Mark 12: 28-34
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
When a lawyer cross examines a witness at trial, the lawyer is always looking for one of those “gotcha” moments.
The question that stumps and/or embarrasses the witness and destroys the witness’ credibility.
But sometimes it backfires.
Like in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”.
In one of the most entertaining courtroom movie scenes I have ever seen, Vinny, the bumbling New York lawyer trying to defend his cousin who is charged with murder in Alabama, offers his fiancé, Mona Lisa Vito, as an expert witness on auto mechanics.
The prosecutor is allowed to ask her questions on why she should be considered an expert, and thinks he is going to stump her and embarrass her.
That is not quite what happens.
Here is the scene:
Prosecutor: Miss Vito, what’s your current profession?
Miss Vito: I’m an out-of-work hairdresser.
Prosecutor: Out-of-work hairdresser. Now, in what way does that qualify you as an expert in automobiles?
Miss Vito: Well, my father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother’s father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics. Four uncles on my father’s side…
Prosecutor: Miss Vito, your family’s obviously qualified. But, uh… have you ever worked as a mechanic?
Miss Vito: Yeah. In my father’s garage, yeah.
Prosecutor: As a mechanic? What’d you do in your father’s garage?
Miss Vito: Tune-ups, oil changes, brake relining, engine rebuilds, rebuilds on trannies…
Prosecutor: Now, uh… Miss Vito. Being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine, and a four-barrel carburetor?
Miss Vito: … It is a trick question.
Prosecutor: Why is it a trick question?
Miss Vito: … Cos Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55. The 327 didn’t come out tiII ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964 the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top, dead center.
The prosecutor has allowed Miss Vito to prove exactly what he wanted to disprove.
He concedes her expertise.
The only experience I have ever had where I thought I might get tripped up like was when I had my oral trial at Presbytery.
This is what you need to do to get ordained.
You stand before the entire Presbytery, recite your statement of faith, and defend it by answering questions from any of the commissioners present.
Most questions are friendly.
But some are hard.
Randy Bush, pastor at East Liberty Presbyterian Church went to the mike and asked me this question.
“Do you believe it is possible for people who are not Christians to enter the kingdom of God?”
That was a loaded question.
In an instant I thought not of my days at seminary, but to my days at Sunday school back at Pleasant Hills Church.
I went for the answer that is always right in Sunday school.
“Jesus decides that.”
And then I added:
“And thankfully that’s his call, not mine.”
Randy smiled, nodded, and walked back to his seat.
That was the only question I got.
A month later I was ordained.
What does any of this have to do with today’s scripture?
Let me set the scene.
Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and has gone to the Temple to teach.
The Temple authorities are skeptical of this new Rabbi.
He is not well received.
There is a lot of suspicion.
So the Sadducees, the scribes and Pharisees put Jesus through their version of an oral trial.
They line up and ask many questions.
Mark gives us some examples:
“Who gave you your authority to teach here?”
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”
“If a woman is married to several men during her life, whose wife will she be at the resurrection?”
A whole bunch of theological “gotcha” attempts.
Attempts to stump Jesus and discredit him.
Jesus patiently responds to each and I get the impression his attitude is something like this:
This is what you think is important?
This is what you want to know?”
And then, standing off to one side is a scribe – a lawyer.
He approaches Jesus.
He asks what he believes to be a fundamental question that will make or break Jesus’ claim to expertise Torah law.
‘Which commandment is the first of all?’
This seems like one of those loaded questions.
Aren’t all the Commandments mandatory?
No one more important than the rest?
If Jesus picks only one, does he lose his credibility?
Then Jesus does something unexpected.
He uses the answer as a lesson in Torah Law … and the Gospel!
29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
The first part of Jesus’ answer is the Shema.
The principal statement of faith for all Jewish people which is included in both morning and evening prayers.
The second is found in Leviticus:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
In this answer, Jesus says that the Torah law could be summarized in two brief phrases.
This was the point of all Jesus had been teaching and demonstrating.
The lawyer’s response is also surprising.
He concedes to Jesus and says:
“You’re right! And these two things are more important than any religious ritual!”
I think this made Jesus glad.
How do I know this makes Jesus glad?
Listen to his response to the scribe:
34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’
Not far from the kingdom ?
Loving God and loving neighbor is what is important for anyone who wants to “not far from” the Kingdom of God?
What do I need to do to get in?
Let’s see if we can work through that.
First, how do we love God?
Part of it is acknowledging God through worship, prayer, devotions.
We acknowledge that God is present in all things and at all times, even though we don’t understand how.
That is part one.
Now part two.
We cannot love God without loving what God loves.
Those we like and those we don’t.
But this “love” is not a sort of “live and let live” tolerance.
That only makes us “not far” from the kingdom.
Jesus wants more than just the avoidance of open conflict or harm.
There must also be the provision of good.
We need to do for all our neighbors what God has done for us.
Take care of them.
Do stuff for them.
And this is as important to Jesus as that we are to love God.
Which brings me to another time when I was asked a hard question.
It was when I was first interviewed by the PNC here at JMPC.
It was a telephone interview which is how all first interviews are done.
Someone on the phone asked me “What is your favorite scripture passage?”
The question was loaded.
It was loaded because my answer was going to speak to my theology.
I am not sure what the PNC expected, but what they heard was: Matthew 25: 31-46.
What is commonly called the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.
When I said that, there was a moment of silence.
I thought I heard an audible gasp.
My favorite passage is about … judgment?
Well … not really.
The reason I like that passage so much is that it describes in Jesus own words what it looks like to love each other.
And I repeat it often here at JMPC.
Feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Give water to the thirsty.
Comfort the sick.
Visit the oppressed.
Welcome the stranger.
And when we do those things to others, we do them to Jesus – God incarnate.
Loving each other in this way demonstrates a love of God that gets us into the kingdom.
Mark says that when Jesus finished with this scribe, no one asked him any more questions.
What more was there to say?
So, what does this all mean to us?
What do we do here at JMPC that loves neighbor in a way that demonstrates love of God?
Here is what I have seen this summer alone.
VBS kids distributed food to the hungry.
VBS kids sorted clothing to be given to the naked.
The Chiapas team and the Houston team lived and worked with strangers to build and rebuild.
JMPC participated in flood relief with money and muscle.
Deacons pray and care for the sick.
Family Promise houses the homeless.
Bonds of Love helps women deliver healthy babies.
And that is just this summer!
But there is more, even if it sounds less significant.
Making a meal for a friend.
Visiting someone in the hospital.
Offering condolences at a funeral home.
Helping maintain the church.
Teaching our kids.
Greeting people at the door on Sunday.
Singing in the choir.
Cooking meals for Kid’s Club and Youth Group and Duquesne Kids Club.
Tending our SHIM garden.
Produce to People.
You get the picture.
There are many opportunities at JMPC to love neighbor and love God.
It is the one thing, the just one thing, that each of us does here, or out there, that in some way benefits our neighbor.
When we each find that one thing, and do that one thing …
I think this makes Jesus glad.