I had a friend who was raised Jewish. No longer considers himself Jewish. In fact, he had a lot of disdain for the tradition of his birth, so dabbled with all different versions of Christianity growing up.
One day I asked him what made him reject Judaism, what made him so opposed to to his Jewishness. “Look,” he said. “There’s six-hundred and thirteen rules you’ve gotta follow. Ridiculous because it’s impossible. Jesus made a whole lot more sense. ‘Two rules: love God, love neighbor.’ Now that I can handle.”
The six-hundred and thirteen rules he was talking about is the number of commandments (i.e. thou shalts, and thou shalt nots) found in what Jews call the Torah. Christians refer to them as the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures. These 613 commandments are what most observant Jews believe have been given to them as God’s people as their way of life to honor God in the world.
Obviously to my friend—and I’m guessing most of us—six hundred and thirteen sounds kind of overwhelming.
On the other hand, two sounds like a lot less than six-hundred and thirteen. This we can handle. The two rules he was referring to—love God, love neighbor—are to be found in today’s scripture passage.
A scribe, it says, overheard Jesus laying the theological smack down on his opponents. And the scribe is quite impressed with Jesus’ answers. Which is kind of strange, because pretty much everywhere else in Mark’s gospel, the scribes are lumped in with the Pharisees as villains, as opponents of Jesus and his ministry. But this guy likes what he hears. He wants to get at the core, the essence, the philosophy of Jesus’ teaching.
“Rabbi,” he asks. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Referring of course to the 613 commandments that my friend was referring to. Which commandment of 613 is the first of all?
Basically, in asking which commandment is first, this scribe is asking Jesus to summarize his teaching in one law. “Quick Jesus… you’re caught in an elevator with a non-believer. Give him the Torah. Twenty words or less.”
‘Hear, O Israel,” Jesus replies. “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment,” Jesus says. “No other commandment greater than these.”
You’ll notice that Jesus’ great commandment is actually two commandments. And the two are cribbed entirely from two of the least friendly-seeming books of the Old Testament. “Love the Lord your God” is from Deuteronomy chapter 6, and “Love your neighbor” is from Leviticus chapter 19.
So it makes sense that the approving scribe approves of this teaching, too. “You’re right, Jesus,” says the scribe. Love God, love neighbor. These two things are more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices put together.”
Scribe sounds like my friend. Love God. Love neighbor. Jesus says that none of the other six hundred and eleven commandments matter if you don’t do these.
Sounds straightforward. You go from a checklist that’s pages and pages to two that fit on a business card. It not only sounds simpler, it sounds a lot easier. A lot more attainable for the average person.
Two rules instead of six-hundred and thirteen. It makes following Jesus just sound so much more achievable.
But if you stop to think about it, to truly consider Jesus’ words, it’s actually the opposite.
It’s the opposite, because I don’t think we fully understand what Jesus means by love. For us modern North American people, we only have one word for love. Love is a feeling. It’s affection. Feel love for God. Feel affection for your neighbor. Not too hard. We can do that. But here Jesus uses that Greek word agape. Which means self-emptying love. Love without thought of return or reward. Self-less and total giving love. Much harder.
And with that in mind, consider the commandment again: “Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.” Give God every little single thing you’ve got in you. Every thought. Every feeling. Every decision. Every single physical action. Empty yourself entirely in sacrifice for God. Every inch, every single fiber of your being. And “empty yourself for your neighbor. Give yourself away entirely for the sake of their good. Not just your family or friends. But all the other people. Give them what they need when they need it, and take on the burden of their suffering. Love them perfectly, as if they were a very part of you.”
Love God with everything you’ve got and live totally for the sake of your neighbor. I’m not sure my friend knew what he was getting in to! It’s not only harder. It’s much much harder. If not impossible. What an All Saints Day message! All the Saints even have fallen short. No one’s ever done it, at least not fully.[i] I mean, I have enough trouble giving myself over to the people I love the most in the world, let alone some stranger in need. We just don’t have it in us to love like this. You don’t have it in you. I don’t have it in me. Jesus might. But we don’t. Each of us falls far short. And that’s the truth.
We don’t have it in us. We’re not Jesus. But the beauty of the Christian message is that we don’t have it in us to love like this, and that’s okay. We’re not Jesus, and that’s okay, too. We can’t be Jesus.
