First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 11, 2018
6 "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;
30 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.'
31 The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
32 Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other';
33 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,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
First, there was the email investigation. Then the Russia probe. Now the Nunes memo. As I’ve flipped through my newsfeed for the past couple of years, diligently sorting through headlines and analyses and opinions from a variety of sources with varying political leanings, I’ve struggled to keep up with the legal technicalities causing so much uproar in our federal government. What one side claims is a blatant, purposeful and prosecutable legal infraction, the other side claims is perfectly innocent and acceptable practice. One side claims a certain detail of an investigation is extremely important while the other side claims it is meaningless. It’s uncertain whether anyone will ever be held accountable for their misdeeds, if, in fact, any deeds were amiss in the first place.
Meanwhile, our planet faces the largest refugee crisis since the second world war. Nuclear armament is on the rise. We need improvements in infrastructure and health care. We need immigration reform. We have an opioid crisis on our hands.
And instead of tackling any of these problems, our politicians want to spend their time and our money deciding who broke which law, when, how and why. We like to believe that Lady Justice is blind, but there is no pure, inerrant application of the law. There are interpretations and opinions and justifications. How the law applies in one case may be slightly different from how it applies in another. We may not like to admit this, but it is true. Our lawmakers and our justices all have political leanings. That’s how we get split opinions in our courts and challenges in passing legislation.
These arguments, stemming from differing interpretations of the law and personal motivations, are not unique to American civil law. This sort of debate has been central to Jewish practice for centuries. Once the Israelite religion was forced to move away from the priority of the temple rituals, rabbis, those educated in the Torah, or Jewish law, began to debate about how the law should apply to new and changing circumstances. We see this debate throughout the gospels, beginning with the 12-year-old Jesus listening and questioning the elders in the temple. The scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees – different religious parties within first-century Judaism – they all debate with Jesus from time to time. Sometimes they are just astonished at his teachings, and other times they are offended at his practices.
What happens right before the passage we read today, however, is they are threatened. Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna and the waving of palms, an entrance worthy of a king. He has gone into the temple and upset the apple cart, as it were, turning over the tables of the money changers and driving out those selling animals for sacrifice. And then Mark’s gospel tells us, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard [about this commotion], they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”
They were afraid. Afraid that the spellbound masses would stop listening to their debates, stop buying their doves, stop believing their promises, and follow after this zealot from Galilee. So they contrive to trap him. They use their favorite tactic for taking down an enemy. Legal debate.
They begin by sending some elders in to question Jesus’ authority, hoping he will either blaspheme God or discredit himself. Instead, he turns the question back on them, and they hit a dead end. So they send in the Pharisees and Herodians, two parties diametrically opposed to one another on the question of paying taxes to the emperor. They ask Jesus to settle the dispute, knowing that he will anger one side or the other. Instead, Jesus’ answer, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's,” utterly amazes them all. Finally, the Sadducees go in, asking a ridiculous rhetorical question about marriage in the resurrection, when everybody knows they don’t believe in resurrection anyway. Jesus explains how their question shows they know nothing about the scriptures or the power of God.
And then, a scribe comes up to Jesus. He’s been listening in on these disputes. He sees how absurd they are. He probably guesses that they are motivated by something other than a thirst for righteousness. And he’s impressed by how Jesus has handled these silly questions.
So he asks Jesus a better question. An important question. Not a question to trap him or discredit him. A question of discernment. “Which commandment is the first of all?”
The scribe isn’t interested in technicalities or rhetorical snares. He wants to know what actually matters most. What should be the measure against which we can hold all our interpretations of the law? How do we know if our interpretations are faithful?
Jesus’ answer isn’t original. He doesn’t come up with this off the top of his head. He goes right to the book of Deuteronomy, which the Jews had studied for hundreds of years. In Deuteronomy, which means “second law,” Moses reviews God’s commandments and underlines the importance of keeping the law so that the people can experience God’s blessing in the land they are about to enter. After Moses reviews the Ten Commandments, he tells the people, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Sound familiar? And the second part is nothing new, either. Jesus is quoting from Leviticus, where it says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, then, the question is, why these two commandments? Neither of them feature in the top ten list. There are hundreds of commandments to choose from. Why are these two commandments the first?
