Loving God and Our Neighbors (3/6/2016)

One of the best things ever created to help Christians study the Bible occurred in the 1550s when the different books were divided into chapters and verses. These divisions make is much easier to quickly find specific verses in the Bible.

I also believe that one of the worst things ever created to help Christians study the Bible occurred when the different books were divided into chapters and verses. The biblical authors intended for the books they wrote to be read in their entirety. If we read a scripture passage without understanding the context in which it was written, we miss much of its meaning.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at Mark’s perspective about some of the events in Jesus’ life during Holy Week. This is the week between his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, which we celebrate as Palm Sunday, and his execution on the cross the following Friday. This week’s passage is Mark 12:28-34. In order for us to truly understand what’s happening in this scripture, we can’t simply read it. We need to start at Mark 11:1 and look at the events leading up to Mark 12:28. (As you read this blog, please follow along in your Bible.)

Mark 11 says that on Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as the city is getting ready to celebrate Passover. This festival commemorates the time God delivered their Jewish ancestors from slavery in Egypt. As Jesus entered the city, crowds placed their cloaks and palm branches on the road for the donkey to walk on. This is why we call it Palm Sunday. People were shouting things like “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” These greetings show they thought Jesus was the person who would fulfill the prophecy that a descendant of David would be their Messiah. However, they were thinking he would be an earthly king who would free them from Roman rule.

The next day, on Monday, Jesus saw a fig tree which wasn’t bearing any fruit and he cursed it. The fig tree was a symbol of the nation of Israel. Jesus then goes into the temple and overturns the tables of the money-changers and prohibited anyone from carrying merchandise through the temple courts. Mark is basically saying that Jesus was trying to show the purpose of Israel, the OT Law and the temple is ending. God was getting ready to do something new. Jesus’ actions in the temple infuriated the chief priests and teachers of the law. They began to look for a way to kill Jesus but they feared the crowds who were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. They would have to be sneaky if they were going to get rid of Jesus.

The next morning, on Tuesday, the fig tree which Jesus’ cursed the day before, was withered from the root. It was dead. As Jesus and his disciples were walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders came to him and asked: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you the authority to do this?” Jesus responded by asking them a question: “John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men?” They wouldn’t answer this question so Jesus wouldn’t answer theirs. Jesus then told them the parable about the tenants who killed the master’s servants and then his son. In this parable, the servants represent the Old Testament prophets and the son represents Jesus. The Jewish officials knew Jesus was talking about them so they looked for a way to arrest him. They didn’t because they were still afraid of the crowds.

Later, the Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus and tried to trick him by asking, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus said no, they could report him to the Roman officials who would arrest him. If Jesus said yes, it would infuriate the crowds who, at this point, still loved him. Jesus simply said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Their plot to trick Jesus into saying something wrong had failed.

Then the Sadducees, who believed there is no resurrection, asked him the question about the woman with no children whose husband died so her husband’s brother married her. This was required by the Old Testament law. Then he died so the next brother married her. This kept happening with all 7 brothers. So whose wife would she be at the resurrection? Jesus replied, “You don’t know the Scriptures because at the resurrection there will be no marriages.” Jesus then challenged them about their views of the resurrection by saying God is a God of the living, not the dead.

We need to understand what happened up until this point. Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the conquering hero of Israel. The crowds are sure he’s the king they waited for centuries to arrive. The first thing he does is curse their national symbol and try to shut down their beloved temple. What kind of king would do this to his own nation?All of the following conversations were attempts by religious leaders to use the Old Testament law as a way to arrest Jesus. He kept responding to their questions with answers that challenged their understanding of that law. When Jesus silenced one group, another group came at him from another angle.

In Mark 12:28-34, the teacher of the law is going to ask Jesus one of the questions that was very popular at the time.  28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Jesus is once again being questioned about something in the Old Testament law and he responds with an answer that challenges the person asking the question. Jewish officials were trying to use the law as a way to kill Jesus and he said the most important law is to love God and our neighbors. In essence Jesus is saying, “You don’t really understand the law you’re trying to protect. You’re using it to try and kill me when it teaches you should love me.” In addition to this, by cursing the fig tree and making the scene in the temple, Jesus was also telling them their law is about to become obsolete because a new covenant will soon be made between God and creation. It appears the teacher of the law had some understanding of what happening. This is one of the few places in the scriptures where a Jewish leader didn’t argue with Jesus but rather agreed with him. Jesus told this man that he was close to the kingdom of God. Verse 34b states “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” Previously Jesus had symbolically brought the temple and its practices to an end. Now he’d silenced its leaders.

As we think about the meaning of this passage for us today, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Are we like this teacher of the law in this passage? Have we grasped what Jesus is saying here? Have we grasped the fact that loving God and our neighbors is the most important thing we can do? According to Jesus, this is more important than getting our way, being right or being successful in the eyes of the world.

Or are we more like the various groups that were trying to trap Jesus? Are we too busy protecting our understanding of God and doing our ministries that we don’t actually love as we should? Are we using the teachings in the Bible to judge others and keep them beat down instead of using God’s word to love and lift others up?

The simple truth is sometimes it’s hard to show love even though we really want to be faithful to this teaching. We have jobs, families and other responsibilities but only have so much time and energy to take care of everything. We get hurried and tired. All of this effects how we love others. Nonetheless, God does expect for us to love him and to love our neighbors. So how can we be faithful to Jesus’ teachings and show this type of love? Here are three simple ideas that will help us.

      1. Make a daily commitment to put Jesus’ commands to love above our own wishes. Jesus said in John 14:15 – “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” We love God by being faithful to him. We also love God when we love others. However, we won’t do this on a regular basis unless we make it a priority in our lives.

      2. Pray for God to show us how to love and to give us the ability to do it. Without the power of Christ helping us, we’ll get so tired or busy that we’ll miss the opportunities to love that God places right in front of us.

      3. Read, study and apply the teachings in the Bible to our lives. The only way we can love others the way Jesus loved them is if we know how and why he did it.

The religious leaders in Mark were so busy defending their interpretations of God’s law that they missed the point of the very law they were trying to defend. They were so busy doing God’s work they didn’t have time to love him or the people he created. Let us be better than that. Let us make loving God and others the most important thing in our lives.

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