Mark 12:28-34, 38-44
This morning as we continue our journey through the gospel of Mark and learn its lessons on how to be a disciple of Jesus, we come to some extremely familiar verses about loving God and loving people. I would be willing to put money on the fact that even if never been to church in your life, you’ve heard what we are going to read this morning. These verses are essential teachings of Jesus and are included in the books of Matthew and Luke as well as Mark, although Matthew and Luke tell the story differently. So let me give you a little context about the time and place of this story in Mark. This conversation takes place after Palm Sunday, after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He and his core group of followers go to the Temple where the religious leaders ask him challenging questions. One questions is about where his authority comes from to speak and forgive sins and perform miracles. Another question is about whether devout Jews should pay taxes to the Roman empire. Another one involves a ridiculously complicated hypothetical situation about marriage and the resurrection. Jesus answers all of these skillfully, and so finally one scribe asks a question that would have been common in religious debates: what is the most important thing? And once again, Jesus gives a skillful answer. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Mark 12:28-34, 38-44
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?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘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 second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 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.”
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.
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
These verses are so well known and so simple that they don’t need much further explanation. There’s no secret to them. None of the words are tricky, either in English or in the original Greek. Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand and people disagree about how to interpret it. But this is about as clear as it gets.
When asked what is the one most important of all the 613 laws in the Old Testament, Jesus gives two of equal “most importance.” The first one is absolutely foundational to Jewish identity and belief, from Deuteronomy 6 verses 4 and 5: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And then Jesus adds another law from Leviticus 19 verse 18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Love God with your whole being. Love others in the same way that you love yourself. Not as much as you love yourself; it’s not about self-esteem. Take care of others in the same way that you take care of yourself. Love God with your whole being. Take care of others in the same way you take care of yourself. That’s it. As Rabbi Hillel said, that’s the whole law; everything else is commentary.
The teacher that Jesus was talking to agrees with him and says that these two laws are more important than all the offerings and sacrifices, which is a pretty bold statement to make as they are standing in the middle of the Jewish temple, surrounded by all the trappings of the business of sacrifice.
Yet as well known as these verses are, they fall in the category of “easier said than done.” Simple words, but not easy to carry out. If this is what it means to be a disciple, to love God with our whole being, and to take care of others the way we take care of ourselves, HOW do we do that? Especially right now. I’d like to offer you some possibilities this morning.
First we have to acknowledge that these are broad invitations. It’s tempting when an invitation is broad for us to wiggle out of it. If a bunch of people are invited to that party, we think it’s not going to matter so much whether we personally show up. But I suggest these invitations are broad not so that we can avoid them, but so that we can find our place in them. The specific ways in which I love God with my whole being and how that feels to me is going to be different than how Sam loves God with his whole being and how that feels to him. This invitation is broad so that we can find our place in it and graciously make room for others who experience God differently than we do.
Next we want to remember that even though these are broad invitations, they are tangible, they are real. Love is a verb. To love God and to love others involves actual actions. The book of First John tells us not to love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth. We don’t just say we love people, we act out our love.
So where does this leave us now? How do we love God and love others in the midst of a global pandemic? This situation is making us rethink almost everything in our lives, certainly it’s making us rethink church. In this time, we are learning very clearly that the way we love God and care for each other is more important than any of the trappings of our worship. Now we’ve always said that. We say, “The church isn’t the building” and “I can worship God anywhere.” But now, in a season when we actually can’t get to our building and we we can’t go anywhere, we are learning whether we meant what we said. Times of crisis show us what we are really made of.
Are we going to make our actions of loving God a priority in our individual lives when we can’t do them together in a building? Are we going to pray when the pastor isn’t leading us? Will there be a song in our heart when there’s no grand pipe organ? Will we read the Bible and allow the word of God to take root in our minds when we can only get a sermon on Facebook? My youth pastor many years ago told me that integrity is who you are when nobody’s looking. What will this crisis reveal about me and who am I when nobody’s watching me?
How can we take care of others in this time? Well one way is to observe the precautions that Governor DeWine and Dr Acton have given us. By staying home, we are caring for ourselves and for others. As we are practicing this physical distance, we can still act in love. If you’re sharing close quarters with others, be patient. Give grace. Remember that others are as scared and bored and frustrated as you are. If you’re alone right now, don’t wait for someone to call you. Call them. Check on someone else. Ask for what you need because you would want someone else to ask if they needed something. And if you are participating on social media, please represent Jesus well.
Finally, share what you have. The end of the story we heard this morning was of a poor widow who had very little. But she was willing to share what she had. One of my friends who leads a church in Indiana received an email this week from someone who said “I can share three rolls of toilet paper and one bottle of hand soap if you know someone who needs it.” In this time, we realize more than ever the importance of our small acts of love. The Bible is filled with stories of what God does when someone is willing to share the little bit that they have.
As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century we want to remember that there’s a difference between being the church and doing church. During this pandemic we are finding new ways of doing church. We are discovering that we can provide meaningful spiritual content without a pulpit or an organ. But being the church is about more than consuming spiritual content. Jesus doesn’t call us to be consumers; he calls us to be producers of love and justice. We are still called to BE the church just like we were two weeks ago. We are called to care for one another, to befriend the lonely, to comfort the grieving, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to pray for one another’s needs, and to rejoice together. None of that has changed and we can still do it even from a distance.
As hard as this time is, I’m convinced that we will look back and see that it offered us many gifts. We are being invited to confront what’s really essential in our ways of doing church. We are being invited to exercise our own spiritual agency and build a friendship with God that’s not dependent on following a script on Sunday mornings. We are being invited to recognize that our small actions of love have profound significance. We are being invited to acknowledge the interconnectedness of our world. This time will change us. And if we accept any of these invitations we will come out on the other side stronger and more ready, willing and able to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Amen.