begin trying to rank 613 commandments in order of importance? By the time you’ve read the 73rd, you’ve already forgotten the 22nd.

Perhaps desperate to make the task easier, they began grouping the commandments. Broad categories included commandments pertaining to the sacrifices, the Sabbath, and circumcision. Another well known grouping divided the commandments into the Torah, sacrificial worship, and expressions of love. The question though remained the same. Which commandment representing a category of commandments was the greatest?

The question was intellectually challenging. Even more, it was spiritually important. This was no two-point question in a game of Bible Trivia. If you believed your eternal destiny hinged on how well you kept the commandments, you’d want to make sure you were keeping the most important ones at least.

Unlike the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees before him, this scribe wasn’t looking to put Jesus on the spot. He wasn’t interested in finding evidence against Him or in making fun of His doctrine. He seems to have been sincere when he asked, “Which is the first commandment of all?”

Two Daunting Commandments

Jesus dug back into the Mosaic Law to pull out not one but two commandments, two of a kind. First, He quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 that orders you to love your God with all your being. If you compare what Moses wrote to what Jesus said, you discover that the Lord changed the wording slightly. Moses spoke of loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. Jesus added one’s mind to the commandment.

Across the years preachers and Christian writers have made much of these divisions. It’s easy to see why. The heart is the seat of the emotions and the center of being. How often did Jehovah condemn Israel for her heartless worship? How often do we today sing hymns, raise prayers, and pass the plate in heartless repetition?

The soul is the psyche, the inner essence of personality. The very word “soul” reverberates with an eternal echo.

Jesus mentioned the mind. How few believers today possess a biblical worldview? Relativism, existentialism, pragmatism, pluralism, secularism, and postmodernism cloud our thinking. How little knowledge of the Bible do we actually possess? With a proliferation of study aids, increased literacy, and technological tools, we devote less of our minds to God today than did believers two thousand years ago.

Then there’s one’s strength. What did Paul say? “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And again, “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Colossians 3:23).

Any preacher worth his salt can find a lot of good preaching in that four-fold division of heart, soul, mind, and strength. To be honest though, we may be abusing the text when we treat it this way. Apparently the purpose of these divisions is not to draw our attention to the individual parts but to the whole. It’s like when we say “from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.” We’re not trying to draw attention to our head and feet but speaking of our entire being. What Jesus is saying is God wants us to love Him with our entire being.

We have given so much of our time to trying to figure out what Jesus meant by our heart, soul, mind, and strength; we have all but ignored the word “love.” The root, as you might expect, is agape. You don’t have to be a Greek scholar to know that agape love is more than warm feelings. It’s an intentional love, a determination to esteem highly its object.

The scribe, an expert in laws and rituals, had asked which commandment is the greatest. Laws, rituals, and commandments are cold, heartless things. They are standards that exist apart from us ready to judge us. Jesus answered by speaking of love, an act that moves us into a relationship with God.

When we start trying to delineate exactly what love entails, what actions it will produce, and those it will prohibit, we can fall back into a ritualistic religion that has as little to do with a loving relationship with the Almighty as an album of wedding photos has to do with marriage. I don’t mean to imply that love won’t influence our behavior. Jesus Himself said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” A love for God will affect us. Such love should affect everything about us, and that’s precisely the point Jesus is making when He quotes from Deuteronomy 6.

The greatest commandment is one that calls us to a love for God that permeates every aspect of our being. It isn’t a love put on at certain times or places or for particular people to see. The love God demands is a constant, all-consuming love.

My friend Alan enjoys classical music. When I’ve visited his office, classical music played softly from his CD player. When he took me out to lunch, it sounded from his car’s radio as soon as the key turned the ignition. Beethoven, Bach, and Wagner provide the background music of Alan’s life. Similarly, our love for God should play in the background of our every thought, word, and deed. That is a daunting challenge.

