The Greatest Commandment (Fourth Sunday in Lent) – March 6, 2016 (NL Week 26)

Sunday’s Reading:
Mark 12:26-44

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

The story is told that Reb Hillel, one of the most important rabbis in the first century, was approached by a Gentile – or non-Jewish – man with a challenge: “I’ll become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I’m standing on one leg.” The man clearly had some understanding that the Torah – the term used by the Jewish community to refer to God’s instruction to Israel, particularly that instruction contained in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – was an expansive collection of traditions, customs, and rules that helped the people of God live in relationship with one another and with their God, and he assumed that it would be impossible for Hillel to cover that much material in a brief period of time. In fact, tradition says that the man had already visited another famous rabbi, Reb Shammai, and had been sent away sternly. Knowing he would win his challenge, the man proceeded to lift his leg to begin the challenge, and Hillel spoke: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”

Turning to Mark, we can see that although the scribe in today’s reading isn’t exactly like the man in the story above, both encounters result in summaries of Biblical teaching that, on their face, make the practice of walking in the way of God somewhat simpler, and, let’s be honest, that’s something all of us can appreciate. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a concise summary? There’s a reason that book series like “How-to for Dummies” and “Cliff’s Notes” have enjoyed a certain measure of popularity for decades. Especially in a world where we’re conditioned to respond to soundbites rather than sustained reflection on the events that are swirling around us, the approaches of both Hillel and Jesus to their questioners are welcome. “Just think about how you want to be treated by others, and then treat them accordingly…” “Love God and love your neighbor, and you aren’t far from the kingdom of God.”

On closer reflection, though, these summaries aren’t as easy as they appear. “Love God and love neighbor” sounds simple enough. “Don’t get so bogged down! Just worry about loving God and your neighbor and everything will take care of itself!” In fact, people often use this dual commandment to dismiss the concerns of others who wish to pay attention to the details of living the life of discipleship. The problem, of course, is that the details are what help us to make sense of what it means to follow these commands in every area of our lives. Jesus’ teaching, which seems simple at first, actually leads us to ask all kinds of other questions. What does it mean to love God with our whole hearts? Our souls? Our strength? Our minds? How can we love our neighbors or ourselves if our love for God is supposed to encompass everything? How does love of self relate to love of neighbor and God? And just what does it look like to love our neighbors, particularly when they are doing things that we don’t like or which we believe to be wrong?

Obviously, we need more information, and as Christians we find that information by looking at Jesus and the example that he sets for us by his life, death, and resurrection. Christ shows his love for us and for the world by – as he said back in chapter 10 – serving others rather than being served, and, ultimately, by “giving his life as a ransom for many.” In walking that path, Jesus also demonstrated his single-minded commitment to God’s purpose for him, a commitment he maintained even when it led him directly into situations of conflict and opposition. As we seek to discover how God is calling us to show our love for neighbor and to demonstrate our commitment to God, it makes sense to begin where Jesus does: by taking up the cross, denying ourselves pride of place in our own imagination and living, and regarding the interests of others as more important than our own. As we’ve seen throughout Lent so far, those things aren’t easy, but they are part of what it means to follow Jesus “on the way”, and doing them has the potential to allow us to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves more fully. When we turn from our preoccupation with self, we can recognize more clearly God’s gracious presence around us, and live with gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. When our focus shifts from ourselves to others, we can see the need of others more clearly and be led to meet that need with confidence and trust in God. When we put to death the false self-images that we construct in our own minds, we can live more fully as the people God has created us to be and become more fully aware of God’s love for us.

As Lutheran Christians, we recognize that turning from self and turning toward our neighbors and God is something that we are all but incapable of doing on our own. Christ releases us from this bondage to ourselves so that we can be free to love and serve others. As a reminder of this fact, I’d like to commend to you a devotional exercise known as the “Litany of Humility”, which comes from the Roman Catholic tradition and represents a fervent prayer for God to direct our focus toward love of God and our neighbors:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart,
Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled…
From the desire of being honored…
From the desire of being praised…
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted…

From the desire of being approved…
From the fear of being humiliated…
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes…
From the fear of being slandered…
From the fear of being forgotten…
From the fear of being ridiculed…
From the fear of being wronged…
From the fear of being suspected…

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I…
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease…
That others may be chosen and I set aside…
That others may be praised and I unnoticed…
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

If prayer changes us – and I believe it does – then this prayer may be one way of tuning our hearts to Christ’s heart and helping us to discern how we can live out this great commandment – to love God and our neighbors – each day of our lives. Whether you use that litany or not, it is my prayer that we might see Jesus’ simple summary of the way of God not as an ending, but as the beginning of an on-going journey of discovering how Christ is calling us to live with love as the source and goal of discipleship. It will not be easy, but Scripture assures us that when we lose ourselves we will find our life in Christ. May it be so among us. Amen.

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