TITLE: Bleeding heart or helping hand?
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Jesus calls us to love God and to love our
neighbor in practical, demonstrable ways.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:28-34
CHAPTERS 11-16: SLOWING DOWN & BROADENING OUT
As the come nearer the end of Mark's Gospel, it "slows down and broadens
out.. A full one-third of (Mark's) narrative is devoted to (the last) few
days in Jesus' ministry; one-sixth is devoted to his last two hours"
Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem begins this section (11:1-11). Then
Jesus curses a barren fig tree (11:12-14) -- a thinly veiled commentary on
the barrenness of temple religion. Then he cleanses the temple
(11:15-19). This latter event arouses the hostility of the chief priests
and scribes, who set out to kill Jesus (11:18). Mark reports a series of
conflicts with a host of official religionists -- chief priests, scribes
and elders (11:27 -- 12:12), Pharisees and Herodians (12:13-17), and
VERSES 28-34: ONE OF THE SCRIBES CAME NEAR
The story of the scribe asking about the first commandment is found in all
three Synoptics, but with significant differences.
-- In Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28, the scribe comes as an adversary
to test Jesus, whereas Mark presents the scribe much more favorably.
-- In Luke, Jesus does not answer the scribe's question directly, but
asks, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" The scribe
gives the answer, essentially repeating Jesus' words as found in Mark
12:30-31, but omitting the Shema as found in Mark 12:29.
-- In Luke, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) follows
immediately after the encounter with the scribe, expanding greatly the
concept of neighbor.
VERSE 28: WHICH COMMANDMENT IS THE FIRST OF ALL?
28One 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?"
Scribes appear throughout this Gospel but, except for this story, appear
in a negative light. This scribe, a happy exception, comes to Jesus
because he sees that Jesus has answered his opponents well. The Sadducees
have just tried to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection, in
which they do not believe (12:18-27). There is a good possibility that
this scribe is a Pharisee, and Pharisees do believe in the resurrection.
If he is a Pharisee, he must be pleased to see Jesus best the Sadducees on
The scribe asks, "Which commandment is the first of all?" There is no
indication that he is trying to trap Jesus. This seems to be an honest
Most scholars agree that the scribe is asking, not which commandment is
first of many, but rather which commandment defines the core of Torah law
-- stands at its center -- summarizes it. Is there one law that is the
key to all the laws? Is there "some basic principle from which the whole
law (can) be derived?" (Hooker, 287). Give it to me in a nutshell!
Jewish law includes 613 commandments (365 prohibitions and 248 positive
commandments). Scribes often focus on one, devising myriad rules to
define obedience to that law in every conceivable situation.
Coming from the other direction, scribes also try to summarize the law in
a few well-chosen words. Thus Micah said, "What does the Lord require of
you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
God?" (Micah 6:8). Hillel said, "What you hate for yourself, do not to
your neighbor. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary." Akiba said,
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
VERSES 29-31: YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD.AND YOUR NEIGHBOR
29Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the
Lord is one; 30you shall love (Greek: agapeseis -- agape love) the Lord
your God with (Greek: ex -- out of -- from) all your heart (Greek:
kardias), and with all your soul (Greek: psuches), and with all your mind
(Greek: dianoias), and with all your strength (Greek: ischuos).' 31The
second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no
other commandment greater than these."
"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." Only Mark's Gospel
includes this verse. This is the Shema, which means, "to hear" and comes
from Deut 6:4-5. It is regularly recited in synagogue worship and daily
prayers, and is one of the scriptures kept in phylacteries (a small
container worn on one's person containing brief scriptures) and mezuzahs
(a similar container for the doorpost of one's house) as a constant
In reciting the Shema, Jesus goes to the Torah -- to the core of Jewish
faith and practice. His answer is no innovation. "As a creedal summary
(the Shema) was and is as important to Judaism as is the Lord's Prayer or
the Apostles' Creed to Christianity" (Edwards, 371). Jesus uses it to
introduce the commandment to love God. The Shema is not itself a
commandment, but rather establishes the foundation for the commandment to
"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." Deut 6:5
speaks of loving God with one's heart, soul and might. Jesus adds loving
God with one's mind. Scribes and rabbis do, indeed, love God with their
minds. They study scriptures as a prospector studies rocks for signs of
gold. They cover the same ground again and again in the hope of finding a
new treasure. Theirs is an intellectual approach to the scriptures.
