Holy Week Reflections: Wednesday
Dr. Hulitt Gloer
In recent years, much attention has been given to the importance of setting priorities. A quick Google search yields a multitude of quotes. Here are a few of my favorites: “Change your priorities and you change your life.” “The key is not to prioritize your schedule but schedule your priorities.” “Your priorities are not what you say they are; they are revealed in how you live.” “You always have time for the things you put first.”
Determining one’s priorities is commonly viewed as a key to the success of every endeavor. By the same token, failure is often blamed on a lack of prioritization. On Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, Jesus was approached by a scribe with a question about priorities. The story is found in Mark 12:28-34.
Unlike his previous questioners on this day, this scribe seems to have been drawn to Jesus not by a desire to “do him in,” but by a genuine desire to learn from him. He has been listening to Jesus’ answers to previous questioners and has been favorably impressed. He comes with a question that was commonly asked of Jewish teachers at this time, “Which commandment is first of all?” This question prompted by the fact that, according to Jewish tradition, Moses gave us 613 commandments – 365 negative commandments or prohibitions (“Thou shall not….”) and 248 positive commandments (“Thou shall….”), and through the centuries, attempts have been made to rank or better, summarize them. David suggested 11 (Psalm 15), Isaiah suggested 6 in one place (33:15) and 2 in another (56:1), and Micah suggested 3 (6:8). Now it’s Jesus turn.
“Which commandment is first of all?” In other words, which commandment is primary, most important, most central, matters most, or is the one through which the others are to be understood?
Jesus answers by combining two Old Testament texts: “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, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6; Leviticus 19:18). For Jesus, these two are inextricably linked. The two are as one and the early church agreed. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….For the commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-9). Similarly, James writes, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law (the King’s law) according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). But what about the first part about loving God? These early Christians assumed that the first part is assumed in the second part. After all, how can you tell whether someone really loves God? They can say they do but how can you really know? But if we say we love our neighbor, the evidence should be manifest. Just ask a neighbor. In a way, it’s like what James says about faith and works, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works and I, by my works, will show you my faith” (James 2:18). Show me that you love God without loving your neighbor and I will show, by loving my neighbor, how much I love God.
We have so domesticated this “Great Commandment” that its radical meaning has been lost. Jesus’ call is to love God above all else. To give to God what belongs to God: our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength; in other words, our whole being. To make God our only Lord and to abide no other. If God is Lord, then the lords of this world are not and cannot be lord. In the New Testament, Jesus uses kingdom language—the Kingdom of God—and he calls us “to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” The kingdom of God is the reign of God and the righteousness of God is the will of God. When Jesus says, “seek first” this “first” is not like the first in a list of ten things (1, 2, 3, 4…). This “first” is the one thing that determines all other things, that one thing that determines everything. It is the one thing which is primary, most important, most central, matters most, or the one thing through which all other things are to be understood. As someone once said, it is “putting God first and valuing everything else in relation to God.”
To “love our neighbors as ourselves” is a call to refuse to accept the boundaries and divisions that society creates. These boundaries and divisions would separate us from one another and insist that our neighbors are only those like us. In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan steps over every barrier his society had constructed that was meant to separate him from the “half dead” Jewish man. There were racial barriers, social barriers, cultural barriers, religious barriers, and a 400-year historical barrier that had taught him not to love this man but to hate him. He had all these reasons to pass by on the other side and leave the man to die, BUT he didn’t. He stepped over every one of those barriers to save the man’s life.
The Samaritan became the model neighbor because the question we must ask is not “Who is my neighbor?” That question by its very premise indicates that some are and some are not. Jesus, just tell me who’s who and I’ll do it. No, the question is, “Who can I neighbor?” That question knows no barriers. This neighbor love is not comfortable love. It stems from a radical love for God and others. A love for any other and all others because the God we love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength so loves the world that “he gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And how do we love others? Jesus answered that question, too. In the Upper Room on the eve of his crucifixion, he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another” (John 14:33). On the cross, he showed how much he loved us. He didn’t just give till it hurt; He gave till it was gone!
The scribe said, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said” and then he quoted the Great Commandment and added, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what Jesus meant by that saying. Here’s what I think he was saying, “My friend, it’s clear that you know it, but knowing it is not enough. You have to live it!”
The Great Commandment should be our first priority. Not just knowing it, but living it. For as Gandhi once said, “Action expresses priorities.” At the conclusion of almost every worship service, I know a pastor who reminds us “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Do it like it’s the most important thing in the world. Because it is.” Enough said. Amen!