by Pastor Cherie Johnson
We are in the middle of our sermon series, “What Is the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” Another way to ask that question is,”What matters most?” Aside from the ideas wrapped around who Jesus was or is, what did Jesus think was most important? As it happens, this is a question that is brought up in the Gospels. It appears in some form or another in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Today, will be looking at it in Mark’s Gospel 12:28-34.
Mark 12:28-34 NIV
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Imagine your house is on fire, what do you make sure comes out of the house with you (e.g. family members, pets, a special photo, etc.)? Now it must include your cell phone if you have one. It has so much information on it including the secondary ability to call the fire department.
As you watch the rest of your things being destroyed, you realize that you made some significant decisions. There were so many things to choose. You picked what was most valuable to you. That is very much what this teacher of the law was asking Jesus. Of all the law, what is the most valuable, or what matters most?
Jesus replies with the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The word Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear”, the first word of the phrase “Hear, O Israel.” Then Jesus goes on, “The second thing is this: love your neighbor as yourself.” In Matthew’s Gospel he adds, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22: 40).
There are two striking things. First, the teacher asks for the most important, usually meaning one thing, and Jesus gives him two. Second, they are both relational, loving God and loving each other. If we look at the commands or mitzvahs that people are most familiar with, in the Ten Commandments, will see that they also are relational to God and Neighbor.
- “You shall have no other gods before me.” That’s certainly interferes with the relationship if you have things, people, ideas that are more important to you than God.
- “You shall not make an idol for yourself in the form of anything in heaven above or earth beneath the waters below.” This builds on the first commandment. Don’t replace me with an inanimate object. (phones, TVs, computers, hobbies anyone?)
- “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” In other words, Respect Me.
- “Remember the Sabbath.” This was not just for the individual person but everyone in the household and servants. Neither should work be our idol. It interferes with our relationship with God and with the people around us.
- “Honor your father and mother.” This is obviously relational.
- “You shall not murder.” Nothing more damaging to relationships with other people.
- “You shall not commit adultery.” Betrayal of relationship to everyone involved, and I mean everyone.
- “You shall not steal.” Broken trust between people.
- “You shall not give false testimony.” Directly hurts another. Hurts their reputation. Hurts their case. Hurts their standing in the community.
- “You shall not covet.” You shall not have an inordinate desire for something that belongs to someone else. Certainly, the most subtle of these commands. How can you have a good relationship with someone when you’re obsessing about wanting what they have? The thought also that if you focus on it long enough, you will eventually do something to acquire it from that person by fair means or foul. (Exodus 20:3-17)
You can see how the commands to love God first and then others could sum up all the Ten Commandments.
And really, they are one thing. When you love someone, what and who is important to them becomes important to you. As N.T Wright says, “If it is true that we’re made in God’s image, we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, the more we learn to love and worship the one we are designed to reflect.” If you do love God with every part of you, you must love what God loves. God loves the people of the world, both us and our neighbors.
When you think about it, what if we truly lived that for one day with every part of our lives, not just the part that sits in the pew on Sunday mornings. If we fully lived into that for one day, God’s kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven. Perhaps, that is why when the teacher commends Jesus on his answer, Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
There is a story that Martin Thielen tells in his book about a young couple, Steve and Lisa, that married after meeting in college, determined to have successful careers, make lots of money, and live the American Dream. They did it. They got high-powered jobs, worked 60 to 80 hours a week, made lots of money. They could buy whatever their hearts desired. Soon they had multiple houses, multiple cars, and a boat, not that they ever had time to use it.
Steve and Lisa did this for about fifteen years and realized that the opportunity to have a baby was closing. The following year, they had their son, Nathan, but Steve and Lisa were still in their high powered successful jobs. It looked like they had everything: good careers, lots of money and assets, and a beautiful baby.
The problem was that they were working so many hours that Nathan was always in daycare or with a nanny. Steve and Lisa never had any time to spend with him or each other. They had no time for friends, activity in the community, or church. After about a year, they hit the wall. They finally asked the question that so many of us do, regardless of our circumstances. “Is this all there is to life? Do we really want to put in endless work hours in order to make more money and buy more stuff?”
Eventually, Steve and Lisa realized that this big so-called glamorous life they had was not big enough. It did not have enough life in it. They decided to change it. They downsized their careers, so they could upsize their lives.
They sold the multiple houses and the boat and took jobs that allowed them to spend time with Nathan. Now they had time for friends, church, and community life. There was more meaning and fulfillment.
Often, you might expect the story to end there, but there is a bit more. When Nathan was in the second grade, six years later, his teacher asked the class to draw picture and write a little about their idea of the perfect life. When Lisa looked over Nathan’s home work the next morning, she started to cry… from happiness.
Nathan drew his perfect life in three sections. The first drawing was of a house with Nathan, his mom and dad, and his dog captioned “Home.” Next, he had a checkerboard table with a face in each of the squares, captioned “Friends.” Finally, he had a picture of a building with a steeple and people captioned “Church.” Below all of this he wrote, “A perfect life for me is the life I have right now. I have a lot of friends, a good family, and a good church. I do not need a perfect life. I already have a perfect life.”
This family has figured out what makes the perfect life. It is not all the material possessions in the world. As Jesus said and Mark 8: 36, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
So, as a part of the answer to the question, “What is the least I can believe and still be a Christian,” and “What matters most?” We believe that relationships matter, first with God and then with each other.
Next week, we will look at another side of relationships, namely God’s relationship with us as we ponder, “Am I Accepted?” Really?