To love God with heart, soul, mind and strength is to love God with all
that we are. Jewish people think of the heart (kardia) as the center of
thought as well as feelings. They think of the soul (psyche) as that
which gives a person life or breath. It is possible that Mark adds mind
(dianoias) for the sake of his Greek readers, who might not associate the
heart with thinking. Strength (ischuos) could refer to anything that
gives us power -- whether physical strength, beauty, wealth, position,
reputation, or talent.
Agape love is more a "doing" than a "feeling" word, although it involves
both. Agape requires action -- requires us to demonstrate our love in
some practical fashion. The person who loves God will participate in
worship -- will try to obey God -- will seek opportunities to serve God.
An athlete who loves God might serve by witnessing to young people.
God-loving fathers and mothers will raise their children in the faith. A
God-loving businessperson might serve as church treasurer. A God-loving
musician might serve using his/her musical talents. All God-loving people
have the opportunity to tithe. In any event, agape love requires practical
"The second is this. 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The
scribe asked for one commandment but Jesus gives two -- binding the two
together with the statement "There is no other commandment greater than
these." "If there is a novelty in Jesus' teaching, it consists in putting
the two love commandments together and making them into one commandment"
(Donahue & Harrington, 357).
The commandment to love one's neighbor is from Lev. 19:18, and would come
less readily to mind than the commandment to love God. Still, it is in
keeping with law and prophets, both of which emphasize right relationships
with people as well as with God. Jewish law goes into great detail
regarding our behavior in relationship to other people. The prophets go a
step further, calling us to compassion and justice even in situations not
covered by the law.
Christ calls us to balance these two great commandments. The person who
loves God but does not love neighbor is gravely deficient. "Those who
say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for
those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love
God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (1 John
4:20-21). That is tough language, given the difficulty that most of us
experience with particular co-workers, neighbors, family members, or
As envisioned in Leviticus, the neighbor is a fellow Jew. However, Jesus
expands the definition of neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan to
include everyone (Luke 10:25-37). He even asks us to love our enemies and
to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27-35).
But love for neighbor quickly degenerates into humanism or sentimentalism
unless grounded in love for God. Love of God is the first commandment,
not the second. Love of God is the foundation upon which all the other
commandments depend. "Get the center right and the circumference will
come right. Love of God will result in love of neighbor" (Luccock, 846).
Here again, "Love. is more than a feeling. It finds expression in
concrete acts, and on a corporate level takes on the character of justice"
(Brueggemann, 575). The neighbor-lover will look for practical ways to
demonstrate that love.
-- At the micro-level, that might mean keeping one's property neat -- or
mowing a sick neighbor's lawn -- or driving a car for Meals on Wheels.
-- At mid-level, it might mean contributing money to feed the hungry or
working with Habitat for Humanity to build housing for the homeless.
-- At the macro-level, it might mean influencing public policy to help
needy people get on their feet -- or to insure just treatment of
vulnerable people -- or to insure accountability of politicians, corporate
chieftains, and other powerful people.
-- At every level, it demands looking beyond one's self to see the
neighbor's needs and taking action to help with those needs.
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Many a sermon has been
preached on loving self as prerequisite to loving neighbor. However,
Jesus does not advocate self-love, but simply acknowledges our natural
tendency to look out for Number One, asking us to extend that same kind of
love to others. Of self-love, Barth says, "God will never think of
blowing on this fire, which is bright enough already (from Church
Dogmatics, as quoted in Williamson, 228).
Self-esteem is useful but helping others is the best way to nurture
respect for self. "Alcoholics who have lived with self-contempt for years
discover through the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous that the
best antidote to this crippling attitude is dedicated commitment to
helping other alcoholics. By loving others they learn to love themselves"
VERSES 32-33: YOU ARE RIGHT, TEACHER
32Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly
said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; 33and 'to love
him with all the heart, and with all the understanding (Greek: suneseos),
and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' --
this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and
The scribe obviously has not come to Jesus with hostile intent, or he
would not be so quick to affirm Jesus. In re-stating Jesus' answer, he
changes "soul" and "mind" to "understanding" (suneseos).
