“Who’s First”

Mark 12:28-34


            In high school but mainly in college, if I had to ride with someone and there was a group of us going, there was always a race to the car.  It didn’t matter if we were driving two blocks to the local convenient store or if we were going 20 minutes down the road to go bowling … once we all stepped outside, the race was on.  Actually the race began before we even left the building.  It started the moment we all decided it was time to leave.

            In this race to the car … nothing was off limits.  We pushed, we shoved, we threw shoulder blocks, we pulled on a person’s arm or the hood of their hoodie.  And this didn’t end when we got to the car either.  With all the pushing and shoving that went on, I’m surprised we never broke off mirrors or ripped off door handles.

            The reason for all this chaos … well, look at the size of me.  Do you think I wanted to sit in the backseat of someone else’s car?  You think I want to be squished between my friends or between them and the car door?  I don’t think so.  The front seat was a seat to myself and it came with leg room!  This is probably the reason why I volunteered to drive everywhere.  That way I would be guaranteed to have plenty of room.

            Everyone in a sense wants to be first.  First one to the car got the front seat.  First one in a buffet line gets the hottest, freshest food.  Getting first pick on the playground guarantees you get the best player.

            Being first is usually about privilege and control.  However, that isn’t the case in our gospel reading tonight.

            On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus again goes to the temple to teach.  Jesus no more than gets into the temple and the chief priests and the scribes and the elders are heading towards him.  Maybe their thinking, “if we can get to him first and trick him and get him to say something wrong, then we can get rid of him and don’t have to worry about the crowd.”

            Remember, the chief priests and the scribes wanted to destroy Jesus after he cleansed the temple the day before, but they couldn’t because they feared the crowd.  But now’s their chance.

            Well, Jesus wins the first debate over authority and the chief priests, scribes, and elders sheepishly go away.  Later, the Pharisees and some of the Herodians … two people who can’t stand each other come up to Jesus and try to trap him in regards to who one should pay taxes too.  Well, Jesus wins that debate.

            Next up is the Sadducees who are questioning Jesus about the resurrection, which is just ironic in and of itself because the Sadducees don’t even believe in the resurrection, but I digress.

            All these people want a piece of Jesus.  All of them want to find some way in which they can trick, trap and terminate Jesus.

            In the midst of this, Mark says, “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?’” (12:28).  Of all the commandments … which one is first?

            This goes way beyond being the first one to reach the finish line or receiving the first pick in the playground draft.  To be ‘first’ in this context with Jesus is closer to the idea of being the first stone laid.  The first stone laid is the cornerstone.  Upon the cornerstone, all the other stones must rest.  If the cornerstone is not placed right, the stability of the structure is in play.

            So consequently, the greatness of this love commandment lies not in the surpassing value over and against all the other commandments of Jewish law, but rather, the value is in its ability to hold up all the rest. 

            Think about this way.  Imagine I have the say the Junior High youth.  There is about 10 or so who are there.  If I told them the first one to complete what I say gets to eat first, they would more than likely be all over it.  But if I told them that they had to be first at the bottom of a multi-person pile up, or a people pile as we say at my house … I don’t think they will be rushing in to be the first.  To have everyone else on you is a heavy load to bear.

            But this is what God does and Jesus affirms it in our reading.  In a few chapters, in a few days after this teaching in the temple, Jesus in love, surrenders up his life to lift up, to bear, to carry the burden and weight of sin.  Your sin, my sin, the sin of the whole world past, present, and future.  These two love commandments come first in the law because it is on them that all the rest of the commandments of the Torah, of God’s law rest.  All that God asks of his people, God asks as a response to and as an expression of love.

            Sadly though, this isn’t the love we see in everyday life.  This isn’t the kind of love we see on TV or in movies.  This isn’t the kind of love we hear about on the radio.  At the heart of the love we witness throughout the world is really a love about self.  A love which tries to put me in first place, which puts me, not on the bottom holding things up, but on top, standing above the rest.

            The Greek word Mark uses, which Jesus uses as he teaches is agapeAgape is a different kind of love because it is an emotionless kind of love.  Agape refers to a complete and selfless love and expects self-giving.  Agape is a love which points to the relationship which one person lives toward another.

            Jesus acts with this kind of agape love.  In his relationship with you, he doesn’t base his action on his feelings.  He allows himself to be handed over into the hands of sinful men, he allows himself to be beaten, bloodied, and battered.  He allows himself to tormented and nailed to a cross.  He allows himself to die.  He does all of this, not because you deserve it or because he has some sort of mushy romantic love for you, no, he does it because he made a promise to you.  He does it because he wants you and all people to know and live in the joy and peace of having your sins forgiven and the promise of an eternal life yet to come with him.

            But agape love doesn’t always mean to the death.  In their conversation, Jesus and the teacher of the law agree on what it means to love.  “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” (Mark 12:33).  At its heart, what he is saying is … simply put ‘others’ first.

            That is completely countercultural to life today.  Life isn’t about me, myself, and I … it’s about you, you, you.  It’s about our neighbor.  Acting with agape love as our firstcommandment means stepping back from whatever other codes of conduct or moral laws dictate our personal ethics and asking first … “What does this mean for my neighbor?” Or even more pointed, “Is this me giving myself to my neighbor?  Is this me giving myself to my God?”  Putting love of God and neighbor first means not just to act according to what we think is best for our neighbor, but rather, to act in such a way that we give our very self to our neighbor … and to God.  We live our lives as a reflection of God’s great love for us for then we “are not far from the kingdom of God.”  And at this … no one dared to ask him any more questions (12:34).  Amen.

            The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever.  Amen.


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