The end, the beginning Part 5
Week 1. READ: Mark 12:28-34
If the Gospel of Mark were a play in a theater, it would be a traditional three act play. The first act would be a brief introduction of the main character namely Jesus Christ (1:1-13). As quickly as the curtain came up it went down following the baptism and temptation of Jesus.
The second act makes up for the brevity of the first because it captures the ministry of Jesus (1:14-13:37). This act has three scenes, the first of which is Jesus’ work in the region of Galilee (1:14-7:23). In this scene are stories about Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing and calling followers to join him in this work. All of these stories surround the Sea of Galilee. The second scene of the second act includes stories of Jesus’ ministry beyond Galilee (7:24-10:52). The concluding story in scene two is the healing of a blind man who joins Jesus on the road to Jerusalem for the final week of Jesus’ life. The third scene begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and ends with a series of teachings about the end of time called the ‘little apocalypse’ (11:1-13:37. The second act ends with Jesus saying “Keep awake,” (13:37). The curtain drops before the final act begins. Those final two words would cause a buzz during intermission.
The third act opens up by announcing that it is two days before Passover (14:1) and the religious leaders are conspiring to have Jesus arrested. The series of stories that unfold are all linked to the betrayal, trial, death and announcement of the empty tomb (14:1-16:8). The actions are strong, the tension in the stories is palpable as the followers of Jesus celebrate the Passover amid Jesus’ words that must have confounded his disciples that the Passover bread is his body and the wine his blood. From the agony of Jesus praying in the garden to his swift arrest, the narrative takes a surprising twist when “all of them (his disciples) deserted him and fled,” (14:50).
Who witnessed the death of Jesus if the eleven (minus Judas who had betrayed him) disciples had run for cover and hid themselves because of fearing for their own life? The first witness mentioned is a gentile military leader (15:39) who testifies that this man Jesus was “God’s Son!” While the list of names varies slightly, the women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem watched Jesus die from a distance and were the witnesses to the empty tomb (15:40, 47, 16:1). The message of the crucified and risen Lord came from the lips of women! Thanks be to God for their often hidden yet courageous presence when it mattered most in the life of Jesus.
Over the next five weeks we will read some concluding stories from Mark. Each week the study will reveal greater clarity on the central teaching of the greatest commandment (12:28-34). This teaching is critical to understand what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. While the teaching to love God with our whole self and love our neighbor as we love ourselves seems basic, it has many applications that challenge our life. Knowing what the greatest commandment is and practicing it in our life are two different things. The reality is if we all practiced the loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, crime and chaos would radically decrease in our cities, small towns and rural areas.
Digging into Mark 12 and the Greatest Commandment
Let’s look at the context of Mark 12 and the three conflict stories in vv. 13-34:
1) The first conflict (12:13-17) arises with the Pharisees (a religious group most concerned with ritual purity) and a Jewish political group called the Herodian’s because of their support of King Herod and his compromises with Rome – and together they were trying to trap Jesus. The question they asked was about citizenship and paying taxes. Jesus demonstrated wisdom in handling this with the use of a coin and the “head” on it to justify returning to Rome what is Rome’s by paying their taxes.
2) The next conflict (12:18-27) was with the Sadducees concerning the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees were a Jewish religious group that only valued the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament – Genesis – Deuteronomy) as being the word of God. They try to trap Jesus with some crazy rule about marriage. Jesus side steps it by saying that there are no marriage relationships in heaven!
3) Finally, a teacher of the law, a scribe, came legitimately to inquire about the greatest commandment. Unlike the first two encounters, this man earnestly sought to learn from Jesus. In the end, Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom of God (12:34).
Shema (“hear”) is the Hebrew word that begins the most important prayer in Judaism. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, which starts with the command to “hear.” The Shema prayer was so influential and important that Jesus used it as the beginning of his answer to the “greatest commandment” question in Mark 12:28–30: And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.
The whole Shema prayer, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is spoken daily in Jewish tradition:
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 might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Later Jewish tradition developed a three-part Shema prayer that also included Deuteronomy 11:13–29 and Numbers 15:37–41. Tradition states these three parts cover all aspects of the Ten Commandments. When Jesus answered the question of which commandment is first, he acknowledged the Lord God is most important and worthy of our complete devotion. It is no surprise that the scribe replied this way in verses 32–33: You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
The “love your neighbor” portion of the Great Commandment is not part of the Shema. It is found in Leviticus 19:18. The Apostle Paul wrote about the command to love your neighbor in Romans 13:8-10. Paul summarizes the Ten Commandments by the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Paul wrote: Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (13:10).
Martin Luther and Being a Good Neighbor
In this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation led by Dr. Martin Luther in 1517, wrote helpful explanations of the Ten Commandments that pertain to our neighbor. In his numbering of the commandments, the fifth commandment says: You shall not murder. He explains its meaning when he wrote: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs. Not only are we to bring no harm but rather being a neighbor means that we are an asset to our neighbors by being helpful where we can.
The seventh commandment addresses our neighbors’ property. You shall not steal. How are we to live as neighbors? We are to fear and love God so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income. This explanation suggests both a natural watchful eye for our neighbors’ property and in any dealings with our neighbor, they must be above board. In fact, we are to lend a helping hand where possible.
In an age where the news is called fake and truth is elusive, the eighth commandment calls us to account: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Luther spells out what he understands this commandment to mean: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. It is easy to point fingers at Washington, Springfield, the courtroom, or anyone who has angered you, but the change in our culture begins with us. Imagine if we all began to speak only the good about others. Our behavior and attitude influence others more than we know.
These explanations have much to say to us and our world if we will listen and live them out. Similar to the Seventh Commandment about property is the call to protect our neighbor’s house (Commandment Nine) wife, and other possessions (Commandment Ten). Jesus said to the expert teacher on the law that he was not far from God’s kingdom. In other words, he was indeed living as God intended by pursuing God with his heart, mind and soul and treating people with love and respect.
- How are you doing in loving your neighbors? How do you show them love?
- What challenges do you face in knowing and caring for your neighbors?
- What was your experience with your neighbors as a child?
- What ideas do you have to strengthen your neighborhood relationships?