Our current mini-series has been covering the questions that Jesus was asked as He entered the Temple the day after He cleared the Temple courts by driving people out, overturning tables and releasing the animals. As He came up the stairs he was confronted by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, who had some questions about his motives, and had hopes of publically embarrassing Him and trapping Him in His own worlds. They wanted Him gone, and if they could get him to publically admit that He believed Himself to be the Messiah – or better yet, God, and then accuse Him of blasphemy and arrest Him. Or, if they could get Him to say that He was doing these things by His own authority they could accuse Him of being the crazy leader of an insurgence, a megalomaniacal fanatic, who the Romans needed to arrest and kill as a rabble rouser and a traitor.
None of their plans worked, of course, and they end up walking away dejected and angry, bewildered as to what they will do about Jesus – until Judas comes to them offering to sell out Jesus so they can arrest Him in the middle of the night only a few days later.
The Final and Biggest Question
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall 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: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.’” (Mark 12:28-34)
The last question Jesus is asked is an ironic one. It’s ironic because it comes from, what appears to be a good guy! After rafts of men came trying to embarrass and trap Jesus, one man comes up in the midst of the fray and asks Jesus a question that wasn’t manipulative or loaded – but genuine. It says that this scribe – who was basically a lawyer – was sitting on the periphery listening to the conversations and was very impressed with Jesus answers. He came to Jesus after “seeing that he answered them well”. By Jesus’ own admission this man was “not far from the kingdom of God” so perhaps that means His journey to find God’s will had finally led him to Jesus.
This last question is a great last question because it is the most important one of all. And, funnily enough, it comes on the heels of a really dumb question about a woman who was widowed seven times and who would be her husband in the afterlife. Even Jesus says that they ask a dumb question.
But after telling them how dopey their question was, Jesus turns around and sees a man standing there with a very important question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
This sounds like a no-brainer to us, but that’s only because we’ve heard the answer so many times. When this scribe asked Jesus, they had identified 613 separate commandments they believed God wanted them to obey, 365 of which were negative (do nots) and 248 of which were positive (do this). They had even divided them into “heavy” and “light,” commands, ranked by which ones were more important and less important. So, seeing that Jesus knew what He was talking about, the scribe brought this important, and relevant, question.
Jesus is more than happy to give the answer, but He does so in a special way. He takes two of the items on their list of 613 and joins them. They were normally separate, from different scriptures in different locations, but Jesus joined them together. Jesus’ view of the Law of God wasn’t about lists, but about lifestyle of love.
The first part of His answer is of no surprise to anyone. It is the first part of the “Shema”, a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the centrepiece prayer of Jewish life, said in the morning and evening every day:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
This was a reminder to all that the love of God is based on His oneness, His singularity, His exclusivity – He is the Only One. Since God is one, our love for Him must be undivided. This is repeated in the first commandment: “You shall have no other God’s before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
It piles up the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” and “strength” reminding us that God doesn’t just want part of us, but our whole being. God wants to the be the greatest, all-consuming love of our life. Why? Because He is our Lord and our God – He alone.
The second of Jesus’ answers comes immediately after, without a pause: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Later 1 John 4:20-21 explains how these commandments are tied together:
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
These are not two commands, but one. God loves us, and in response we love God… and that love flows from Him to Us to Others. We don’t have one or the other. We cannot love God and hate people – that’s incompatible, even if we sometimes wish it wasn’t.
True Love Hurts Sometimes
We do, don’t we? Sometimes we really wish that we could just say, “I love God, love Jesus, love my family, and love my church… but the rest of everyone can go to heck.” We’ve all thought it. Why? Because loving people is hard. People make it hard to love them sometimes.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the one that loves our neighbour, is a sacrificial love. It requires sacrifice and commitment, a denial of self, a picking up of our cross and following Him, living as a disciple of Christ.
We sometimes think that “taking up our cross” (Matthew 16:24-26) means facing persecution and martyrdom, being killed for our faith and our love for Jesus. And sometimes it does, but we have to remember how Jesus said it. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That means we stop living for ourselves and live the way that Jesus lived.
It means that we define love the way that Jesus does. It means we expand our love beyond ourselves, beyond those we love, beyond just us and God –deny ourselves and choose to love the people that God puts in our lives, even the ones that make it hard to do. That is a Christ like, sacrificial thing to do.
