The Two Commandments
Mark 12. 28-34
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Let me start with a question – are any of you here in a book club? I’m in a virtual book club – definitely a sign of the times. We never meet but we have a website and we share what we’re reading with everyone else, score books and do little book reviews. It’s great and it means that if you like reading – as I do, that you get some great recommendations from people that you trust about what’s good and what’s bad.
But of course these things are very subjective – one man’s meat is another man’s poison as they say. I have developed a habit of trying to read all of the Booker prize shortlisted novels when they are announced so that I can take great pleasure in lambasting the stupidity of the judges when they choose a book that I don’t like. This does mean a lot of reading in a short space of time so you will find that in late September, early October each year, I usually have my nose stuck in a book.
I have to say that this year, the judges disappointed me by choosing a book that I like so I had no opportunity to moan which was a great relief to the fellow members of my virtual book club I’m sure.
I thought it would be interesting to check out what people thought the greatest books of all time might be. Well, of course, the answer depends on who you ask. There are lots of lists out there of the greatest books of all time – some are very highbrow and some are much more down to earth. The most accessible is probably the BBC’s Big Read list.
Anyone got any votes for their favourite book of all time before I tell you the Top 10? Well here we go…
So there you have it. Chances are you will only agree with a few of those so let me see if there are any other lists that we could do better with. How about films – the greatest film ever made – any thoughts? Well to answer this one, I started with the British Film Institutes list but it was so esoteric and art house that I immediately went to Hollywood for the Empire Magazine list of best films. So here you go…
Well maybe films aren’t your thing – so let’s try music – an even more subjective subject. I turned to Rolling Stone magazine as the publishers of the definitive list of the Greatest Songs of All Time. So – any nominations? OK here’s the Top 10…
So what on earth has all this got to do with our reading from Mark’s Gospel – well that was also to do with list obsessed people – in this case the scribes and Pharisees who spent a huge amount of their time debating and compiling their lists of commandments and trying to decide which was the most important.
Now, I hear you ask, how could they spend that much time debating commandments – there are only 10 of them – it’s hardly as extensive as the list of the greatest songs ever made – but you’re wrong. Religious Judaism in the first century had really expanded on the original 10 that Moses had been given on Mount Sinai. Commandment inflation had been ripe and at that point there were a total of 613 commandments in the Torah, 248 that were positive (in that they consisted of Thou Shalt…) and 365 that were negative (in other words, Thou Shalt Not…)
There were extensive discussions among rabbis about which were heavy and light, that is, which were of greater and lesser importance. These debates were an effort to sort through the multitude of laws and commandments and identify which ones were most important. There is a great story in the Babylonian Talmud that illustrates this type of debate really well. It tells the story of when a Gentile came to Shammia, a strict and conservative rabbi and said to him, “I will become a Jew if you can tell me the whole of the Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammia was incensed and got a wooden stick and chased him away.
The Gentile then went to Hillel, another famous rabbi, and asked him the same question. Hillel said, “Whatever you find hateful, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the law. Everything else is commentary. Go and learn this.” So Hillel’s response is very similar to the response that Jesus gives when he is put in a very similar situation in today’s reading from Mark.
A scribe had been listening to the Saducees having one of their interminable discussions about which of the 613 commandments was the most important when he saw Jesus and knowing his reputation, decided that he would ask this new young teacher what he thought. He asked Jesus “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus answered in those words that are so familiar to us from our liturgy. “The first is this, Hear O Israel the Lord Your God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The scribe replies by agreeing with Jesus and saying that this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices and Jesus saw that he had answered wisely and says to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”.
So listening to this, you could get the impression that Jesus is telling them what they already know – go back to the story of Shammia and Hillel but Jesus’ answer to the scribes question is different to Hillel’s.
He starts by quoting from the Shema, the central prayer in the Jewish prayerbook which is basically taken from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” Even here, quoting the most popular and known phrase in Judaism, Jesus adds to it the words “with all your mind”. This is a reflection of the time that Jesus was living in.
When Deuteronomy was written, people had no real concept of the mind, assuming that all emotion came from the heart. In the Greco-Roman world – and especially in the world of the Gentiles, the mind was considered key – hence Jesus’ addition to focus on the intellectual love of God.
But the most distinctive part of Jesus’ response is that he combines these famous words from the Shema with the commandment from Leviticus to “Love your neighbour as yourself” In Jesus’ teaching, the love of God is intimately connected with the love of neighbour and vice versa.
The reason to love one’s neighbour is an outgrowth of the energy that comes from the loving relationship we have with God. A relationship founded in the love of God that doesn’t find expression in the love of neighbours is misplaced love. It’s not complete. That’s why Jesus deliberately links these two commandments and tells us that there are no other commandments greater than these.
Thursday was All Saints day and in our service today we think about the nature of sainthood. The alternative reading for today is the Beatitudes, Jesus listing those things that distinguish the blessed from the rest, the saint from the sinner. The thing that stands out when you listen to the beatitudes and you look at the lives of the saints is that they all exhibit a total commitment to these two great commandments. Saintliness or blessedness is surely defined as the expression of the combined love of God with love of neighbour. The challenge is to follow this great dual commandment.
In a way the love of God part is the easier part for most of us because our relationship with God can be very personal, the bit that we always struggle with is the love your neighbour part. Loving your neighbour is all very well, provided you get to choose your neighbour but of course that is a luxury that is not included in the commandment. It clearly says “love your neighbour as yourself” and not, “love a few selected neighbours as yourself”.
Our neighbour could be a particularly revolting down and out we see begging in an underpass. It could be a drunken raving lout staggering along Bridge Street in Chester on a Saturday night. It could be someone that we’ve fallen out with in a big way. We can’t choose – the unconditional love of God is for all of those people and our love must be the same.
Now when I struggle with the enormity of that task, I find inspiration in the words of a very saintly man and a sermon that he preached some 50 years ago. The man was Dr Martin Luther King and he preached on the subject of loving your enemies at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama on November 17th 1957.
Dr King says of Jesus command to love our enemies that, “Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilisation. Yes it is love that will save our world and our civilisation, love even for enemies” He then goes on to give some practical advice on how on earth we are to fulfil this great commandment of universal love, and you may find this helpful – I certainly do.
First, he says, you must begin by analysing yourself. That may help you to understand why you have an enemy. It may be something that you have done consciously or unconsciously that has engendered this hatred but it may not. It may be that they just don’t like the way you look or sound. But start by looking at yourself. In Jesus’ words, “How is it that you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but fail to see the plank in your own”
The second thing that you need to do is to seek the good in your enemy and that every time you feel your hate building for that person, you focus instead on those elements of good. Remember that somewhere in everyone is the mage of God. You need to look deeply until you find that image.
Next you may find that an opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy and at that point you must draw back and not do it. Love is creative. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.
And why is it so important to love our enemies asks Dr King. “The reason is that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you ht me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere, somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person.
The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of evil and hate in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
So with the wise words of Martin Luther King ringing in our ears we hear again those words that we hear every Sunday but hear them with new ears and with a heart that is prepared to respond.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said; the first commandment is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Lord have mercy.