So often the encounters between Jesus and others are uncomfortable and, with even greater frequency, they’re challenging. With good intentions people approach Jesus looking to get closer to him, but he sees that they’re not ready yet and gives them a hard word. Or there are often times that what Jesus has to say grates against the established practice of the most religious folks. There are Sabbath controversies. There are words about the destruction of the Temple. There are parables that point the finger at people who think they’ve got it all figured out. If I were on the scene when Jesus was walking this earth, I’d like to think that I’d be one of those who fell in step with Jesus, but it seems much more likely that he’d challenge my thinking and living. With Jesus, all are welcome, but we’d better be ready to have our assumptions, beliefs, and practices challenged.
That’s what makes this passage in Mark so interesting to me. It’s one of those exceptions. Here we have an interaction between a teacher of the law and Jesus that goes smoothly. This teacher approaches Jesus with a question – a litmus test, if you will – that will help him understand how closely Jesus aligns with his understanding of the Torah, that is the first five books of the Bible. “Teacher,” he asks, “there are lots of commandments in the Torah. 613 to be exact. Which of these commandments is the greatest?” It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? It’s intrigues me because it assumes that there is a hierarchy to the commandments. If we were to sort through the 613, there might be some easy ones to put further down the list, like the prohibition against mating different kinds of animals or not wearing clothing that is woven of two different kinds of material (Lev. 19:19). Did you even know those were commandments? I had to skim some of Leviticus to find them, and I suspect that I’m wearing at least something that is a fabric blend today, clearly breaking one of the 613 commandments right in front of you today.
Yet, there is a tradition out there already that does its best to summarize the law as simply as possible. It takes obedience beyond legalism and moves it into a transformational ethic. There’s a story similar to this one about Hillel, who was a rabbi who preceded Jesus by a generation. A Gentile approached Hillel with this challenge. “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot,” the Gentile said. Hillel looked at him. The story doesn’t recount this, but I sincerely hope that he told the man to get on one foot. Then Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
I love this story because it’s an example of how we can simplify the faith down to something that is so basic but also something that will take a lifetime to work out how to live effectively. If you’re listening well, you’ll notice that Hillel’s summary is a version of what we call the Golden Rule. It’s something Jesus used in his own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus agrees, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
So, in our text for today, Jesus is doing something similar. He’s distilling the entirety of the law into something short, memorable, and yet hugely challenging. What’s the greatest commandment? Jesus responds with two in tandem, taken from two separate books of the Torah. First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That comes from Deuteronomy 6, a passage we read last week. But Jesus continues with another. Love your neighbor as yourself, which interestingly comes one verse before those prohibitions I shared about blending your fabrics and mating your animals.
Love God with all you are. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. While I, of course, would love you to read the Bible and encourage you to do so, I need to point out that all you need to comprehend to understand how to live like God desires you to live are these three loves of God, neighbor, and self. (Still, go pick up one of our free Bibles and dig in. There’s so much glorious stuff in there!)
The teacher of the law hears Jesus and agrees with him. “You nailed it. The way we understand the Torah aligns.” But then Jesus goes to a place that might have surprised this teacher. “ You, my friend, are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. This story occurs in the midst of a series of questions, teachings, and challenges, and Jesus drives home how seeing the world through the lens of love is key to participating in God’s loving rule of the entire creation.
The act of following Jesus includes learning to see everything through the lens of love. I suspect that we all know a bit of what it’s like to see the world through lenses. Whether you’ve worn glasses or contacts for most of your life, need readers now, or just throw some sunglasses on when it’s sunny, you know how they help you see the world differently.
I can so clearly recall how I found out that my eyes weren’t perfect. I was in second grade. I had no idea that I wasn’t reading the chalkboard clearly or not seeing things that were distant. The word came home from the school nurse that I needed to have my eyes checked. Apparently, I had failed the required school vision exam. My parents delivered the news, and I was in complete denial. “What do you mean I need glasses? I don’t, and I don’t want them!” I said. My dad took a box he found in the garage with some writing on it. He placed it on the mantle in front of the fire place and took me to the other side of the living room. “Troy, what does the box say?” I replied, “Trick question! There’s no writing on the box!” I was wrong. There was writing, I just couldn’t see it. And I was devastated.
My parents took me to get my first pair of glasses. They were gold-plated and wire-rimmed. I remember the optician putting them on me and realizing that there was a whole lot of the world I wasn’t seeing properly. I could now read the chalkboard. I could see definition in the trees. Those corrective lenses impacted how I saw the world. Not one thing was the same with those lenses.
John Calvin compares reading the Scriptures to putting on corrective lenses. Here’s how he puts it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. “For the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.”
That’s Calvin’s long-winded way of saying that Scripture acts like a pair of glasses, helping us to see who God is clearly. This is why Pastor Kristine and I are constantly beating the drum about reading the Bible. It’s functions as a lens to help us see God, which helps us understand how to live the eternal kind of life right now.
Which brings me right back to our text today. Following Jesus means learning to see everything through the lens of love. Love is all over the Bible. “God is love,” Paul writes. “Faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.” “Greater love has no one than this – that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus says. “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus says. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another.” Love is written on every page of Scripture. Do you want to know what it means to live fully? Learn to love.
That means loving God first and foremost – with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That means loving your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself – not because doing so is easy (people are messy, including you!) but because in learning to see ourselves and others through the lens of love, we learn to see ourselves the way God sees us.
God sees the world through the lens of love. You. Me. Everything. When we work at doing the same, we are learning to be more like God – in whose image we are made – and we are drawing closer to the way God governs the world. So, I hope you can use your imagination. How are you seeing the world? What lenses do you wear? Are they lenses of love? Or lenses of anger? Disappointment? Frustration? Disinterest?
If they are not the lenses of love, perhaps it’s time to trade our prescription for a new one. God created us out love. God created us to love. Those who learn to love God, neighbor, self, and everything have drawn near to the heart of Jesus.