In books, movies and tv shows we are presented with only one kind of love – love that feels good and comes easily. And, thank God, that’s true sometimes. It’s usually pretty easy to love babies, our own children, our friends, our parents… people that are kind, generous, helpful, and nice. Those people are easy to love. But that’s only one side of love. Sometimes love hurts.
Many in our western world today have bought into this one side of love. If you feel love towards someone, and it’s easy, and you’re swept off your feet, and it gets all misty and gushy when the person is around – that’s love. But when that person becomes hard to love, when the feelings leave, when they hurt you, when they disappoint you, when they stop loving you – or when you start having gushy feelings for someone else – then you are no longer in love and it’s time to go somewhere else. That’s not love, that’s using people. Real love is different.
Loving Like Jesus
Real love sometimes involves suffering. Real love sometimes hurts really bad. Real love requires a decision, commitment, and fortitude. The Bible defines love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 saying:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
That is not emotional language – those are words of decision.
I choose to be patient when the one I love keeps messing up. I choose to be kind when the person is unkind. I choose to be love others that are better off than I am. I choose to not say rude things and place myself before the one I love. I choose to forgive and not hold resentment. I will bear with them. I will believe in them. I will hope for them. I will endure suffering with them. I will finish my life loving them. True love requires hard choices and sometimes feels like suffering.
Just as Jesus’ love for His Father and for us meant that He had to take up His cross so He could suffer and die – so sometimes it is required of us to pick up our cross, obey God, and suffer and die as we love our neighbours as ourselves.
Jesus blows the doors off of “one sided love” when He teaches that God’s version of love goes beyond our family and those who are easy to love, but extends to difficult people – even those who treat us badly! He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
Jesus injunction to “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” brings us full circle to the question that the scribe asked Jesus. The scribe asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” That’s another way of saying, “If God had only one thing to say, what would He say? What does God want from us most? What is the most fundamental, most central, most critical thing in the universe?” It could almost be restated, “How can we be perfect like God is perfect?” The answer Jesus gave was to love God with our whole being and to have that love spill over onto the people around us – even when it hurts.
“Eye for an eye” makes sense to us. “Turn the other cheek” doesn’t. Jesus says, if someone hurts you, do not answer hatred for hatred, but love instead. If someone has it out for you and wants to take revenge even after you’ve tried to work it out, answer their vengeance with generosity. Value your hard earned things less then people who you don’t even know! Pray for people that hurt you. The great reward of love, true love, comes as you love those who don’t love you back.
Finding Our Purpose
People are always worried about their purpose. Anyone who has been on the planet for more than 3 years is often asked “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and the question never seems to end. Just this week I heard of an older man, almost a hundred years old, who was asking about his purpose in life.
Everyone wants to know their purpose and they ask, “God what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go? What is the plan for my life?”. The answer if far more clear than they want to believe – but they resist because it’s not specific enough.
Look at what happens in the passage we’re looking at today. Someone walks up to Jesus and basically asks, “What’s the most important thing God wants me to know?” That’s a big question! And then notice that Jesus’ answer is phrased as a command: “And You Shall…” Older translations will say “Thou Shalt!… love the Lord your God… ” “Thou shalt! Love your neighbour.”
God’s answer to “what should I do with myself” and “what is my purpose” is that we start there. If you want to know your purpose, ask yourself this question: Am I constantly showing love for God and others? Start with that, and I promise that the rest will flow naturally.
God says, “Love me with all your heart, soul mind and strength AND love your neighbours as much as you love yourself… and then the rest will come together.”
Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 6 when he shoots down all the people who want specific answers:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ [or Where shall I go? What should my job be? What school should I attend? What about the future? What about this issue, or that problem, or that opportunity…] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
We hear Jesus saying, “Hold on, hold on! Before you worry about all the detailed wither-tos and why-fors of your life, let’s get the first things first. Do you love God and the people around you?” Are you “seeking first the kingdom and His righteousness?”. That’s like asking, “As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, are you doing what is most important to the King?” Which, again, brings us back around to the same answer as before: Are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself?
Loving Our Neighbour
The priority of getting this right first is the consistent testimony of scripture. So let’s do a little application and see what this looks like practically, and we’ll work back to front: First, what does loving our neighbour look like? It’s actually pretty simple, when you think about it for a minute.