The second commandment, according to Jesus, is no less daunting. Quoting from Leviticus 19:18, He said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Here again Jesus altered the text. Previously He added a word when He quoted Moses. Now He leaves out an entire line. The complete commandment reads, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord.”

As it originally appeared the commandment seems limited, dealing primarily with how we should react when wronged. By quoting only the last part of the command, Jesus removes the limitation. He leaves us instead with the unlimited responsibility to love our neighbor at all times as ourselves.

When we look at the first commandment, we get distracted by the fourfold division of heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we study this second one, the word “neighbor” leaps out at us. Like a certain expert in the Law whom Jesus encountered previously, we wonder, “Who is my neighbor?” That question becomes our loophole for trying to wiggle out of all this commandment’s implications. Through His parable about a good Samaritan Jesus answers our question. Our neighbor is anyone whose need we see, whose need God has put us into a position to meet.

The Bible is emphatic about our duty to love others. Just look at all the “one another” passages in Paul’s epistles. Just listen to John: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen” (1 John 4:20)? Then, apparently recalling the words of our text, the beloved apostle adds, “And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also (1 John 4:21).”

Love for God, like faith, is a personal matter. Neither, however, should be a private matter. John Wesley made the point better than I. “Christianity is essentially a social religion; to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it.”

We remember Wesley primarily as an evangelist, driven by his deep love for God. History shows that he loved his neighbors, too. Concerned about health care for the working poor, he opened a free clinic and wrote a book on home remedies. He created the first credit union to help the poor avoid debtor’s prison. He even stipulated in his will that six unemployed men be found to dig his grave then be paid a pound each–a generous wage for even a full day’s work. Despite earning great wealth from his writings, Wesley died with only ten pounds and a teapot to his name. He had given away everything else.

The love God commands us to have for our neighbors is more than warm, fuzzy feelings. Here again He calls for agape love, love that esteems, love that seeks the well-being of its object, love that, like Wesley’s, expresses itself in practical ways.

Jesus answers the scribe with not one but two commandments. Commandment #1: Love your God with all your being. Commandment #2: Love your neighbor as yourself. The two go together.

The scribe saw the connection immediately. Like any orthodox Jew, the scribe readily agreed that God is unique, in a class by Himself. He deserves loving respect and devotion because of Who He is and the position He holds.

Moreover, the scribe knew that God created man in His image. The Fall cracked the mirror. The image of God in mankind was distorted, but the image remains. Our neighbors deserve our love because of the one true God in whose image they were created.

Think about the Ten Commandments. They can be divided into two tables. Table one contains the first four commandments, pertaining to our relationship with God. Table two covers the final six, regulating our relationships with those made in God’s image. Offerings and sacrifices were instituted because of our failure to honor our obligations to God and mankind. Agape love for God and God’s image-bearers would have made such sacrifices unnecessary.

Can you see the logic? Can you see how the two commandments belong together? The scribe could, so Jesus commended him, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” When you can see the wisdom of the Great Commandment, you are not far from God’s Kingdom. That’s a compliment that comes with a slap.

One Haunting Question

Jesus had given the scribe a backhanded compliment. The man walked away thinking, “Jesus said ‘I wasn’t far from the kingdom of God.’ Jesus said that. Everyone knows how wise Jesus is, and He just said ‘I wasn’t far from the kingdom of’. Wait a minute! What did He mean by ‘not far’? Am I not already in?”

The question he had thrown out in verse 28 had brought back an answer. That answer now tested him. One question haunted him. “Am I or am I not in the Kingdom?”

Theological insight, no matter how keen, is no sign you’re a member of God’s Kingdom. Slaves used to sing the Negro spiritual: “I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s chillun got shoes. When we get to Heaven we’re goin’ to put on our shoes an’ shout all over God’s Heaven.” Then turning a wary eye toward the big house where the master lived, they sang darkly, “But everybody talking about Heaven ain’t going there.”

