Summary: Whatever we do, we are to act in love.
Any of us who have been watching the news this week have seen some pretty heart-rending photos in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. On Monday, the residents of Sea Bright, New Jersey, on the north Jersey shore were allowed to go to their homes and begin gathering belongings. They went with suitcases and garbage bags and culled through their scattered belongings in their now unstable homes. Nobody took everything, they only took the things they needed that weren’t destroyed. One woman picked up a water-logged picture of a young toddler. “That’s my son,” she said. “He’s ten now, and he’s still with us, which is the most important thing.”
Such tragic events have a way of reminding us of our true priorities, don’t they? It’s a scenario we’ve all played out in our minds more than once. An approaching tornado forces an evacuation, or a sudden house fire pushes us urgently outside. What would we want to grab in the escape? Of course, we would make sure all the children were safe, and then the pets. If there was enough time, we might make sure we have the special photographs and notes, or the computer, or the heirloom jewelry, or our wallet and personal documents. You grab what you can, but then all you can do is wait and watch. And as the force of nature takes its course, you realize the significance of what you’ve just done. You’ve made some important choices; these things are more valuable to you than tables and chairs, china and glass, clothes, books, electronics, and all the thousands of other things we cram into our homes. It’s in the face of such disasters that we are reminded where our true priorities lie.
The question the lawyer asks Jesus in this morning's passage is like that. Here is a man who has been thoroughly studying and practicing Jewish law. This is extensive material, and he knows it well. So now he approaches Jesus and basically asks, “Out of the whole volume of Jewish law, which commandment really matters?” In some ways, it's like taking a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica's and asking someone to point out the most important sentence. But what it ultimately comes down to for this scribe is priorities. He wants to know which commandment to grasp on to in a moment of crisis. What’s the commandment we must always be sure to follow no matter what? It’s not really that the scribe is trying to take shortcut and get himself out of something. Instead, he has recognized in Jesus a great wisdom, and he wants some guidance from Jesus about what needs to take priority.
Obviously, as we know, the lawyer came to the right place. And Jesus doesn’t hesitate to answer the man’s question. What’s unique about Mark’s account of this encounter, though, is the way Jesus begins his response; “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is called the Shema in Jewish tradition. Many Jews recite the Shema at least twice a day—once in the morning and once in the evening; it is a reminder of our call to the allegiance and complete devotion that is due to God alone. Whereas Matthew and Luke in their telling focus directly on the command to love God and neighbor, Mark includes these opening words from Jesus. By reciting the Shema to this scribe, who has certainly recited it himself thousands of times, Jesus is reminding him that always, always, always, our first priority is our devotion to God. That is what the Shema does; it calls forth absolute devotion, obedience, and commitment from the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Everything else grows out of this complete devotion to God.
So the Jewish law and all commandment observance really begins with worship of God, which Jesus now says basically grows naturally out of our love of God. And here's why; because if it’s true that we’re made in God’s image we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, through love and worship of the one we are designed to reflect. Quite simply, we are not capable of loving completely apart from a whole-hearted devotion to God, and we are not able to know God fully unless we love God and our neighbors. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” declares the author of 1 John. And so now Jesus takes the opportunity offered by this question from the lawyer to say that the two greatest commands of all Torah are the love of God and love of neighbor.
You know, the Israelites were God's chosen people. And for generations, their special status had been marked in a few significant ways, among them circumcision and Sabbath observance; two things which no other people in the world at that time did. With Jesus, a new trajectory was set for God's people, and he gives us a clear indication of the direction it will take as he answers the question of the lawyer. Jesus affirms that God's people will be known by their whole-hearted devotion to God and God alone, just as has always been the case. But now, Jesus says, God's people will be known in a new way. Sabbath observance and circumcision are all well and good, but there is something more important: LOVE. The way that God's people will be distinguished in this world is by their unquestionable, unconditional love for God and for one their neighbor.