A Sermon for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (31/10/21): The Ultimate Commandment

Mark 12:28-34

Ultimate Concern
Just now and again you might read a book that really makes a difference, a book that fundamentally changes how you understand things. Maybe once or twice in a lifetime you might have that kind of experience. You perhaps feel that now you grasp something important in a new and different way. And that new understanding changes most everything else about you. I had that sort of experience when I was a student, training to be a minister. I read a book by someone called Paul Tillich called “The Dynamics of Faith.” The name of the author and the title of the book aren’t nearly as important as the big idea which the book talks about. It is a book about faith, and in particular Christian faith. It introduces the idea of “Ultimate Concern.” What that is, is the thing that matters most to the individual, their bottom line. Each of us are finally committed to something, whether we realise it or not. There is something which finally shapes the kind of person we are. That thing is “ultimate concern.”
“Ultimate concern” is another way of talking about the idea of god. Each of us makes something our god. There is something we finally believe and trust in, that in large measure shapes who we are. From the point of view of faith, and also from the point of view of our own well being, what we make our “ultimate concern” or “god” had better be genuinely ultimate. It had better be the real God!
The trouble is that the temptation is to make something else our god. There is no shortage of gods. Some things just aren’t god at all, and yet people commit themselves to them absolutely: The pursuit of wealth and fame or perhaps a whole variety of addictions. Some things are quite convincing counterfeits for God: Tillich as it happens was a German writing after the 2nd world war. He knew better than most about the way the nation can fake god. And the consequences of such a mistaken commitments were too painfully obvious to Tillich and everyone else. And some things are a distorted picture of God: The angry old man in the sky. The god that is my god but not your god. There is a whole variety of small petty gods that people cling to .
The thing with making anything other than the real God your “ultimate concern” is that it will disappoint you in the end. If you make something your bottom line that isn’t really the bottom line it will let you down eventually – and in the meantime it will have painful and even dangerous consequences, for yourself and the people around you. The question for Tillich in the Dynamics of Faith is: How do you find the real God to commit yourself to in order to avoid the negative consequences of placing your trust in something that turns out not to be God?

The Greatest Commandment
The very last question which Jesus receives from the crowd is:
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
One of the scribes, having listened to what Jesus has been saying the temple, steps out of the crowd and asks: which is the ultimate commandment? Usually when one of the scribes has appeared with a question for Jesus it has been a trick or a trap. Often it has not been a genuine question at all, but a cynical attempt to mark out the difference between Jesus and scribes, to get one up on Jesus, to win the debate and the contest for public opinion with him. But this actually appears to be a sincere request. Perhaps the scribe wants a real answer to his question. There are 613 commandments in the Law. And the people of God are meant to keep all of them. That is an awful lot commandments. You might think you’d need help in finding where to start. A way of sorting them into an order, so that you could start with the important ones, and work down the list to the trivial ones at the bottom. Actually that can’t be why the scribe asks his question, and it can’t be what his question means. Because the scribes and the Pharisees believe that all the commandments are equally important, to break any of the commandments is to break the Law, all of it! The scribe’s question looks a bit more like the one which Paul Tillich was trying to explore in “The Dynamics of Faith.” What should be our ultimate concern, what should be the bottom line that determines the kind of people we are going to be? And for once Jesus and his questioner are in agreement. The first commandment, the thing which is going to direct our attention to the ultimate concern which is genuinely ultimate is the line from Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
This is something that all the people of Israel were agreed on. Ultimate concern, the bottom line which really is the bottom line is God. The God who has been with them all through their history is the only true and living God, it is that God and only that God in whom we can place our trust and make an absolute commitment to without the fear of disappointment or dangerous consequences for those around us. The scribe and Jesus are both agreed that they, we, everybody should be absolutely committed to Israel’s God in every dimension of our lives.
And Jesus is not unique in this. Rabbi Hillel, a near contemporary of Jesus, one of the most famous and influential of the scribes notes the same thing. It is common to all the leading teachers in and around Israel at the time of Jesus. And it is essentially the conclusion which Tillich arrived at more than 1900 years later, though he doesn’t say it in quite so many words. The need for everyone is to place our trust and commitment with the real God, not one of the false ones, or one of the counterfeit ones or even one of the false pictures of the real one. Our bottom line needs to be the God who is real. The most important thing (commandment) is to maintain a relationship with God.

More of an answer
With Jesus you always get more of an answer than you were looking for. Here the scribe gets two for the price of one. Because Jesus continues:
The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
But this is not the beginning of a ranking of the remaining 612 commandments, that if he had time Jesus would work through. Jesus perhaps grasps what the scribe is asking even better than the scribe does himself. Since the scribe already knew the answer to question. Maybe his real question, a question he couldn’t find the words to put, was about faith, a question of how he works out that trust and commitment to the only true and living God. How was he going to maintain his relationship with God? How was he going make God his bottom line in the face of all the possible alternatives, with the disappointment and potential for harm that goes with them? It is the question of faith that we all have. How do we make our faith real? The Law and its other 612 commandments was Israel’s answer to that question. The reason “love your God” is the first commandment is because all the other commandments are an attempt to work out what that means. But Jesus recognises that all those other commandments depend on and can be summed up by a second commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Loving God is tricky, and working that out produces religion, the patterns of ritual and worship which people engage in; The temple and the dietary restrictions and all the other ritual behaviour which Israel practiced. Or in our case; coming to church, singing our hymns and praying our prayers and reading our Bibles, and perhaps even refraining from alcohol or from gambling and all the other things that makes us Christians or Methodists. But more practically, the way to keep the first commandment is in fact to keep the second: You love God by loving your neighbour. If your ultimate concern is the true and living God that is what you do. Sometime later than Jesus, perhaps he was remembering this encounter, John wrote in a letter:
Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
You work out that commitment, that ultimate concern, by always seeking the best interest, the well being of the people around you.

Still more
But it turns out even two answers to one question are not quite enough for Jesus. After Jesus and the scribe have found themselves in agreement, And quite unusually Jesus has complimented his questioner, Jesus goes on:
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God”
Wait! What? There’s more? We don’t on this occasion get the scribes reaction. Though the crowd is so startled that they stop asking Jesus questions. They are probably asking themselves, “what on earth more could there be? If keeping those commandments, if holding to the underlying principles of the law, if keeping both the letter and the spirit of the law, doesn’t get you all the way into the Kingdom of God, what does? Jesus gives two and half answers to the original question.. But by now the disciples, at long last, know how to fill in the gap. They know what comes next:
“Come follow me.”
The trouble with being asked to love God is that it is abstract. How do you do that? What does that mean in practice? The trouble with being asked to love your neighbour is that it is still abstract What does “love” actually mean? What does that mean in practice?
Jesus’ answer is his own practical demonstration, following where he leads, doing what he would do, that in reality is the greatest commandment. That is the way to work out faith in a way that is neither harmful nor disappointing, to follow Jesus is to love one’s neighbour, to love one’s neighbour is to love God.
Amen

The Ultimate Commandment by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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