Lent 4 – On the Side of Love

Lent 4 – On the Side of Love

On the Side of Love
Bible Reading: Mark 12:28-44
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain

What side are you on? In our journey towards Easter and the cross using the Gospel of Mark, we find ourselves in the middle of a tense discussion between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time. There was much debate about whether it more right to show honour to God by strict adherence to the law or whether God was more interested in the way we showed our faith in the way that we treated others. Jesus was asked to show which side he was on by declaring which commandment he through was most important. Instead of giving one commandment, Jesus blended two together and came out on the side of Love.


In three weeks’ time we will be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday – but there is a lot of things that lie between us and that joyous day … including the cross.

As we mentioned last week, our Mark narrative journey has brought us into Holy Week.  Now, the different gospels have slightly different chronological records of what happens in Holy Week … but in Mark it goes something like this…

Sunday           Triumphant entry into Jerusalem … sleep at Bethany

Monday         Overturn tables in the temple … sleep at Bethany

Tuesday         Teaching and verbal conflict with the religious leaders in the temple … sleep at Bethany

Wednesday    Rest Day (most likely at Bethany)

Thursday        Passover, Garden of Gethsemane, Arrest

Friday             Trial, Crucifixion, Death

Our Reading from Mark 12 is on the Tuesday … and interestingly is the last time that Jesus will publicly teach, and you can hear the urgency in his words.  Jesus is teaching in the temple and as I showed you last week – it turned into a bit of a show-down with the religious leaders.

Last Wednesday when we were exploring this passage in the Lenten Biblestudy, one of the perspectives on this conflict that we looked was a story about two Jewish Rabbis who lived around the time of Jesus.  I wondered whether as we start this sermon I might share the story here because it does provide a helpful framework for what happens in the rest of the reading – especially in the context of the question “Which side are you on”.  Is that ok?

 Around the time of Jesus there were two very well-known Jewish Rabbis – Shammai and Hillel.  The story goes that they were always arguing with each other about everything because they had two very different approaches to faith.

Shammai was a conservative Jew who believed that we need to strictly adhere to the laws of God.  If God has commanded us to do something, then that is what we do.  Full stop.  We show God respect and love by faithfully living out the laws, commandments and practices. 

Whereas Hillel had a very different approach.  He would say that while the laws were critically important – they had to be applied within the context of the situation.  If God is shows us grace and understanding – then we need to also show grace and understanding to the people around us.

Shammai would say we are bound to follow the letter of the law because that is God’s command.  Hillel would say that we need to understand the spirit of the law and how we best reflect that as we love and care for those around us. 

An example of this mentioned on Wednesday at the Bible study … Shammai argued that if an ugly Bride asks if she is beautiful on her wedding day – you would need to say no because the law clearly says, “You cannot lie” … whereas when Hillel was asked this question he replied, “All brides are beautiful on their wedding day”.

Can you see these two different frameworks.  Shammai would read the law and apply it literally whereas Hallel would ponder the law and shape a response around the context of where it was being applied.  (Not that different from today???)

The tricky part was that although Shammai and Hillel were very different, neither were wrong in their approach.  This isn’t necessarily about right or wrong … it is just about which perspective we focus on.   Although if you take these approaches to the extreme … then we do have a problem.

During Jesus’ time – this conflict between Shammai and Hillel as used as a way to “label” people – are you Team Shammai and take a more literal approach to the law … or are you Team Hillel and contextualise the law?  Which side are you on?

Jesus had already been caught up in this debate in Mark 3:1-6.  Let me reading this to you

Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 

This is the debate – Shammai would say that you must follow the law and DO NOTHING on the sabbath.  Fullstop.  Hillel would say that God’s desire for us to show love and compassion to those who need help supersedes whether it is a Sabbath or not.  So, the religious leaders are watching Jesus closely to a) see if he breaks the Sabbath law but possible more importantly b) if Jesus chooses a side in the debate.  Is Jesus Team Shammai or Team Hillel?  Jesus turns it back on them…

Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”  Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Jesus asked them to choose a side – but they sat on the fence and remained silent.  Jesus then outs himself as someone on the side of Hillel and heals the man despite it being the Sabbath and see how they religious leaders react – verse 6.

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Fast Forward 9 chapters to Mark 12 and we are still having the debate but this time it is about paying taxes or standing up to the corrupt economic system that disadvantages the poor.  Our bible reading started in verse 28 with:

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?”

On the surface it seems a very genuine question … but it also is trying to ultimately get Jesus to “pick a side”.  If Jesus is team Shammai he would say that most important commandment would be something about following the laws where Team Hillel would want to reference how we treat others.  So tell us Jesus … what is the greatest commandment?

