Mark 12: The Proof of the Commandments

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 25, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the Gospel of Mark, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 12:28-34.

You can view worship and sermons at BBUMC.orgYouTubeVimeo, or Facebook. (FYI, the preached version has some interesting changes from the written version below).

Raising kids should come with an instruction manual. Without raising hands, have any of you who are parents ever thought this? And you kids, haven’t you sometimes wondered if your parents are completely clueless when it comes to helping you grow? If not, then maybe your parents have accidentally gotten a few things right. But in general, very few weeks go by in which I don’t think, “Gosh, I wish there were an instruction manual for this situation, or this kid.” And the thing of it is, it’s not just in the realm of parenting that we deal with this. Life, itself, begs for an instruction manual, because, quite frankly, there are things we face in life that, regularly, have us feeling out of sorts, out of our element, and without clear instructions or guidance for how to move forward.

Moreover, sometimes it seems like living the Christian life, particularly, would be easier if there were a clear instruction manual that provided easy to follow instructions for every situation. Yes, we have the Bible, and it is many things, but an instruction manual it is not. Life is complicated: there are lots of decisions to make, and all of them are important to us at the times we make them. I mean, think about the decisions and situations that we’ve faced in the past week or the coming week: how do we know how to live faithfully in each particular situation?

For example, there’s an election coming up: what does being a faithful Christian mean in an American election year? For whom do we vote? Should we vote at all? (Incidentally, the Bishop recently published a letter encouraging people to vote, because voting expresses care for the practical things of life, and Jesus regularly showed care for the practical things of life). But that’s only one example.

What about at work or at school, or with our friends or family? How should we treat other people when they’re nasty to us? What should we do when we’re told to do something at work or school that we don’t want to do? How do we care for our loved ones, provide for our families well, or plan for the future? And, in the more seemingly mundane realm, does it matter to God or others which store we shop at, which products we buy and use, or what we choose to eat? All of these, and others, are the questions that make up our daily lives, and very few of them are specifically referenced in the Bible. So, really, the question is, how are we to know how to be faithful to Jesus in each and every area of our lives?

Now, perhaps this is making a mountain out of a molehill, and yet, in today’s passage in Mark 12, an expert in the law of the Bible comes to Jesus asking essentially the same question. He asks Jesus – in the Temple, with all of the Jewish religious authorities surrounding them – “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mk 12:28). In this, he’s asking for a clear, universal directive for how to live faithfully. He’s already admitted that he has scripture, just like we have scripture. He’s referenced the “commandments,” by which he means, the 613 commands, instructions, or laws of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. And he knows that to be a faithful Jewish person means following every single one of the 613 – that’s 365 “don’t do this,” and 248 “do this” instructions. In a way, perhaps he thinks he has the opposite problem as we started with – he has a manual of instructions – but still, he’s finding that 613 is a lot of instructions. And he too is longing for clarity about how to be faithful.

Honoring his question as sincere – and not a trap – Jesus answers the man directly by quoting two passages of scripture that are central to their shared Jewish life. He says, The first and greatest commandment is,Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength’ – with all your being. Then, he quickly adds, And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these (Mk 12:29-31, para. see Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18).

So, Jesus says the greatest commandments are to love God with our whole being and love others as we love ourselves, and that all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two (Mt 22:40). To the legal expert who knows there are 613 instructions about how to live faithfully in every situation, and a growing body of rabbinical teaching explaining and elaborating on these instructions, Jesus says, Just love God fully, and love others fully, and the rest will fall in line. To us, in the midst of our myriad of choices, including instruction manual-less parenting, Jesus says, Just love God fully, and love others fully, and the rest will fall in line.

Quite likely, if we’ve spent any time in church, we know both the man’s question and Jesus’s answer. Perhaps it’s one of the passages, or at least ideas, that we could rattle off to someone if they asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” And if we can do this, if we can say and believe that being Christian means loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then Jesus has really given us something significant to hold onto here today. We could quibble a bit about other important theological claims, doctrines, and such, but I think we could agree that part of what it means to be faithful Christians is loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And in this, Jesus has freed us from our desires for a rulebook or an instruction manual, thanks be to God.

