A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 1 November 2009 by the Rev. Hanns Hoerschelmann. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14 and Mark 12:28-34.
O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart be pleasing in your sight. Amen
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
It was a lively atmosphere in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. People were walking from one point to another. Some were on their way to prayer; some on the way back. Some came to offer some goods on the altar; some to talk to one of the teachers or scribes. And than there were those who wanted to sell goods for the offerings or just souvenirs.
In the middle of all of these lively and sometimes hectic atmospheres we find groups of people standing, debating and talking to each other. They talk about the word of God, a theological problem or just about common things which happen on the street.
Jesus and his followers are in the midst of all this. They have been involved in discussions and arguments about subjects like:
- It is OK to pay taxes to the Caesar the Roman emperor?
- Is there something like a bodily resurrection?
There are all kinds of questions and issues to be discussed. Sometimes the discussions are done in a friendly way, but sometimes one can here a harsher, more aggressive tone. This may be related to the subject of the discussion, which is often no less than the Kingdom of God itself. With such an important issue the tone can be rough at times and the discussion seams to be more a disputation.
In general this kind of discussion and dispute is fine and can be quite fruitful. The only thing which has to be there is a common respect for each other. It has to be clear that everybody involved, is in search for the ultimate goal – the Kingdom of God. Nobody involved should actually think that he has already achieved the goal and only wants to test the others. If the dispute is done in an open way, with a common respect one could surprisingly discover that people who were counterparts a minute ago are actually much closer to each other.
Mark 12:28: One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
Hearing this verse and thinking about the situation I have just described, one can get a little suspicion. Shouldn't the teacher of law know the answer to his question? Even if one does not know much about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – he or she should at least know the highest of all commandments – or not?
His question seems to be a typical teachers’ question. A question which is only asked to test the knowledge of the component. And if he or she does not know the answer, one can show of with his or her knowledge and present the correct one.
But maybe we are already putting to much suspicion and thoughts into the question of the teacher of law. Maybe he was asking seriously. Maybe we ourselves can remember or think of a situation, where facts which had been self-evident became questionable. Questionable due to wrong guilded thinking; due to experiences of life which do not fit into the common answer; due to better arguments from others.
It is one thing to know something, but sometimes a totally different matter if we hear the same thing from somebody else. Somebody with higher authority. I can name several situations where I have tried to tell my children to do things without success, but when the teacher in school or in kindergarten would say it, it was a totally different matter. Therefore let’s take the question of the teacher of law as serious as Jesus did it:
Mark 12:29-30 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'
Jesus quotes the so called “Shama Isreal” – the “Hear Israel” . He gives the answer everybody around the two man knows. This quote of the bible is one of the basics of the Jews religion. It is the foundation of the Torah, the five books of Moses, and has been learned by every Jew from childhood on. Therefore Jesus answer seems to be a matter of course.
But is it really? Is it really a matter of course that God is one, is the only God in our daily life? Sure, we love God, but there are so many other things that we love too – or even sometimes more then him: money, status, gadgets etc. I guess everybody has his or her own hidden God. Martin Luther once said: God is whatever your heart is linked too. I think this observation is simple but true until today. God on Sunday (for the Jews on Saturday and the Muslims on Friday) – that is OK. But during the week there are other Gods we just have to add.
But Jesus answer is clear: God is one and he demands undivided attention. With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This leaves no room for anything else but God.
But Jesus is not finished yet. He must have known that a wrongly understood love to God could lead to human destruction. He must have know the danger which lies in Gods demand to totally neglect the love for oneself, which could lead to a loss of self esteem. Over centuries theologians and the official churches have told us that we ourselves do not matter – just God and the love to him. And therefore Jesus continues:
Mark 12: 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
With this second part of Jesus answer he seams to god further than the common belief. But is he really? Shouldn't it be a matter of course to love oneself as I love God? God loves us and he also has created us in his image. Therefore loving oneself is also loving God. I know what you might say now: isn't this a bit too far? Could such an approach not lead to selfishness and the idea that I am God myself? Well, the line is very thin. As thin as the one toward self denial, which I have mentioned earlier. But how can I love without being loved? How should I say yes to God without saying yes to myself or without having experienced that somebody else saying yes to me?
Therefore it is important to pay attention to both sides of the answer Jesus gives. They form a balance between the love towards God and the love to oneself.
And this balance gets even more stable when we add the third direction of love that Jesus is talking about – the love towards the neighbour. But again, if we would only emphasis on this direction, we would miss the real meaning of love. We would put all efforts into the love towards others but neglect ourselves. It is actually a common phenomenon in churches and Christian communities, that people give up all self-esteem by pointing to the so called servant hood of Christ, which we should follow. Again here the line towards self-destruction or self-denial within a wrongly understood love towards our neighbours is very thin.
And therefore the highest commandment is not only one but actually three: the love towards God, the love towards oneself and the love towards our neighbour. If we try to separate them we will easily loose our balance and fall.
Let me try to put it in a picture: The there aspects of love act like legs of a chair. It would be impossible to sit on a chair with only one leg. You would need to be very acrobatic to do this and the danger of losing your balance is quite high. It gets little better with two legs but still you can easily fall backwards or forward. A chair finally gets stable and becomes a real chair with three legs.
In this way we can say: we become truly human in Gods image if we realise all three dimensions of love – towards God, towards ourselves and towards our neighbours.
Mark 12:32-33 "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.
To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
This answer of the teacher of law echoes all excitement which he felt when hearing the answer on Jesus towards his small question. It echoes what a rightly understood dispute is all about: a question and a counter question, an answer and a counter answer and at the end an agreement on the discovery of a new answer. An answer which might have been there all the times but was covered by ones one thought, habits and customs. Sometimes we need such disputes to get a step further.
Mark 12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Why should they? With the answer of Jesus the question was answered. In the dispute between Jesus and the teacher of law the answer was found for him, the people standing around them and for us – for this time at least. Amen