Jesus begins his answer with probably the most well-known words in Judaism – the Shema.  This is the prayer that every Jewish person would pray every morning.  It comes from Deuteronomy 6 in the same section as the 10 Commandments and is one of the key line in the all the Torah.  So it makes sense that Jesus would quote the Shema:

“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.’

There is a lot of meaning behind the Shema that I don’t have time to go into that we did explore on Wednesday at the study – feel free to go online and check out that material on our website.

But what I can say is that as Jesus quoted the Shema – all those on the side of Shammai, on the side of adherence to the law, would have been nodding their head.  Jesus was saying that the most important thing was to love and honour God by following the law.   BUT  Jesus didn’t stop … at the end of the familiar words of the Shema, Jesus without even finishing the sentence added the words from Leviticus 19:18, “and love your neighbour as yourself.”

I can imagine that there was some confusion at this point.  Did Jesus just blend two ideas together to make a single greatest commandment?  Yes, yes he did. 

And I think it is more than Jesus just being clever and keeping both sides happy … I think that Jesus is in this last public teaching session before his death is spelling out something very profound … that loving God and loving our neighbour are intertwined … that they are one and the same thing … that you can’t do one without the other.

Of course the most important thing is to love God with all that we have but we can’t love God if we are not reflecting that love to the people around us.  And at the same time, of course the most important thing is to show love to those around us, especially those in need but this love in action doesn’t make sense if it is not in the context of our love for God.   They are both true because they are intertwined.   In the end, Jesus didn’t come down on the side of either Shammai or Hillel … Jesus was on the side of Love.  LOVE GOD, LOVE others!

In verse 32, there is this beautiful moment of as the teacher of the law who asked Jesus this question pauses, reflects and … agrees with Jesus.  You are right.  Loving God AND loving our neighbour are more important than any burnt offerings or sacrifices.  It is all about love.

That would be a great sermon point by itself … we need to choose the side of Love … but I think that in the context of our Lenten journey and three weeks out from Easter, we need to acknowledge that Jesus is actually calling us to go further.  It is more than just choosing the side of Love … it is about loving God with ALL of our heart and ALL of our soul and ALL of our mind and ALL of our strength and to love our neighbour with ALL we have … compassionately, genuinely, inclusively, completely.

If we offer God praise and worship – do it passionately.

If we serve God with our gifts – do it extravagantly.

If we are helping others – do it generously

Take some risk and embrace a radical approach to loving God and loving others.  Love with ALL.

Jesus goes on to use two examples to highlight this – the teachers of the law and the poor widow.  Outwardly, the teachers of the law were respected and honoured because they seemed to be doing all the right things.  They dressed the part, they prayed long prayers, they followed the letter of the law … but in practice they “devoured widows homes”.  They might have been technically correct but they were missing the point of what it means to love God and love others.  Like God said in Amos 5, “I don’t want your religious festivals, choice offerings and music from your harps if they are not also aligned with Justice and righteousness”.

Instead, Jesus points to a poor widow – maybe one of the widows whose home was devoured by the religious leaders – who is putting two copper coins in the offering.  Even though it is insignificant compared to the large offerings of other people … Jesus said that she got what it meant to love God and love others because she gave everything.  She gave all.

I remember as a teenager being challenged by this idea.  I really wanted to love God and Love others with ALL … to love with ALL my heart, ALL my soul, ALL my mind and ALL my strength.  But I was feeling discouraged because I was looking at others in my church, especially some of the absolute saints that did so much, that gave so much, and I was discouraged.  Compared to them, I was barely loving with anything … let lone with ALL my heart, soul, mind and strength.  I mentioned this to one of these saints – and she said to me, “I think that the ALL is different for different people and the ALL will change in different times throughout your life.”  Do you understand what she is saying. 

There will be times when you might have lots of time or resources and there where might be times when things are tight.  There might be times when you have opportunities to serve and other times when you need to focus on your family.  The poor widow and the rich people had different ALLs … and Jesus commended the widow because she loved with ALL. 

The point is that we need to regularly stop and reflect on what it means in this moment for us to Love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and ALL our strength AND to love our neighbour with ALL we have. 

So as we head into these final weeks of Lent, as we draw nearer to the cross where Jesus gave his all for us

Where Jesus showed us the full extent of his love

– I say again:

If we offer God praise and worship – do it passionately with ALL we have.

If we serve God with our gifts – do it extravagantly with ALL we have.

If we are helping others – do it generously with ALL we have.

As we recommit this morning to Love God and Love others –

Let’s do it with ALL we are and ALL we have.

Amen.