Jesus gave us the answer in Matthew 7:12 with what we call the Golden Rule:
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
“I don’t know how to love others! I’m not a very loving person! I don’t know where to start!” we say. Jesus’ answer to that is, “Start here: Can you look inside and ask yourself, ‘How would I want people to treat me?’” Of course, we all can! For example:
When you are depressed, what do you want people to do for you? Think about it. Do you want them to leave you alone in your dark room with your dark thoughts, sinking deeper and deeper? Or do you want them to keep calling you, keep caring about you, keep inviting you, keep showing up and reminding you that they love you and that God loves you? Do that to others.
When you are new to a place, what do you want people to do for you? Judge you by how you’re dressed, how you talk, your family situation, and ask you about all of your obvious problems? Probably not. You want them to love you for who you are, be kind, introduce you to the group, and cut you some slack. Do that to others.
When you are struggling with sin or addiction, what do you want people to do for you? Pretend it doesn’t exist, never ask you about it, leave you alone to wallow in your muck, falling into it over and over again? Or, come along side you, get involved in your mess, ask how they can help, love you in your failings and hold you accountable, forgiving you when you blow it again… but never giving up on you. Do that to others.
When you are blind to your own pride, greed, rudeness, argumentativeness, and are offending people and losing friends – but have no idea why, what do you want people to do for you? Make excuses for you, avoid confronting you, or just avoid you alotgether, and let you self-destruct all your relationships? No, you want them to take you aside, buy you a coffee, ask what’s wrong, why you’re lashing out, and then tell you gently, but truthfully, that you are hurting people – and say that no matter how bad it gets, they’ll still with you. Do that for others.
When your marriage is on the rocks, or your kids are a mess, what do you want people to do? Mock you behind your back, criticize you to others, spread gossip about you, and stand around hoping it’ll finally blow up in your face so they can watch the fireworks? No… you want them to come along side you, weep with you, put their arm around you, understand that you are struggling – that you’re not blind but you are at the end of your rope and have no idea what to do – to be a friend, trustworthy confidant, and prayer partner. Do that for others.
If you are struggling with your weight, what do you want people to do? Make jokes about you, leave clothing store coupons and Weight Watchers pamphlets around, suggest diet plans, and heap shame on you because you obviously don’t know that you have a problem? No. You want them to love you for who you are and care more about your insides than your outsides – and then, maybe, after becoming really, really good friends, and you’ve talked about lots and lots of topics… offer to walk with you in your struggle.
If you have a handicap, what do you want people to do? Exclude you because you’re too much trouble? No. You want them to help you become part of what’s going on.
It goes on and on and on. And it’s really not that hard to figure out if we just take a minute to think about it. And having God on our side, and the ability to pray and ask for direction, means that the Holy Spirit will speak to us and help us to do this even better!
It’s All About Jesus
So how do we grow in love for others – even our enemies? It comes back to Jesus’ first answer: We love God. Remember, it’s all about Jesus. You will love God when you understand the love that He has for you, even when you were His enemy. His love was shown in what He did in Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:31-39 [see also Romans 5:6-11])
Once you begin to understand the love of God for you found in Jesus Christ – how enormous, how sacrificial, how beautiful and perfect it is – then you will be able to love your neighbour sacrificially, beautifully, and with a greater depth than you ever thought you had in you.
Growing Our Love Muscles
That’s why the fathers of our faith have always emphasized consistent scripture reading, prayer, and worship as indispensable to the Christian life.
Reading scripture reminds our feeble and forgetful minds about the depth of God’s love and about how He wants us to live in this world. It tells us about how far He came to save us, what He saved us from, and the loving boundaries He set around us so we can flourish under His rule.
Prayer connects us to the very heart of God. That consistent, daily, hourly, relationship, allows us to go beyond a mere intellectual understanding of our faith and to realize we have a living, breathing, existential, relationship with a real person. As we pray, meditate and listen, we experience the presence of God, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Daily worship, and faithful attendance to Sunday Worship, reminds us of our place in the universe – that He’s God and we’re not. And reminds us that though He is Holy God, He’s not a distant God. Our singing, giving, obedience, fellowship, evangelism, service, thanksgiving, and religious activity all remind us that God interacts with us as our Creator, Sustainer, Saviour, and Friend. Worship deepens our love for God.
If we are going to be people love others, then we must start by loving God.
A Reminder to Our Souls
Let me close by reading Psalm 103. In Psalm 103 David does something that we all need to do sometimes; He reminds himself why God is worthy of our love, and why he needs to keep worshipping God – and how that is the foundation for everything else. Let this be a reminder to our spirits as well:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:1-5 ESV)