by Stephen Kimondo
LSTC Master of Theology/Doctor of Philosophy student
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the texts preceding Mark 12:28-34, Jesus is shown having been engaged in arguments with various Jewish leaders: the Pharisees, Herodians, and the Sadducees. In vv.13-17, the Pharisees and Herodians questioned Jesus whether it was right to pay tribute to Rome or not. This question was intended to trap him. But answered the question very wisely, hence escaping the trap. He said give to the emperor what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. In vv. 18-27, the Sadducees asked Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. In his response, Jesus cited Scripture the OT to confirm the reality of resurrection. He used the story of the burning bush in Exodus where God refers to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ancestors of Moses (3:6, 15-16). In both arguments, Jesus revealed his great knowledge and wisdom.
The opening verse of our text shows that a scribe who was impressed by Jesus' wise answer, approached and asked Jesus: "Which commandment is the first of all?" This was an important question! It does not suggest any hidden agenda behind it. The question was also common among the rabbis of the time. Of the 613 commandments, the rabbis debated which one was the first - the most important so they could use it to interpret all the others. On this basis, by asking Jesus what commandment was the first, the scribe wanted to benefit from Jesus wisdom in dealing with such an important issue.
In his response Jesus said, "The first is, 'Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love you neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these" (12:29-31).
This response combines two commandments from the OT. The assertion that one has to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength is from Deut 6:4-5. And the commandment to love a neighbor as oneself comes from Lev 19:18. Jesus put these two commandments together in order to demonstrate that the two are inseparable. He wanted to emphasize that love for God is the source of love for the neighbor, and also that the love for the neighbor demonstrates one's love for God. Thus in his answer, Jesus insists that love for God and love for the neighbor go together, and that they form one commandment. That the commandments are also kept theoretically distinct (note, 'the first,' … 'the second') suggests that Jesus wants to show that neither of them is to be ignored. The two must be taken seriously. In this sermon, however, I have chosen to focus on Jesus' second commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
We start by asking this question: What moved Jesus to say: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The answer to this question is to be found in the gospel of Mark itself. In Mark, the authorities, the rich, and powerful have been characterized as people who love themselves and not their neighbors. They interpreted the laws and traditions for their own benefit, and not for meeting the needs of the people. While the scribes exploit the widows, the rich love to accumulate wealth and refuse to share with those most in need around them. Instead of serving the people, the authorities lord it over them. The powerful do not care for the weak, but oppress and marginalize them. In Mark, the leaders secure their own life by killing others. They killed John and plotted to destroy Jesus and at the end killed him. All these demonstrate that the leaders and the rich love themselves, but do not love the neighbor. All these actions show that the leaders, the rich and the powerful lacked love for the neighbor. Hence, the reason for Jesus to give this command: "love your neighbor as yourself."
But the lack of love for the neighbor was not limited to the leaders, the rich and the powerful. Some of Jesus' own disciples also lacked love for the neighbor. For example, Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied his Lord. So Jesus' statement about loving the neighbor was meant to challenge not only the authorities, but also his own disciples to change this behavior.
Today the commandment to love the neighbor is directly directed to us. Through the gospel, Jesus is speaking to us and is telling all of us to love the neighbor. He wants us to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. But how are we to express our love to the neighbor as ourselves?
Before we examine how to 'love the neighbor,' it is important first that we consider how we love ourselves. One of the primary ways we express love to ourselves is the way we care for ourselves. Each day - when we are hungry, we look for food. When we feel cold, we cloth ourselves with warming clothes to keep us warm; when we are treated badly, we feel bad and complain. Then, we try to fix it as best as we can. When we have needs, we try to meet them accordingly. We do this because we are thinking about ourselves, and we do this naturally.
Is loving ourselves is bad? I think not. This is because loving ourselves is the measure for loving others. If we do not love ourselves, then we cannot lover others. In saying that "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus intended us to learn that from the love for ourselves, we understand the need for others. That is, when you feel hungry, you recognize that other people are hungry. When you need to cloth yourself, you understand that others also need clothes. When you have a need, know that others too have needs. If you feel hurt when treated badly, you understand that others as well feel the same when you treat them badly. If you have shelter and live in a warm house or apartment, you know that others also have no shelter and that they need one. If you feel pain and mourn when your beloved one is killed in war, realize others too feel pain and languish when their loved ones loose their lives in wars that your country is involved. You need to realize this, and then do something about it.
Our love for a neighbor is an expression of our love for God. Jesus says we should love our neighbors as ourselves because he knows that by loving the neighbor we demonstrate our love for God. So, brethren, if you claim to love God you must love your neighbor. Otherwise, you are a liar, and you do not love God. For as it is written in 1 John,
Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have see, cannot love God whom
they have not see. … those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (4:19-21).
Here the words 'brother' and 'sister' are not to be taken literally. They carry the same meaning as the term neighbor. In the context of love, the term neighbor has a deeper meaning than in its narrow and literal sense. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), a lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" A close reading of the parable reveals that a 'neighbor' is any person who is in need, and not just a person who sits next to you or lives near your home. A true and correct understanding of a neighbor crosses boundaries of family, class, race or geographical locations. Thus when Jesus teaches that we should love our neighbors, he commands us to consider and help anyone who is in need. When we extend our helping hand to the needy, we not only express our love for the neighbor, but also our love for God, the source of our love.
The commandment to love the neighbor does not require a mere feeling sorry for the situation of the needy. It needs practical action. Jesus himself demonstrated his love both in word and actions. He provided practical help according to people's needs. He gave food to the hungry and healing to the sick. He defended the weak such as the poor, children, and women. He also welcomed with love those who were excluded by others, and considered as sinners, outcasts, impure and foreigners. At the end, unlike the Jewish authorities who oppressed their people in their attempt to save their own lives, Jesus gave his own life in order to save the life of others.
We who bear the name Christians, the followers of Jesus, are challenged to follow this example - to offer practical help to those in need as our expression of our love for them and for God as well. Where necessary we also need to be ready to loose life in order to save the life of others. This is what our faith in Christ requires. If we do not practice our faith this way, then our faith is dead. The letter to James has it this way:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them,'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith … if it has no works, is dead (2:15-17).
So beloved in Christ, it is not good to love just in word or speech. We need to show our love for the neighbor in "truth and action." In doing so, in addition to showing our love for the neighbor, we also demonstrate our love for God and that our faith in Christ Jesus is alive.
May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen!
Mark 12: 28-34