How close to the Kingdom of God are you? Better yet, are you in the Kingdom? Close isn’t good enough. Remember what we used to say on the playground? Close only counts in handgrenades and horseshoes.

I live in Memphis, 500 miles from my parents’ home in Erwin. We live in the same state but on different ends. I could drive to Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, or Indiana in less time than it takes me to drive back home. But if I told you that my parents and I live in the same state, you might assume we are closer than we actually are. Because you know your way around the church and Bible, because of the services you’ve attended and the truth you’ve ingested, you may think you’re closer to the Kingdom than you really are.

If you understand your need to love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself, you’re close to the Kingdom; but you’re not there yet. What you lack is the realization that you are incapable of truly loving God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself. The Great Commandment is an impossible idea. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be. When you realize you can’t do what God wants more than anything else, you’ll begin to see how hopeless you are. You’ll see that you have nothing to offer God but a cry for mercy. Amazingly, thankfully, it is God’s gracious response to that cry that moves you into His Kingdom.

The Great Commandment is first an impossible idea. Then, after you’ve received God’s mercy, that Commandment provides a tangible expression of citizenship in the Kingdom. For your soul’s sake, don’t get this confused. Wesley, whom I mentioned earlier, sailed across the Atlantic as a missionary to Georgia, driven by love for God and his lost neighbors. He set out to fulfill the Great Commandment without having first come to terms with the impossibility of it all. Wesley soon returned home a broken, defeated man, as do all of us who seek to obey without having first obtained forgiveness. Later, after receiving God’s mercy, he took up the Great Commandment again. The world was not the same afterward.

After you’ve become a citizen through God’s mercy, you should increasingly be characterized by an all-consuming love for God and self-mirroring love for neighbor. Your heart, soul, mind, and strength should remain constantly open on the Godward side. Your hand should remain outstretched to your neighbor. Your home should glow with a love for God that warms those inside its walls and brightens through its open door and windows the surrounding neighborhood. Your house of worship should be a warm fellowship of the Father and His children, a table spread with room for more.

Sadly, not all of us in the Kingdom live like good citizens should. What does it say about our homes when 9 out of 10 children raised in evangelical churches leave the church by age 18? An earlier generation chided the shoemaker whose children owned no shoes. Their father was too busy fretting over the bare feet of others. Might not our generation rightfully condemn us who proclaim a Gospel of love but have so little time and energy, the practical expressions of love, left over that our children, our nearest neighbors, reject the God we serve?

How well do our houses of worship represent the Kingdom? When a teen who’s as lost as a ball in high weeds visits our church, how do we react? Think he’ll corrupt our youth? Worry he’ll want to date our daughters? Or love him like we love the other members of our fellowship, like we love ourselves?

All sorts of commandments fill the pages of the Bible. Out of them all, Jesus identified two as the greatest: Love your God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. How do you deal with those daunting, impossible commands? You may want to divert your attention to other commandments, try to keep the rituals and forget the more personal stuff. That’s what the Pharisees and most of the scribes did. To his credit, that’s not what the scribe in our story did. From the way he framed his response to Jesus in Mark 12:32-33, he was willing to acknowledge that his previous emphasis on the sacrificial laws was misplaced. Jesus’ understanding of what God wanted was better than his own. What he did after that Mark doesn’t say. Did he finally confront his own inability to obey God’s Great Commandment? Did he cry out for mercy and receive it? Over the years that followed did his neighbors come to see and feel his love for God? Or did he go on in his cold rituals, debating doctrinal issues over donuts with friends?

When my sister Karen finished second grade her teacher presented her with a certificate for good citizenship. When Karen later showed her award to Grandpa, he asked, “What’s that for?” She thought for a minute then answered, “For playing nice.”

Citizenship in God’s Kingdom is about more than “playing nice.” Good citizenship in His Kingdom belongs to those who have failed the toughest test of all, begged for mercy, received grace, and then by their love show they belong.


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