New Holland Mennonite Church
November 4, 2012
By Nelson Okanya
What is the most important thing after all is said and done? This is an important question particularly on the eve of presidential election. We have been bombarded on TV, Internet, social networks etc with various messages about what is at stake. I would like to respond to that question by looking at how Jesus responded to a similar question when a scribe confronted him as recorded in Marks’ Gospel. But before we get there, I would like to say that the answer to that question ought to be very pivotal interms of our Christian faith particularly because our answer is what we pass on to our children.
Over thirty years ago two voices, one from the field of education and the other a Biblical scholar raised some important questions in regards to the state of our children’s faith as follows:
“It appears that as Christian faith has diminished, the schooling-instructional paradigm has encouraged us to busy ourselves with teaching about Christian religion. Our personal commitment to Christ has lapsed, many church persons have turned for solace to teaching children what the Bible says, what happened in the history of the church, what we believe, and what is right and wrong… But there is a great difference between learning about the Bible and living as a disciple of Jesus Christ” –(John H Westerhoff)
“Will we be open enough, risking enough, vulnerable enough, that God may give us a future that we do not plan or control or contrive? Are we open enough to receive a future from God which will surprise us?—for it is assumed in evangelical faith that any real future is given us underived, unextrapolated, ex nihilo, by the mercy of God (cf. 1 Cor 4:7).”-Walter Brueggemann (“Will our Faith Have Children? 1983)
Today, social scientist have identified that our youth and young adults by and large subscribe to a different faith that looks like the biblical faith but it is not quite it. They call it moralistic, therapeutic, deism. If it is true that parents are the single most influence in children and youth’s spiritual lives, then where did this come from? This is why I think a text like the one before us is crucial. It raises the question of faithfulness as we see in this exchange between Jesus and the scribe.
From the previous section in Mark 12, Jesus had just left the Sadducees speechless on the resurrection question since they did not believe in it (by the way that is why they are so sad you see), now a scribe raised a different question demanding to know from Jesus’ perspective which of the commandments he thought was the greatest. In other words, what is the most important thing Jesus? This was probably meant as a trap. But once again Jesus did not disappoint. He named the issue in clear terms.
In his response, Jesus referred the questioner who was a learned man by the way to what he already knew as a Jew; the very heart of Judaism, the Shema, a prayer that any devout Jew recited every morning and evening (Dt 6:4-5). The Shema was a sort of prayer of orientation for the Jews; it reminded them of their own story and called them to love God with unwavering loyalty, to a total abandonment, which was their very foundation as covenant people.
The shema reminded them that they were God’s people. They were reminded that their God is only one, the creator and more importantly the Lord of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca, who had delivered them from the Egyptian bondage by an outstretched arm and a strong right hand who also spoke to them at Sinai through Moses and gave them the Law that set them a part from other peoples. This God needs to be given all of one’s total allegiance.
The first half of Jesus’ response came from Dt 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel; The LORD is our God, the LORD alone, You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And the second half from Lev. 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Biblical scholars tell us that the Hebrew word Shema means, “hear” but also means “obey.” This word rooted them in the firm conviction that they were to obey God. They were to be singularly committed to the LORD their God. But it confounds us that to the singular question, “which is the greatest commandment” Jesus added: “And a second is like it: loving God with all our being connects us with God’s missional purposes. As such, the first commandment and the second are distinct; loving neighbor does not equal loving God, but loving neighbor effectively happens when we fully love God with all our heart and everything.
Jesus operated from this God centered foundation, a foundation that cannot be separated from who he really was. Love for God is the best place for believers to begin love for others. It is this love that casts out all fear, it cast out fear of the cross for Jesus and it ought to cast out the fear of fellow humans, the fear of the world around us and ultimately the fear of death. This powerful and transforming love is the catalyst for faithful and missional living following the one who loved us and gave his life for us. This first responsibility empowers believers as they constantly look to God’s love as the reason for living and loving others.
When the double command to love God and neighbor is taken seriously, not just the law, but, “the whole law” and the prophets is fulfilled Jesus said, this is because to whole heartedly give yourself to God and care for people is what it is all about.
It is that perfect love that casts out all fear, fear of other humans, fear of the world order, fear of the downturn economy, fear of others who do not look like us etc. Loving others according to the teachings of Jesus is founded in loving God with all we have. Boldly following Jesus requires a deep revelation of who Jesus was and is. Like Jesus, we can only follow faithfully when we remain centered firmly in Jesus our Lord and such following will lead to us to live as God’s missional people in the world and we will pass on this commitment to faithfulness to the next generation as God’s embodiment of the new creation in the world. This is the calling of the church and of Jesus’s disciples.