|The Gospel in a Word
February 27, 2000 / Mark 12:28-34
One of the most significant conversations Jesus ever had was occasioned by a Jewish scribe asking his view of the "most important" commandment in all the Torah. That conversation is our focus for this study.
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?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: ĎHear, 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.í The second is this: ĎLove your neighbor as yourself.í There is no commandment greater than these."
"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 neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
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.
The Jewish rabbis would eventually come up with a total of 613 separate commands in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. They further delineated these commandments as heavy or light, great or small. And many of their debates over the "most important" statutes remind one of our contemporary arguments over "essentials" versus "non-essentials" in the Christian faith. Both reflect a legalistic approach to Scripture and presume a works-righteousness strategy for the keeping of commandments.
But this teacher likely had something different in mind, and that "something different" was what prompted Jesus to say that he was not far from the kingdom. Most modern scholars hear him asking not which commandments were to be obeyed and which ones could be ignored but something along this line: "What do you understand to be the foundation of Torah from which all the individual commandments are derived?" William Lane put it this way:
Jesusí response goes much deeper than the distinction between small and great commandments and shows that he understood the question to concern the principle of Law. The attempt to summarize the whole Law in a single utterance was remembered in anecdotes concerning some of the early scribal teachers. When challenged by a Gentile, Hillel the Elder (ca. 40 B.C.-A.D. 10) replied: "What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." For Jesus the whole Law is summarized in the will of God which calls for the love which is a whole-hearted response to God and to the neighbor.1
Jesus told this inquiring soul that the gospel in a word was love ó love for God and love for oneís neighbor. He cited two Old Testament texts to proclaim that love for God is the first commandment and love toward man the second. Indeed, love is the single fountain from which all true religion and honorable morality flow. And John would later say that anyone who claims to love God while refusing to love others is making a sham of religion (cf. 1 John 3:14-18; 4:20-22).
Love God and Neighbors!
Jesus affirmed our obligation to love God by citing the Jewish confession of faith recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. It is called the Shema for its first word in Hebrew, which means "hear." The fuller text says: "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 strength" (Deut. 6:4-5).
He then stressed love for our fellows by citing Leviticus 19:18: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."
I have preached this text many times across the years, and I have tried to go at it from different angles in order to keep it fresh both for myself and my hearers. I have done studies of "heart," "soul," "mind," and "strength" to try to capture the fulness of love we are called to offer our God. I have tried to call attention to the richness of Godís all-embracing love for us that makes it natural for us to love him with all we are and have. I have called up the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how love for God requires that we love our neighbors. I have quoted from John and Paul to reinforce the teaching of our Lord here.
But this week I had this text made fresh for me by watching it unfold before my eyes. A father and son in this church took me to depths of insight into these words from Jesus that had never surfaced for me before ó because I had never been in a situation like theirs that tested the purity of my faith as theirs was. And do they ever shine like stars before my eyes! So I asked their permission to tell you about it today.
All of us have a problem at times with newspapers or television stations for picking up a "breaking story" of anguish, peril, or evil without following it through to resolution. Some stories do have happy endings ó even righteous endings. But they donít get headlines. This morning, I want to tell you the rest of the story . . .
Three generations of the Cathey family are members of this church. They drive to Nashville and function as active members of this church from about an hourís distance from here. And not just on Sundays either! Joe and Betty work every Tuesday night at CCSI events. They mentor, set up and take down tables, and hug children. Damon and Paulette live closer in, and Damon is chairing a committee whose work will become a major event this fall. Dwayne and Sonya had a baby girl two weekends ago ó right in the midst of a nightmare of events that overshadowed the joy of their Alexaís birth.
Most of you know some of the events involved in this story, but many of you will find out for the first time today that they involve people in your church family. The Tennessean and at least two of the network-affiliate television stations in Nashville reported the storyís dark side. This morning youíll learn the bright, godly side.
Two weeks ago Thursday, fourteen-year-old Tristen was making noise tapping a pencil on his desk in his second-period history class at Hickman County Middle School. His teacher came over to tell him to stop. His justified action of telling a student to be quiet then escalated into an unjustified threat. "If you donít stop making that racket," he said, "Iím going to tie you to my truck and drag you through the woods."
Tristen is African-American ó one of about twenty African-American kids in a middle school of over 600 students, the only African-American in second-period history. In light of a 1998 dragging-death case in Jasper, Texas, in which three white men tied a black man to the back of a truck and dragged him to death, a statement to a fourteen-year-old about tying and dragging him wasnít funny. It was both frightening and outrageous.
Tristenís classmates were horrified by what had happened, and many of them encouraged him to report them to the principal. Later that day, he and one of his best friends did so. And thatís the beginning of the story. A racist remark. A bewildered teen-ager. A scandalized father. And a tense situation that desperately needed to be addressed in some redemptive fashion.
School officials suspended the teacher for two weeks without pay. But that hardly addressed the fundamental issues at play in this scenario. Dwayne asked me to meet with him, the school principal, and the superintendent of Hickman County Schools last Friday. And the shepherds of this church prayed for two weeks that a way could be found to handle this situation to the glory of God ó for all the parties involved, including the teacher, are Christians. Iím not sure I contributed much to the process by my presence and counsel, but I was there and able to witness the power of love at work.
John Smith, Tristenís teacher, said an evil thing. But he is not an evil man. He has apologized sincerely to Tristen, Dwayne, and the school officials for what he did. And he will make the same apology to all the other students in eighth grade at Hickman County Middle School tomorrow. He will be on administrative probation for a year and will go through some special training designed to keep this sort of thing from ever happening again. But the more important fact is that he has dealt with all this in an effort to be godly, accountable, and penitent.
So how do these events relate to Jesus statement in this text? Without a godly man such as Dwayne leading his son through this as he did, this abominable situation could have escalated to hatred, attempts at revenge, and grudges. As it is, something Satan meant to be a negative, evil outcome has been turned into a positive, holy outcome. Adults have learned some important lessons, and they are going to be shared with 600 middle school kids. Whispering, taking sides, and accusations are going to give way to healing.
From the beginning, Dwayne and Tristen wanted to figure out how to respond to what had happened in a Christ-like way. They did not want revenge or a way to get even. (Do you remember the words of Leviticus 19:18? The verse says: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.") They didnít want Mr. Smithís career hijacked or his ability to earn a living taken from him. They simply wanted the matter resolved so Tristen could stay in the school where he has so many friends ó and where Mr. Smith has been one of his favorite teachers. A father defended his son, and a son insisted on being treated with respect; neither father nor son wished any harm to the man who had violated their trust.
Mr. Smith insists he has no conscious recollection of the Jasper event, and he feels terrible about what he said to Tristen. He is going to do everything within his power to rebuild the relationship the two of them had before all this took place. And it can happen because God is guiding the process of forgiveness and healing that has begun.
There is nothing "funny" about racist humor, ethnic slurs, and the like. They are not "jokes" and cannot be dismissed as harmless.2 And it isnít laws or punishments that will put an end to such things but love for God that is great enough and authentic enough to enable us to love one another.
Dwayne, Tristen, and John showed me how that can happen. I thank God for what he has done among them. And I applaud them for being willing to allow him to do it.
1William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 432.
2If you are concerned about the lingering issue of racism in American culture, you would profit from reading Harlon L. Dalton, Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).
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