Yet, reality still calls, and the proof really is in the pudding, as the old saying goes. And that saying really is important here, so let’s think about its origins for a moment. It’s a British-English saying, dating back centuries, from a time when people combined different meats and put them in animal casings like modern sausage. Then, they’d cover that meat filling with a soft, doughy shell and cook it by boiling it or steaming it. That’s the pudding (not like our sweet, milk and egg dessert). But, before refrigeration was a thing, meat could go bad, and the only way to know if it was good or bad, to prove it, was to take a bite and see. The proof, indeed, was in the eating of the pudding.

And herein lies the connection to today’s passage: the proof of Jesus’s two commands is, necessarily, in their living. That is, these two commands were intended to prove something, and it’s not, particularly, our great faithfulness, but God’s.

When the legal expert asked Jesus about which command was greatest, he already knew how to be faithful – follow all 613 commands. But he also knew that the commands were not an end in themselves. Rather, he knew, as Jesus and all faithful Jews then and now know, that God gave the instructions of the Torah to the people of Israel so that, according to Deuteronomy 4:5-8, other people would see and know God’s salvation through the people of Israel. God called the people to Torah faithfulness as a response to God’s saving work in their lives, not as a way to earn it. God had already named and claimed them as God’s own people of blessing; God had already covenanted to be their God, whether they were faithful or not. God called them to faithfulness in response to God’s saving work in their lives, so that others could know God’s saving work in their lives too.

With this in mind, we can think about living faithfully amidst all our decisions a little differently. Perhaps it means that we can let go of our desire for parental, or work, or school, or life instructions manuals. Most assuredly, Jesus intends us to live faithfully when he calls us to love God and love others. Following Jesus faithfully is, in this a challenge: he calls us to measure every decision and action against how they demonstrate love of God and love of others. And yet, Jesus also sets us free from a rigid sort of perfectionism that leads us to go to bed feeling guilty for not doing enough, or not being faithful enough. Jesus puts our faithfulness in perspective. Our salvation is not dependent on our faithfulness, but on God’s grace despite our unfaithfulness. Remembering this fact of our faith also frees us from reducing the Christian life to just “being good people.” Our goodness, or faithfulness, is a response to God’s saving work in us through Jesus, so that others will see and know Jesus’s grace too.

So, we don’t need an instruction manual. We have Jesus, by whose grace we are saved, and in whom are called to participate in God’s mission of saving the world. Living for love of God and love and neighbor, in response to Jesus, is enough. In Jesus’s call to love God and love others, Jesus empowers us to live everyday as witness of his saving work in our lives, through our everyday decisions and actions, so that others can come to know Jesus through us, imperfect though we are. As the hymn writer says, may all know we are Christians by our love. May it be so.

Reflection Questions

  1. When you think of Jesus’s “greatest commandments” (love God and love others, simply), what things do you think of?
  2. Give some time for honest reflection today and this week. What decisions do you make that are informed by a desire to love God or love others? What decisions do you make without any thought of loving God of loving others? Are there some decisions that, in retrospect, you wish you’d applied Jesus’ rubric of loving God and others?
  3. Have you ever encountered a situation in which these two commands seem at odds with one another? What did you do?
  4. Admittedly, if we stop before making every decision to ask ourselves, “How does loving God or loving others inform the decision I’m making?” we might make far fewer decisions. We’d get stuck. Have you experienced getting stuck like this? What did you do?
  5. Do you think, if we practice making as many decisions as possible out of love for God and love for others, that we’d get better at it? Would that make up for the slowness or getting stuck that we initially experience when trying this?
  6. I set Jesus’s greatest commandments as his answer about how to be faithful. Do you think this is an accurate interpretation? What other interpretations do you see?
  7. Read all of Mark 12. How does this greatest commandment scene inform our reading of all the other scenes in the chapter? What things seem different?

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