As did all Jewish men of his day, Jesus wore fringes on his garments. It was the fringes that the woman touched to gain healing in the Matthew story and Mark mentions in his third chapter people reaching out to touch the fringes of his cloak. It is an interesting concept with a fascinating purpose. Even today you find this among Jews, in the prayer shawl worn in the synagouge during worship. Fringes on the garment are held together by a blue cord on the ends. The rule is from Numbers 15 that says: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments and you shall be holy to your God.’” Fringes aren’t just some raggedy edge, each piece of the fringe is actually one of many warp threads that run the entire length of the fabric and through which countless weft threads are woven. You can imagine the weft threads are like events and relationships in life, but the warp threads represent the important principles that hold it all together. The fringes of Jewish prayer shawl makes certain that the worshipper is aware of the principles that hold life’s experiencies together.
In our passage, Jesus is asked by a scribe, “Which commandment is the first of all?” or as Peterson has translated in the Message “Which is most important of all the commandments?” This is the underlying setting for our Gospel reading. The question of which of the commandments is greatest and of most importance has been a matter of continual debate. We find the same discussion among literalist Christians today. As you might guess, among the various religious/political parties of Israel, one might choose one of the Ten Commandments, while another could choose another of the other 613 commandments. Jesus’ response to the scribe’s question is stunning.
But before we look at Jesus’ response we need to be reminded that Mark has taken Jesus into Jerusalem itself. The three familiar stories immediately preceding this one set the context. Jesus tells the parable of the unfaithful tenants of the vineyard. The religious leaders, seeing themselves in the story, are so infuriated that they look for a way to kill him. Then, we get to observe an example of true bi-partisanship that would astound most contemporary politicians. The Herodians and the Pharasees, absolute enemies of each other, plan a joint attack. They ask Jesus about tax policy – which as you know is a hot political button. To whom should taxes be paid? If Jesus’ answer is satisfactory to the Pharisees the Herodians have a legal complaint against him. By the same token if his answer satisfies the Herodians the Pharasees will accuse Jesus of being a traitor to Israel. Either answer is wrong. They thought they had Jesus boxed in. His answer confounds them. Then we hear from a third party, the Sadducees. In the first place they don’t believe in life after death. Period. That’s what makes their question such a spurious one. They concoct this cock and bull story about Leverite marriage that goes beyond this life. Finally the true scholars, seeing things are out of control decide they must weigh in, which brings us to the 28th verse. Mark 12: 28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 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,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
We do not know whether this scribe was asking an honest question or whether he was seeking to entrap Jesus. Perhaps this ambiguity is part of the genius of Mark, because whether one is seeking to invalidate the work and message of Jesus or whether one is genuinely open and responsive to that work, Jesus’ answer is definitive of the nature of true religion. Jesus doesn’t choose one of the 613 mitzvot or one of the Ten Commandments so familiar to us as his “first commandment of all”. Rather, he first quotes the Shema of Israel (Deut. 6:4-5). And then connects that to Leviticus 19:18 about obligation to one’s neighbor and concludes, “There is no other commandment greater than these”.
In other words, what Jesus does here is positively startling. He takes two charges and makes them into one! It is not that one is to love God with one’s entire being. Nor is it that one is to thoroughly love one’s neighbor and to live that out in one’s action. Rather, it is that authentic faith, in doing the one, automatically does the other! That is, you can’t love God except through loving neighbor. And you can’t authentically commit yourself to your neighbor except out of the context of loving God. The worship of God is the service of humanity. And the service of humanity is an act of worship of God!