This conversation takes place in the temple, and the scribe is committed
to temple worship. Very possibly, he has come to the temple to make his
sacrifice. This gives special weight to his comment that love of God and
neighbor is "much more important than all whole burnt offerings and
sacrifices." His comment is in keeping with the prophetic tradition,
which has long emphasized a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16-17),
obedience to God (Jer. 7:21-23), steadfast love of God (Hosea 6:6), and
doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
The epistles continue to emphasize love and to de-emphasize temple
sacrifices. "For Paul, love ultimately fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8). Love
heads the list of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22). Love supersedes in
importance all spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:31 -- 13:13). For James, the law
of love is 'the royal law' (2:8). In 1 John, the command to love is both
old ('from the beginning,' 2:7) and new (proved true in Jesus, 2:8).. In
Hebrews 10, the writer celebrates the end of 'sacrifices and offerings' "
VERSE 34: YOU ARE NOT FAR FROM THE KINGDOM
34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far
from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
"You are not far from the kingdom of God." Is Jesus commending the scribe
for his good answer -- or warning that he still lacks something -- or
both? Probably both! However, this is one of Jesus' few positive
encounters with a member of the religious elite and one of his most
positive comments to a member of that group. He tends to reserve highly
positive comments for people outsiders or people in great need (Matt 8:10;
15:28; Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52).
Jesus words, "far from the kingdom of God," recall the exile and Diaspora
(Isaiah 57:19; Ezek. 11:15; Zech. 6:15; 10:9), "which according to NT
theology (have) been rectified by Christ's mission (cf. Eph 2:13: 'But
now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in
the blood of Christ')" (Evans, 266).
How far is the scribe from the kingdom? The scribe's status is not
reported and remains unresolved (Williamson, 229). It is probably best
not to focus too much attention on the scribe -- whether he landed on the
right side or the wrong side of the line. The heart of this Gospel lesson
"After that no one dared to ask him any question." It isn't that Jesus'
words to this scribe cut deeply, but Jesus has answered questions, usually
from hostile questioners, with telling effect throughout chapters 11-12.
A scribe comes to Jesus asking, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
A number of other religious leaders have also asked questions, but they
were trying to trap Jesus. This man comes with an open mind -- seeking --
hoping for a good word.
"Which commandment is the first of all?" sounds as if he is asking for the
most important commandment, but he may be asking for even more:
-- for the commandment that will help him to understand all commandments
-- for the commandment that will point his life in the right direction
-- for the commandment that will bring harmony to his life
-- for the commandment that will tell him in a nutshell all that he needs
Rabbis liked to try their hand at commandments-in-a-nutshell. One rabbi
said, "In all your ways acknowledge God, and he will make your paths
straight." In one case, a man asked Rabbi Hillel to instruct him in the
law while standing on one leg. Hillel said, "What you hate for yourself,
do not to your neighbor." I have always wondered if Hillel said that
while standing on one leg.
It isn't easy to give someone the wisdom of the ages in a few words. What
would you say?
Dads, what would you say if you were on your deathbed wanting to impart
some wisdom to your son?
Moms, what would you say to your son or daughter who was really
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus didn't hesitate. He
"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
and with all your mind, and with all your strength."
The first part of Jesus' answer is called the Shema:
"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
Jews recited the Shema every day. It was part of their daily lives --
their daily worship. It reminded them, not only who God was, but who they
"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
Then comes the commandment:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
and with all your mind, and with all your strength."
The New Testament was written originally in Greek, and the word used for
love here is agape. You have heard of agape love, but you might not know
what it is. Agape love is love that shows concern for the welfare of the
other person -- giving love -- generous love -- unselfish love -- not a
bleeding-heart love, but a helping-hand love.
Agape love is the love that God has for us. At our best, it is the love
that we have for each other. It is the kind of love that mothers have for
their children. Agape love is not just warm, fuzzy feelings. Agape love
wants to help the beloved.
Jesus tells this scribe that he needs to love God like that -- to do
something for God -- to love God with all his heart -- and with all his
soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength -- in other words,
with all of himself -- to love God totally.
What a great answer! This scribe has been looking for one commandment
that is the key to all commandments, and this is it! If he loves God with
agape love -- wants to do something wonderful for God -- loves God with
all of himself -- then it will be easy for him to keep all the
commandments. If he loves God like that, he will always be seeking to
please God -- to do what God wants him to do. Keeping the rest of the law
will be a natural part of his life.
But then Jesus, having answered this man's question, continues with a
second commandment -- "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The
scribe asked for one commandment, but Jesus gives him two. Why?
The answer is that we can't truly love God without loving what God loves
-- and God loves our neighbor. The truth is that, if we want to please
God -- to do what God wants us to do -- we will not only go to church on
Sunday, but we will also do good things for our neighbor. The truth is
that there really isn't that much that God needs for us to do -- except to
worship God and to help our neighbor.
If anyone can understand that, it is a parent. Think of it this way. If
your son or daughter were having a really tough time, wouldn't you
appreciate the person who helped them through it!