Because these commandments orient our motivation for keeping the law of God. God’s law, the Jewish Torah, teaches us to love God in a way that is all-consuming and responsive to God’s love for us. The Law commands our hearts to be steadfast, our souls to be faithful, our minds to be attentive, and our strength to be resolute in response to the steadfast, loving, attentive and resolute love of God. So we cannot possibly keep God’s law if we do not first and foremost love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The law also teaches us to love our neighbor without conditions or restrictions, and to have a very broad definition of neighbor. The assumption in this commandment is that we already love ourselves. Self-love is not condemned, but is rather a prerequisite for this commandment. And the more you love yourself, the more you have to love your neighbor. So again, if we do not love our neighbor as ourselves, we cannot possibly keep the law of God.
The scribe recognizes the wisdom of Jesus’ selection for the first, or greatest commandment. He echoes back what Jesus has said to show he is truly listening. And he adds interpretive meaning to show Jesus he understands what this implies. All those tables he overturned in the temple…all the animals being sold for whole burnt offerings and sacrifices…that’s not what’s matters. Love God and neighbor. That’s it. That’s how you decide what matters in every other circumstance. That is the law against which you measure every other law. I hear you, Jesus. I get it, says the scribe.
And then Jesus tells him he is not far from the kingdom of God. As though this kingdom were a place up on Eisenhower, just around the corner. You’re not quite there, but you’re getting warmer. You may even be able to catch a glimpse of it, a little way off in the distance.
And then, mic drop. No one dares ask Jesus another question. End of debate. No more questions, no more bickering, no more rhetoric. Done.
After this, Jesus’ speeches grow darker. He’s preparing his disciples to handle what is about to happen. Death on a cross. Resurrection. And taking the good news to the ends of the earth. This is serious stuff. Not who deserves our money or who we’ll be married to in the resurrection. Life and death. Real tragedy. Real hope. That’s what Jesus wants to talk about.
But the way we get to talk about that is by dispensing with all the nonsense. Getting past our attempts to entrap each other in clever arguments and air-tight prosecutions and defenses.
Debate and interpretation will always be a part of our legal and political process. But right now, our politicians are afraid. They’re all afraid. And for good reason. Apple carts are being up-ended on all sides of the political spectrum. Nothing is certain or predictable. We the people are no longer buying what politicians are selling. And so they are afraid. Afraid that the spellbound masses would stop listening to their debates, stop buying their doves, stop believing their promises, and, God willing, perhaps we will follow after this zealot from Galilee. And so they are resorting to their favorite tactic for taking down enemies. Legal debate.
And as they accuse and cross-examine, testify and appeal, no one has stepped into the debate to ask the question, “which commandment is the first of all?” What matters most? What should be the measure against which we can hold all our interpretations of the law? How do we know if our interpretations are faithful?
Each of us in this room would likely have a different piece of legislation, an article or amendment to the Constitution, that we would propose should be considered first, greatest, the most important among our civil statutes. But, as I say in our prayer after Communion, we are inhabitants of earth, and citizens of the commonwealth of heaven. And as citizens of that commonwealth, we are called to follow its first law – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And I am convinced that if we are ever going to solve the big problems, address the tragedies of war and oppression and displacement, inequality and poverty and addiction, this is the law we need to follow first. Because if we are loving God and loving our neighbor first, we might stand a chance of creating and following legislation, policy, a government that, as the prophet Micah says, knows what is good: justice, kindness, humility.
So let us, the citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, resolve to step into the debates and the bickering, the accusations and cross-examinations to remind each other what matters most. Let us hold to our first law, our first commandment, above all, and measure everything we do, and say, everything and everyone we vote for, against that measure. We may still come out on different sides of an issue. We may still disagree about how our laws should be interpreted and applied. We may not have consensus about which direction is best for this earth we inhabit. But we will be upstanding citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, we will not be far from the kingdom of God.
May God bless our resolve and bring it to fruition. Amen.