Mark 12:28-34 – Important things first

a reflection by Dan Spragg

If you read the lead up to this passage in Mark’s gospel you’ll see that Jesus has just had a barrage of heated arguments with various religious officials, all who are trying to trip him up, or prove in some way that he is breaking one or more of their religious laws. The conversation with the scribe in this passage however takes a different tone. There is a sense of some mutual respect. The scribe approached Jesus appreciating the answers he had given to the other officials and it seems that he wished to engage genuinely in conversation rather than argument. Perhaps this is why Jesus said to him after they had finished talking, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God.’ Perhaps the scribe was embodying his love for God – heart, mind, soul, strength – by engaging openly with Jesus, with genuine listening and demonstrating a wrestling that led to a deeper understanding. Perhaps this is a demonstration of the ‘first of all’, Jesus describes. 

You’ll recall the words that Jesus uses here from near the end of Moses’ life we looked at a couple of months back. As Moses was giving his final words to the Israelites he encouraged them to remember the commands that God had given them, and that in following these commands they would find life. ‘Choose life!’ Moses said  (Deuteronomy 30). What is first of all, or what is the most important? Jesus recalls these specific words of Moses from Deuteronomy 6 (note: he adds in the bit about ‘mind’). ‘‘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.’’ He then pulls the next bit from Leviticus 19. ‘‘The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’ We understand the message of Jesus and the way of God to be about life. Jesus says, the most important thing to do [therefore] is to love God with all that is within you and secondly love those around you the same way you have love for yourself. If the scribe was demonstrating his understanding of loving God first of all I wonder what the flow on into the second command looked like. Perhaps this is what it means to know the Kingdom of God more fully rather than it simply being ‘close by’, to love God with all that is within you and then to also make it real and live it out? 

Some of you might recall this matrix. You may have come across it in your workplace or perhaps in a study context. If any of you have made use of it I’m sure you’d agree that it can be quite a useful tool in filtering the various work that comes your way. The proponents of the idea say this is an important tool to use because most of what tends to come our way might seem like it is both urgent and important but with some reflection most likely isn’t as urgent or as important as it first appears. It’s crucial to make this realisation if we want to get done what will actually be the most useful to us and our work. It’s also their observation that much of what comes our way that seems like it is important and urgent at first glance actually turns out to be neither urgent nor important but simply unnecessary noise and clutter. It’s quite a useful little matrix and I have found that nine times out of ten it has really helped clarify the work that needs to be done. The work that is important, whether it is urgent or not, always carries more weight than the work that is deemed non-important. The important stuff is what really matters. I wonder how Jesus would make use of this if he were us? I’m going to take liberties and say that I think he would be one to encourage the important things first! That is the question that the scribe asked him really. ‘What is the most important thing?’

So, I can imagine Jesus drawing this little matrix in the dirt and weighing things up for a moment before giving his answer… It’s no surprise that the important thing has something to do with love. That’s the whole premise of the Christian worldview. We exist within the outpouring of God’s overflowing love. We love because God first loved us (see 1 John 4). Our love towards God is a response to God’s love and our love for our neighbours is a choice we make because of God’s unconditional love towards us and indeed towards our neighbours. Choosing to love our neighbours is our choosing to live in God’s way of love not in response to them but in response to the call of God’s love on us. If you’ve ever read the book of Leviticus, which is a bit of a slog to be fair, what you will see is the pattern of how to live ‘in community’ where there is equity and provision for all. It’s not a stretch at all to say that loving one’s neighbour is how we get practical with our love for God. What’s important? Love. Love as our response to the unconditional love of God back towards God and motivated by this through us to those around us.

The idea of loving one’s neighbour as an extension of our love to God is important at this time we find ourselves in. We are aware already how this pandemic has caused the stigmatising and scapegoating of some in our society. It’s understandable of course, in times of stress we need something to blame, it’s only natural. It being understandable doesn’t however make it right. Now with the vaccination roll out and as we wait for vaccination certificates to become a normal part of our lives I anticipate a rise in this unfortunate behaviour rather than a decrease. There will now be lines drawn between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t. What is our response to be around this? There are some consequences for us as a church if we were to decide not to use vaccination certificates. There will be consequences the other way as well – our desire to be a community that is open to all, a place where anyone is welcome is potentially in conflict with our desire to protect the vulnerable people among us, those for whom even a vaccinated experience of Covid would be hard to endure. What are we to do? It is not a straightforward decision to make and we would be wise to wrestle well with it. What is it to love our neighbours, whatever their vaccination status, at this time? Pope Francis, in a press conference in August encouraged everyone to receive an ‘authorised’ vaccine calling it ‘an act of love.’ An act of love to protect us all and especially an act of love towards the vulnerable among us. The lines drawn and accusations made are of course born out of fear. Which is perhaps the role of love in our midst. Perhaps we act in love, whatever we decide that is, because we seek not to live in fear but rather we seek to live in love. 

Here’s the image I chose as our cover image for the service today. It is a bridge and you will see that the design of the bridge has a giant hand holding the bridge up. I talked before of our love towards our neighbours as the natural extension of God’s love towards us. We are to participate in the unconditional love of God towards us by living that love towards others. Perhaps this image is a helpful image. What if we understood loving our neighbours as the bridge of the gospel? Loving our neighbours as the bridge that links and makes real the love of God in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We would understand the hand holding the bridge up as God’s work. It is the presence and power of God that holds the bridge and makes it effective. It’s not up to us to hold up the bridge, we just have to step onto it in trust that the gospel can indeed be made real. 

We face an interesting theological and ethical decision ahead of us. One that I believe we need to wrestle hard with and develop deep understanding around in order to make the best decision we feel we can make. Having done that our work will still be to love God with all that is within us – all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and it will still be to act in love towards our neighbours as we [would] love ourselves. Our work will still be to step onto the bridge and trust in God’s presence holding the way of love before us. Our work will NOT be to get caught up in the stigmatising and scapegoating. 

The most important and perhaps even urgent work at this time is to love and trust in the power of love to dispel all fear. May we have courage. May we have trust. May we have love. And may we know the way of God with us, in us and all around us.