Because while Jesus does show us what a full human life in tune with God looks like, loving God and neighbor. Fulfilling the commandments to love. And an example of what we were created to be, it doesn’t end there. Because if that’s all he is, then all he has to give us is a recipe for disappointment, failure, and anxiety. We can’t even do the two things he asks of us.
But in the Christian tradition, Jesus is more than just a teacher. Because in the gospel of Mark Jesus not only teaches his disciples what to do, he goes and he perfectly does it. In his full, unrelenting, without reservation giving of himself in love for God. In his unconditional, giving of himself for others. In his putting aside all earthly power, prestige, hatred, selfishness and violence in obedience to the great commandment to love God and neighbor, even to death and suffering on a cross. All for our sake. According to Mark, Jesus not only shows us what a full human life is like. He reveals to us who God is. He shows us the extend of God’s agape, God’s love for each of us. God’s self-emptying, self-giving love for the sake of a hurting, broken world.
And when we see this love in action, we discover that the meaning of Christianity isn’t simply “do this, do that.” “Be like Jesus.” Or “do what Jesus did.” The primary message of Christianity is that we aren’t like Jesus. We don’t act like Jesus, in fact our lives are far from it. Even the greatest saint falls short. But God’s love in Christ on the cross isn’t for us in our perfection. It’s for us in all the ways we fail to give our lives over in love for God. It’s in all the ways we hurt, bruise and betray our neighbors and our loved ones. God’s self-giving agape love for us burns at the center of all things, and meets us not only in our joys, but in the deepest, most shameful places of our lives, in the darkest places in our hearts.
And that when we receive this love, give ourselves over to it, the promise is that it’s so deep and so wide that can absorb any offence, and drown any sin in mercy and forgiveness. It can transform us. Brad Jersak, a writer from the Fraser Valley puts it like this:
This ‘ought’ sounds like law and obligation-and yes, Iesus calls it a commandment-but this is not a new religious ladder to climb. Rather, it is What you become when Love comes to live inside of you. What Christ asks is that we willingly receive God’s transforming grace and surrender to the impulses of Christ’s love in our hearts. Once we let go of the willful ‘No!’ in our hearts, this naturally supernatural process of grace simply unfolds.”[ii]
It’s not our ability to love, but the fact that we are loved, the power of God’s love for us that makes the difference. That will change us. If we let it.
We can’t love like this, but the Good News is that we are loved like this. As we are, not as we’re supposed to be. “For God so loved the world,” says the gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” There is a reality, a love that is far greater than our own. And when we come to the knowledge of this love, when we believe in it and receive it, this love has the power to change us. To summon out of us, by the power of the Holy Spirit the kind of self-giving love for God and love for our neighbors that we’re created for, and that’s normally beyond our power and capabilities. The promise is that when we know ourselves to be loved in this way, we are able to transcend our limitations, and become more like Jesus. Our love is the fruit of God’s love. We’re able to do more than we thought possible, to give ourselves away to God more fully. And able to love our neighbors more deeply, as Jesus loves. Even if it’s just one inch at a time.
So, friends, brothers and sisters. We know the truth. And that truth is that we don’t love God as we oughta. And we don’t love our neighbors as we should. Or as we need to. You don’t, I don’t. Simply because we can’t. Our hearts are too weak, our imaginations too small, and our souls are too empty to love like that. But the good news is that it’s okay. It’s okay because God in Christ has gone all the way to the end of love for us.[iii] This love that brought the universe in to being, that hung the stars in the sky, this love that is endless, has been emptied out in love on the cross, and is being poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Accept this truth. Believe it, receive it with every fibre of your being, let it wash over every inch of your soul, and let it in to every corner of your life. And one day you will love God, with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and strength. And you will love your neighbor as yourself.
One day. By the grace of God.
[i] “The fulfillment of the law is impossible for us… If we search the remotest past, I say that none of the saints, clad in the body of death [cf. Romans 7:24], has attained to that goal of love so as to love God ‘with all his heart, all his mind, and all his might’ [Mark 12:30, and parallels].” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 352.
[ii] Brad Jersak, A More Christ-Like God, A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena: Plain Truth Ministries, 2015), 59.
[iii] “Before Jesus, no one was able to travel ‘all the way to the end of love’ like he did (John 13:1).” Hans Urs Von Balthasar, “Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in Light of the World: Brief Reflections on the Sunday Readings (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 250.