October 14, 2012

Which Commandment Is The First Of All?

Passage: Mark 12:28-30

One of the scribes came near and ... 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.”

I think that many people are tired of simply existing; tired of a life where they are engaged in many things yet at bottom feel empty.  The question of meaning eludes then; we thought we had it all together but our youthful answers don’t appear now to hold water—like a bucket with a tiny hole in the bottom losing water a drip at a time, energy for living dissipates.  Is this what I am here for; to simply going through the motions?

A bucket with a small hole in the bottom gets just as empty as a bucket that is deliberately emptied.  Now some people simply empty the bucket, so to speak, when it comes to this question of meaning. “Life has no overall meaning, so deal with it,” seems to be the attitude for some.  But for most, the existence of the bucket—in another manner of speaking—has them convinced there is meaning but somehow keeps eluding them.  The wonder of existence seen in the marvels of the human body for example, points in the direction that life must be purposeful.  And so people say I’m here for a purpose; I want to make a difference; I want my life to count for something; I want to live a life of significance; I want to be part of something greater than myself.  I think that when people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” it is often an expression of this desire to make meaning of life.

On July 16, 2012 author Stephen Covey died at 79 years of age; his best known book is “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” that sold more than 20 million copies in 40 languages throughout the world.  Forbes magazine named it one of the 10 most influential management books ever written.  I benefited greatly from his work—particularly with respect to his practical help given in what he called the habit of putting first things first.  Covey had a way of saying things that got to the heart of the matter.  “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote Covey, and in another place said, “it is easier to say ‘no’ when there is a deeper “yes” burning within.”

The question of our postmodern era is, what are those first things?  I can see the wisdom in keeping the main thing the main thing but what is the main thing?  Is a “deeper “yes” burning within my life something I just choose?  Is the main thing a matter of personal preference?  Is there something “first” that transcends the particulars of my life?  Covey himself recognized this postmodern question.  He attempted to answer this question in his last book published in 2004, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.

The answer Covey gave was to “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs”; he defined voice as unique personal significance.  With all due respect to Dr. Covey and the immense help I have found in his work on other matters I do not recommend that answers to questions of life’s meaning are to be found in exploring/discovering one’s own uniqueness.

1.  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.”

According to the gospel records Jesus rarely answered people’s questions directly.  Jesus often answered with a question of his own reframing peoples’ questions; showing them the problems that existed in the premises of their questions.  In Mark’s gospel the question put to Jesus just before this scribe’s question about commandments was some Sadducees who asked a question about the resurrection; Jesus responded to the Sadducees with his own question, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures not the power of God?”

Jesus often indicates that humanity needs to be asking a different set of questions; further that we need to be answering some questions—namely his questions of us.  This scribe’s question of Jesus—“Which commandment is the first of all?”—is one of the few times Jesus directly answers a question, one of the few times he responds to a question as it is asked.  It tells you that he agrees with and affirms the premises of the question.  Something can be said to be first of all; the main thing really does exit to be kept as the main thing; something is so profoundly important that it is to be the deepest “yes” burning within.

When the twenty-something person of our social milieu wonders about the purpose for their life, seeks to live a life of significance, looks for the way to make a difference; the assumption of this person often is that they can create such a life; that with effort and intelligence and following their heart the desire to live a life that counts will be satisfied.  In accepting the premise of the scribe’s question Jesus affirms that the answer is found in revelation from God.

Jesus’ response is never merely an academic exercise; never merely to show the clarity and completeness of his thought.  “Which command is first... the first is” assumes that the answer to humanity’s deepest longings is revealed by God—it is in the commandments.  God’s revelation occurs first in his conversation with Israel (commandments) and then in himself the word made flesh (the very fulfilment of the law).  With respect to our question of meaning, Jesus’ invites us to consider a different question—this scribe’s question is as significant today as when it was asked of Jesus.  The answer to our longing is to be found in hearing from God the meaning of our existence.

Dr. Covey’s proposal to find your unique personal significance sounds very attractive but stops short of Jesus’ proposal.  Jesus assumes the uniqueness of all that you are as being fully engaged; note the switch in pronoun from “our” to “you”.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, answered Jesus.  Note now that the implication Jesus (and the commandments) draws is very personal: “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 two commands that Jesus’ said are first and second; the two commands that he said were the greatest; these are both commands to love.  Love is the root of the command Jesus gave to his followers; “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love is the meaning of your existence; love is the significance of life given by the loving hand of the Creator; love is the music of heaven that connects us to that which is larger than ourselves; love is the first thing; love is the main thing; love is the all encompassing “yes” that is to be burning within.

The reformers (16th century) correctly noted that the commands of God were covered promises.  The negative commands (you shall not(s)) were to keep people from things that were destructive of life; things that robbed people of experiencing the fullness of life; the positive commands (you shall) promoted a life lived squarely in the very things that reveal all the truest and highest for life.  Understanding the commands of God as covered promises it can be said that these two commands to love—understood as holding preminence of importance—contain the very best and highest for life as God created it to be.

