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The Greatest Commandment is not Enough (aka Close, but no cigar)

October 31, 2015

Mark 12:28-34 10-commandments-block


So we enter the gospel in the middle of a big debate. This is the inquisition section of Mark’s gospel. The religious leaders have been asking Jesus tricky questions for a while now. They have been asking him about taxes. They have been asking him about the resurrection. Now a scribe comes in with the big one: What is the greatest commandment? It is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian question: what is the heart of the gospel? When all is said and done what is at the core of your faith? … that kind of thing.


This reminds me of an interesting contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Because they are quite different questions (the greatest commandment and the core of the gospel). When a Jew looks back at the ancient writings that we call ‘the Old Testament’ he or she thinks of them as ‘The Law’ (and calls them ‘The Law’) . It’s all about commandments. The stories fit around the commands. When a Christian looks back at these same writings. He or she sees firstly the story. It’s the story of the covenant love of God. So we call it the Old Covenant or Old Testament. The commands fit within the story rather than the other way round.


So when Judaism split in two later in the first century between those Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah and those Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus, the Christians (the ones who did believe in Jesus) gathered together their writings as New Testament. And the other Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus gathered writings together as Mishnah – the writings of the rabbis about how to order their lives.


So here’s the point. Both groups look back at the same books from their past. They each have a right to those books as their common past. But both have different ways of looking at the same books. For Jews the Commands or the Law is at the centre and the story fits around it – so they call them ‘the Law’. For Christians the story and the covenant is at the centre – so the call them the ‘Old Testament/Covenant’ (or at least that’s what Robert Jenson argues)


So what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers the question. And he answers it in a way that is completely acceptable to the Scribe. He gives a standard Jewish answer. Love God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love your neighbour. Both are there as individual commandments in their own right. You can look up Deuteronomy and read about loving God and Leviticus has a commands love of neighbour as the alternative to vengeance (that’s an important context) [“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev 19:18]


They exist as individual commandments. Jesus puts them together in one commandment. And that one command is not just the greatest command. It is also a summary of all the 10 commandments. Its a summary of this vision of a life with two dimensions which can never be separated. Love God (verticle) and love your neighbour (horizontal).


Jesus says together these make up the single ‘greatest command’ and yet within the greatest commandment there are two parts. Love for God comes first. And neighbour love follows.


The greatest commandment turns out to be a big call, a kind of perfection. We could very easily dismiss it… as beyond us… impossible even, and move on. That’s one response. It’s just depressingly aspirational.


Another response: We might also be concerned about the emphasis on first loving God. If you love God too much you’ll end up with not enough love for your neighbour. Like the suicide bomber who loves God so much that he kills his neighbour. … But Jesus says love is not a finite quantity like water. If you use too much of it you run out. For Jesus it works the other way. The more you love God, the more you love your neighbour. We are changed. We lose any exclusiveness that might be associated with our love of our self. We lose any selfishness about our love for our self … and we love our neighbour with the same love that we have for our self. Love of God encompasses and shapes everything else we do. It has everything to do with the nature and reality of the God we love.


That’s nice, you might say … in theory… So the conversation ends in agreement. They all agree. All you need is love. Great! All religions are the same. They all believe in love (in some sense)… we’re happily ever after.


But Jesus has the last word. He saw that the scribe had answered thoughtfully, and he says to him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. Close… but no cigar. What did he get wrong?


He is thoughtful. Jesus and he both agree on the commandments. But the commandments are not enough. The kingdom of God does not come to us as a commandment. We do not enter the kingdom of God by commandments. If you have lived all your life trying to follow the principles and commandments that your parents and the church has taught you, with all the best intentions in the world, it is quite possible that Jesus will look at you and say ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. Close … but no cigar.


To put it another way. You cannot love God because God commands you to love God. Even the greatest commandment is not enough. You will love God because: God. is. lovely! It is because all the loveliness of God, the kingdom of God comes to you that you will enter the kingdom of God. And if that is not your experience, you will probably not love God, even if you try to love God.


Jesus comes bringing the kingdom, announcing the kingdom, demonstrating all the loveliness of God’s life… and the man standing in front of him… doesn’t enter the kingdom. Because ultimately it’s not about commands, it’s about something that happens to us. God’s story… the Old Testament… is still happening as New Testament. The two tablets of the law – total love for God (vertical) and love for neighbour (horizontal) are being lived out in the shape of a cross, a cross shaped life of the loveliness of God. God is loving us. God is drawing us in. ….


In the end its not a matter of commands or principles or ideas (common to all religions). It’s a matter of receiving that story and that life and participating in that life and being changed.


The gospel is not a command. It is something that happens to you. It’s the thing that causes you to love God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself.


It’s when I survey the wondrous cross… the cross-shaped life of Jesus and of his Abba … that love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Let’s sing that hymn together…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2015 8:12 am

  2. November 4, 2015 9:01 am

    Thanks Martin

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