In our passage today we come to see the heart of Jesus teaching in Mark’s Gospel.
A religious lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him what is the greatest commandment of them all. It seems he was testing Jesus to see how well versed Jesus really was in the Jewish Scriptures, but perhaps also wanting to weigh Jesus up a little, trying to discern what Jesus was really all about... what was it at the heart of Jesus that motivated him, that drove him on and what was the heart of the message of Jesus that he was spreading to the people.
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. And the second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.
For Jesus the essence of the Law can be boiled down to a single word: Love
Love of God, Love of Neighbour, and Love of self.
I would like to make three brief observations:
Firstly, isn’t it interesting when you think about it. You cannot force someone else to love. Love is therefore not actually something you can command another person to do. Love by it’s very nature requires freedom. To command or force is in a way a denial of freedom. If love is to be genuine it needs to be a free response.
Calling it the greatest commandment is therefore kind of strange when you think about it. If truth be told, you can only invite someone to love. Rather than being called the greatest commandment, it may in actual fact be better to call it the Greatest Invitation. God’s greatest invitation to us is to learn the way of love.
Last week on the notices I had a small quote: "There is only one happiness in life. To love and to be loved".
The Greatest Commandment or the Greatest Invitation to Love is in fact an invitation to find the only thing in life that can truly bring happiness: Love.
Secondly, isn’t it interesting that Jesus responds to the religious law expert, not with just one commandment as was requested, but with two. Clearly for Jesus the two commandments were thoroughly interwoven like two threads making up one garment, or perhaps like two sides of a single coin... you cant have one side without the other. Where the one side is truly present, you will find the other as well.
As we read in one of the Epistles of John: “How can we say we love God who we cannot see, if we do not love a brother or sister who we can see”. One of the tests for the genuineness of our love for God is our love for our brothers and sisters, our neighbours.
And in the book of James (2:8ff), our love for our neighbours, our brothers and sisters is not just about words and ideas, but about practical actions:
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? ...Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?"
Thirdly, while Jesus quotes two commandments in response to the question posed to him, what we often miss is that there are three aspects to his answer. It is not just love of God, and love of neighbour, but love of neighbour as oneself. The greatest commandment or the greatest invitation is not a call to neglect ourselves. Modern psychology would remind us that in the end, a persons inability to truly care for and love ourselves will hinder their ability to truly love and care for others. It is the same logic that is used when they give the safety drill at the beginning of a flight when in the case of emergency we are told that before we help to put someone else's oxygen mask on them, we should first fit our own.
When we come to a communion service like today, our communion is not just with God. All three dimensions of these commandments are involved. Our communion is with God but also with each other in this church community. And you cannot be in communion with another unless one shows up oneself. Communion – a coming together in union. Communion with God, communion with each other and communion with self.
I would like to close with a beautiful poem by James Leigh Hunt that expresses something of the heart of Jesus message to us today:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:-
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"-The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.