In our small groups campaign over the next forty days it is our plan to take up the subject of love.  We do so with our angel of vision on the church and Christ’s call that we should love one another.  People were created for love and as the command of God indicates love is a verb; love is something you do.  We were made for fellowship; we are better together.

2.  We use our English word love to mean a number of different things.  The same person who says to her spouse “I love you” may also say “I love these shoes”, “I love smoked salmon”, “I love that painting.”  We, of course, understand that we mean different things in the various uses of this word (at least the spouse hopes so).  So when God says we are to love, what is the nature of this love—is it like our preference for shoes, or for art, or for a person?

The word that Jesus uses here is the Greek word agape( (agape); in Greek at least three different words are all translated by the English word love.  This word is the one that is used in the New Testament to speak of the self-giving, self-forgetful love of God.  When the Apostle Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians 13 this is the word for love he is thinking about.

When Jesus insists we are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength he is increasing the intensity with the naming of each of these human faculties until we understand that we are to love God totally, with everything in us. We are to love God without hesitation, without reservation, without qualification, without calculation. Our love for God is to be whole-soulled, admitting no rivals.

To say that we are to love God with all that we have and are is not to say that we are to love nothing else and no one else. There is much else that we are to love: our neighbour, to say the least. We are to love children, parents (scripture insists that neglect of parents is heinous), spouse. We are to love much else, yet love nothing else pre-eminently. Our love for God must come first.

The commonest metaphor for faith, in scripture, is marriage.  In the marriage service I use the declaration of intent contains the line, "...and forsaking all others". These words did not mean that the newly-married couple forsook absolutely everyone else, dismissing friends, relatives, needy human beings, henceforth to live in a shrivelled, miserable universe of two. "Forsaking all others" meant that they forsook having the kind of relationship with others which they now had with each other. Exclusivity is of the essence of marriage. Where this truth is doubted or denied, the marriage is destroyed.

If the highest and best for life is in the promise held out in loving God first, then we debase that promise by deflecting our first love from God to something else, anything else. If we refuse to acknowledge the exclusivity of our relationship with God, we destroy the relationship.

3. “Love thy neighbor—but don't pull down your hedge,” said Benjamin Franklin.  This is akin to our saying, “good fences make good neighbours.”  The actuality of our human existence that lends credence to these sayings is an indication of how far humanity is from the promise held out in the second great command—“you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.  We have fences of all kinds—actual fences, emotional fences, psychological fences—mostly designed to protect ourselves from being harmed by others.

Tertullian was a prolific second-century Christian writer who lived in the Roman North African city of Carthage; he is known as one of the church’s Latin fathers.  His writings contain some notable apologetic works.  In this period of history Christianity was not a legal religion in the Roman Empire and as such often the target for persecution; when church leaders wrote apologetic works they were aimed at convincing the Roman leadership that Christianity was deserving of legal status.  In one such work Apologeticus Tertullian, in commending Christianity worthy of legal status, wrote “See how these Christians love one another.”

Christian faith had spread all over the Roman Empire; why?  Many of the people who comprised the church were from the salve underclass of Empire—what would make them risk belonging to a illegal religion subject to persecution at the whim of Roman governors? “See how these Christians love one another;” Tertullian’s observation must have been true.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”.  Is this not a worthy goal for us as a congregation—that Tertullian’s claim would be true of us; “See how these Christians love one another.”

4. In a 2009 interview by the science show Quirks and Quarks with Dr. Kathleen Wermke, she was discussing the  results from a research project comparing the cries of newborns in Germany with those of newborns in France. The research involved extensive and precise recordings in maternity wards of infants, still swaddled, mewling and wailing. Dr. Wermke digitally graphed the pitch and cadence of those cries, and then painstakingly compared, baby for baby, those cries along ethnic lines.

What they discovered stunned them: babies cry with an accent.  In France, babies consistently inflect from a low to a high pitch. In Germany, it's the opposite, high to low.  The revolutionary element in this discovery is that the intonation pattern exactly mimics the "melody" of the mother—or, more precisely, the patterns of speech characteristic of the mother's national language …. The womb-bound baby hears this, and copies it at birth.

A baby eavesdrops on its mother for nine months. The child emerges from its mother with her voice ringing in its ears, her music echoing in its own bones …. [As a result, the baby's] first instinct is to sing its mother's song.

As Christians we have a foot planted in two worlds; the world of heavenly kingdom and the earthly world.  But we do not have our weight evenly distributed; our weight is shifted to the foot in kingdom of Christ.  What song do we overhear from heaven that we try to sing on earth? We may sing it poorly, but it is the new song within us. So what's the music of heaven?  What's the voice of the Father that is for every human to hear?

Love.  Love is the music of heaven. When we love, no matter how awkwardly, we hum an anthem sung perfectly, all day, every day, in heaven. Mother Teresa said, “Few of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.”