-- Wouldn't you be grateful to the doctor who kept your child alive
through a terrible illness!
-- Wouldn't you appreciate the stranger who changed your daughter's tire
and got her on the road again safely!
-- Wouldn't you thank the coach who got your son turned around and headed
in the right direction!
Is there anything that anyone could do for you personally that would be
better than helping your child?
-- You would appreciate the doctor who saved your life, but probably not
as much as you would appreciate the doctor who saved your child's life.
-- You would appreciate the person who rescued you from danger, but you
would appreciate even more the person who rescued your daughter.
-- You would appreciate the coach who helped you, but you would be forever
grateful to the coach who brought your son back from the brink.
And so it is that one of the best ways that we have of loving God -- of
pleasing God -- of doing what God wants us to do -- is to love our
neighbor with agape love -- with the kind of love that reaches out to help
-- to do something constructive -- not a bleeding-heart love but a
helping-hand love. That neighbor, you see, is God's child -- just like
you are God's child -- and nothing we can do will please God more than
seeing us help God's child -- our neighbor.
And who is our neighbor?
-- Our neighbor is the person who lives next door.
-- Our neighbor is the person with whom we work.
-- Our neighbor is the person sitting beside us in the pew.
-- Our neighbor is our child -- and our child's friend.
-- Our neighbor is the hungry person whom we pass on the street.
-- Our neighbor is the earthquake victim in Peru who needs a blanket.
-- Our neighbor is the Christian in Africa who is trying to honor Christ
in the midst of persecution.
They are all God's children, and anyone who helps God's child is God's
good friend -- count on it! Nothing that we do will please God more than
helping one of his children.
On rare occasion, someone has the opportunity to do something spectacular
for his or her neighbor. I am so impressed with the work that Bill and
Melinda Gates are doing to deal with health problems in the Third World.
I have seldom seen great wealth used in such a positive fashion.
But not many of us are billionaires. Not many of us have the resources to
take on Third World health problems. If there are any billionaires in the
congregation this morning, please raise your hand. I want to get better
Not many of us are billionaires -- or even millionaires! Not many of us
have the resources to do something spectacular, but all of us have the
opportunity to do our part -- to help in small ways -- each small effort
nudging the world a small distance in the right direction.
Frederick Buechner, in his book, Telling Secrets, tells about spending an
evening with his mother. Just as they were sitting down to dinner, the
phone rang. It was an old friend who had just learned that his parents
and sister had been in a serious automobile accident on the west coast.
He had rushed to the airport and purchased a ticket, but was having to
wait for his plane to arrive. He asked Buechner to come to the airport
and keep him company while he waited.
That upset Buechner's mother. She was enjoying her son's visit, and had
prepared a nice dinner. Couldn't Buechner stay for dinner and then go to
the airport? His friend was old enough to take care of himself.
For a moment, Buechner wavered, caught between the mother who needed him
and the friend who needed him. And then, suddenly, it came into focus for
him. He says:
"The next moment I saw more clearly than I ever have before
that it is on just such outwardly trivial decisions as this --
should I go or should I stay --
that human souls are saved or lost.
I also saw for what was maybe the first time in my life
that we are called to love our neighbors not just for our neighbors' sake,
but for our own sake,
and that when John wrote,
'He who does not love remains in death,' (1 John 3:14)
he was stating a fact of nature
as incontrovertible as gravity."
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: This is a good but long quotation. A long quote
like this can kill your sermon unless you read it well. Practice!
Practice! Practice reading it aloud until it is comfortable in your
Jesus told the scribe to love God and to love his neighbor, and the scribe
said, "You are right, Teacher." He went on to re-state what Jesus had
said about love, and added: "This is much more important than all whole
burnt offerings and sacrifices."
Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely, and said, "You are not far
from the kingdom of God."
Not far! The scribe agreed with Jesus -- commended Jesus -- even added
his own little grace note. Not far! What more does he have to do?
The answer is simple. He has to love God and to love his neighbor. He
has agreed with Jesus about what he should do. Now he must do it!
What about you? Where are you in relation to the kingdom? Are you far
from the kingdom? Not far? Or are you a kingdom person already?
To answer those questions, we must ask two more -- Do I love God? Do I
love my neighbor? Those two questions function as a spiritual
thermometer. The answers will give us our spiritual temperature -- will
help us to assess our spiritual health -- will point us in the right
direction so that we might become the person God created us to be.
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (BH #208; CH #517; CO #454; GC #622; JS
#391; LBW #315; LW #286; PH #376; TH #657; TNCH #43; UMH #384; VU #333)