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.”
-from Mark 12
Let me set the scene for you, Friends. Yesterday, on reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
Jesus knows how to make an entrance!
Things haven’t cooled off much in the past twenty-four hours, and they’re not going to cool off anytime soon. Jesus’ authority is challenged by the chief priests and the elders, and he responds- not by justifying his own ministry, but by challenging the definition of authority.
Jesus told a story about a man who rented out his vineyard and received no payment in return. The renters, instead, assaulted every messenger the landlord sent and even killed some of them. They even killed the landlord’s own son.
The implication of the parable was pretty clear, when applied to the bankrupt and abusive hierarchy of the day- Jesus didn’t have to spell it out.
Jesus then got into a series of theological arguments with the Pharisees and the Sadducees over whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar and how marriage should be understood in light of the resurrection.
Jesus makes great points, in these exchanges, but maybe isn’t making a whole lot of friends. It’s a contentious moment.
So. Admiring Jesus’ skill in argument, and the wisdom of his answers, one scribe stepped forward to ask the most important question of all.
It’s here, that the whole tenor of the conversation changes.
Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
The scribe asks that question, boldly, just as though it could possibly have an answer. There are 613 separate commandments, in the Torah: quick, which one matters most? How could you know?
I mean, if God gave them all, then they’re all pretty important, right?
And I don’t know about you, Friends, but I’m not sure I can be trusted to figure out what’s most important anyhow! I mean, I have difficulty some mornings figuring out whether shower or get breakfast first- that’s not exactly the resume of the person you want deciding matters of ultimate importance.
How are we supposed to measure these things? You can’t just stack the commandments up on end, to see which is the tallest. There’s no common scale for measuring spiritual weightiness.
But when you measure what’s most important, you don’t use a compass or a radar gun or a spectrometer. You use a sphere, one that encompasses everything you know. The sphere rotates, like a solar system model, around its center. The whole system is defined by what’s at the center.
Love, Friends, is what’s at the center. So the importance of everything is defined, see, by closely it resides to that love.
“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’”
Hang on a second, because that phrase is sometimes treated like it’s just an introduction to the commandments to come, when it’s actually an integral part of the commandment.
Hear, O Israel – there’s the commandment, it’s to hear. Stop talking, pay attention, listen.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. The Lord is one. Keep that oneness in mind, because we’re going to keep coming back to it.
Jesus continues, quoting from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Love the Lord your God, in other words, with all of what you are. The Lord your God is one, and so you can’t love the Lord your God as a fractured self- some of you coming to worship, some other part of you distracted in the moment, and a mess in the closet that you’d rather not let God see.
It doesn’t work that way. The Lord your God is one, and when you come to worship, you have to come as your whole self: with your Inner Light and your dirty scuff marks and everything in-between.
If you manage that sort of spiritual perfection for more than a moment, today, come on down after the service and I’ll pin a blue ribbon on your for 1st Place Holiness. It’ll cultivate the sin of pride in you, which will bring you back down to my level, and I’ll feel better after that.
But think back, again, to the sphere with love at the center. We’re in fragments, all of us, pulled this way and that, but we circle the center. We have this time, at the beginning of our service, that we set aside for “centering down,” but really:
centering down is the work of a life, not a moment.
It’s believing that our circling is not an orbit, not perfectly even, but more of a winding- something that tends toward the center. It’s the slow steady work of bringing ourselves into the middle- the slow steady work of becoming ourselves.
That’s the first commandment. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’
The Lord your God is one, and as worship gathers your scattered pieces, you become one. And, likewise, worship unites a community.
Think again of that sphere, except this time instead of it being a diagram of your individual heart, think of it as a picture of a community.
There’s a loving core, at the center.
In worship – which isn’t just our five minutes of silent worship or our hour of “church,” but also includes our classes and our baby showers and our memorial services and the cards that you toss in the mail – all of this is worship, and in our worship together, we draw one another nearer to God.
We are doing sacred work, together. As we draw nearer to that core in the center, we necessarily draw nearer to one another.
We become one. The Lord our God is one, and so we must worship in wholeness and in unity. Perhaps the most worshipful act we can perform is to reach out a hand and draw a neighbor closer, because it’s in that motion that we all draw closer to the divine center.
Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus offers, when asked which is the most important commandment.
Okay, so remember where we are in the story. Jesus knocked over the tables in the temple. He cursed a fig tree. He was in the midst of a theological argument with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, when he was asked this question about what matters most.
Love, was his answer. Love is what matters most.
Yes, the scribe said, that’s the right answer. Love God, and love each other. That’s what matters.
Right there, the scribe is putting this teaching into action.
Picture the scene. We have two angry groups pitted against each other- Jesus and his disciples on one side, and the Pharisees and Sadducees on the other side. Surrounding them are a crowd of onlookers, wondering which side to choose or just there for the fun of the fight.
This scribe – it’s a shame that we don’t know his name – does the work of building community. He reaches across a divide, seeking common ground. He might not agree with Jesus about the particulars, but where the other questioners try to ask Jesus a trick question to trip him up, this scribe simply asks about what matters most.
Love, was his answer. Love is what matters most.
Usually, Jesus is the star of a sermon. We’re Christians, not anonymous scribians. But let me suggest, this morning, that we follow the lead of this anonymous scribe who found himself in a contentious situation and chose to change the conversation.
The other religious leaders brought Jesus foolish questions. Say there were seven brothers, one asked, and one woman, and each brother married the woman and then died. In the resurrection, whose wife would she be? (No, really, that’s one of the questions. You can look it up)
Jesus had an answer, but on a deeper level, who cares? This debate has gone pretty far into the weeds.
Our anonymous hero, though, reframed the discussion. Instead of aiming for the marginalia, he aimed for the heart: Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
Love, was Jesus’ answer. Love is what matters most.
I mention, from time to time, that Jesus’ message was revolutionary. It’ll turn your world upside down, if you let it. But that’s not because it’s a new idea! No, it’s because since time immemorial, humans have been enamored with trying to live wrong side up.
We make all these rules – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie – as if we can use the rules to control fear and hate. But, how is this supposed to work? We don’t murder out of hate because we fear the consequences? We don’t lie about that which we fear because we hate being found out?
No. That’s self-defeating. Love is the only answer. Love is what matters most. Love is at the center.
That’s why love is the most important commandment. Only love can make the rest of the rules make sense.
The Lord your God is one, and so you must be one, slowly sending the pieces of yourself to the center, letting yourself wind closer and closer to the love that matters most.
And the Lord our God is one, and so we must be one, reaching out our hands to one another in fellowship, drawing each other toward the love at the center.
This is the greatest commandment.