We know that Jesus wasn’t the only Jewish rabbi, up to that point, to both perceive and teach this truth. The combination of Deut. 6.4 and Lev. 19.18 is already found in the Testament of Issachar and in the Testament of Dan. Still it is a mind-boggling insight in understanding the totality of a person’s and a society’s duty! The first great commandment of Jesus—love of God—was in harmony with the spirit of contemporary Pharisaism. What is more, the very selection of the passage that Jesus quoted to declare that to “love one’s neighbor” is a spiritual task is quite specific. We can make this assumption from this text because there were actually fifteen Old Testament references available from Jesus could have chosen if all he wanted to say was, “Love your neighbor”. Instead, he chose the one reference that was solely about working for neighborly freedom from political oppression and economic exploitation by both those in high places and by those all around you. And he likely chose this passage because it was this command of “love your neighbor”, hiding under the blanket of “you shall love the Lord your God” that was the primary trespass of the priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees and the other people of power of Jesus’ day. Unfortunately the holiness movement that became the evangelicalism of the last century has fallen prey to this same temptation.
Leviticus 19 is about moral holiness – how holiness is to be lived out in everyday life. It begins “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. ” It then goes on to present how holiness is to be acted out.
- First, “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field; those edges you shall leave for the poor and the alien” .
- Second, “you shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, and you shall not lie to one another”.
- Third, “you shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning; you shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind”
- Fourth, “you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor”
- Fifth, “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people” .
- Finally, after these specifics, the writer of the Leviticus code drew his conclusion from these specific examples: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
In other words, to “love your neighbor” was not meant by Jesus to be understood as treating your neighbor nicely. To love your neighbor meant that you were not to engage in any oppression or exploitation of your neighbor. To love the neighbor is to create economic potential for the poor by which he can, with dignity, act on his own behalf. To love the neighbor is to treat others fairly. To love the neighbor is to not exploit his labor, but to pay him fully and on time. To love the neighbor is to not pander to the rich but to act with unbiased justice. To love the neighbor is to not take vengeance on those who have wronged you. To love your neighbor is to actively engage in eliminating oppression and exploitation, and working for the empowerment of those around you. By choosing to quote Leviticus 19:18, Jesus clearly meant that living an activist life, intentionally seeking both the economic and political good of your neighbor, is the most profound worship of God.
When we faithfully reach out to the vulnerable, work for justice, and welcome the stranger, we are not only bringing beauty to their lives but also to God’s life. It also presents us with what some call a holistic theology – we are called to love God with our whole being, heart, mind, and strength. While our age, maturity, natural gifts, personality type, gender, and so on, will shape how we love God, each of us is called to love God with our mind as well as heart. This is good news for both “thinkers” and “feelers” and an invitation to spiritual practices that embrace all the senses and ways of encountering the world. This passage clearly challenges the commonly-held belief that our love should be directed to the creator rather than the creature. Healthy spirituality invites us to love the creator by loving the creatures.
God’s great faithfulness, embracing both friend and stranger, is the catalyst for our behavior. When we no longer fear an arbitrary and unpredictable God, we can imitate God through our own fidelity to one another. We can also foster communities of love and inclusion which faithfully embrace persons across the lifespan. This is truly the church at its best as it incarnates the spirit of “Blest Be the Tie that Binds”:
Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
We share each other’s woes, each other’s burdens bear;
And often for each other flows a sympathizing tear.
In our 21st Century world that can be destroyed by its human inhabitants “five different ways, and we’re only up to ‘e’” – atomically, biologically, chemically demographically, ecologically – too many Christians continue to tragically and lethally miss the point. Voices in many denominations would rather argue over whether gay lesbian and bi-sexual clergy deserve priestly authority. Christian “church goers” would rather deny human rights (voting, education, housing, health care, marriage) to people they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge as their neighbors. Some Christians would rather count their money as shareholders in mining operations that pollute our rivers, aquifers and local groundwater, and blast the tops of mountains into rubble.
Who or What is God? Who is it that I am to love with heart, soul mind and strength! Who or what is my Neighbor? Who it is that I am to love as myself! Holiness is intensely practical and personal. The only way to love the creator is by loving creation atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, ecologically, familially, opps, now we are up to “f” ….