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Close, But No Cigar
10-31-21 Mark 12:28-34
Last week we left Jesus after he passed through Jericho and began the 3,500-foot climb up the winding road to Jerusalem.
By the time we get to today’s narrative, he had entered Jerusalem with much fanfare and stirred controversies with the religious elite at the Temple.
The name of this rebellious rabbi from Galilee was on everyone’s lips.
In today’s world, he would be pressing through crowds while paparazzi try to get a candid shot and onlookers would push beside him to take selfies.
I can imagine an industrious youth from Bethany hawking “I Saw Jesus” t-shirts he’d printed overnight.
The religious elite were all trying to use his moment of celebrity to publicly trip him up with loaded questions hoping that his slightest misstep would go viral on TikTok.
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
“Should we heed the Emperor’s IRS or does God come first?”
“When the resurrection happens, who gets the wife if she’d been married to seven guys from the same family?”
The instant replay commentators would note how smoothly he got off the hook of each trick question.
Then from the front of the crowd stepped a Scribe who asked, (Mark 12:28) Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
Was this another trap from another legalist?
But Jesus sensed that the guy is sincere, so he replied Mark 12:29-30 “The most important one, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”
Of course, that sounds a lot like the second half of the Shema which devout Jews recite at least twice a day, but Jesus didn’t quote it exactly because he added the phrase “with all your mind” to the original.
That would have jarred everyone.
It would be like hearing someone add words to the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd and my Lion, I shall not want.”
Reporters with their satellite hookups would speculate that Jesus had added this phrase about using all your mind as a backhanded slap at the Priests, Scribes, Pharisees who had been using their minds to contrive clever ways to corner him rather than to sincerely seek God.
But in general, Jesus gave a pretty safe answer.
This is the prayer that is the lynchpin of the 613 laws that observant Jews are to follow.
You show love to God by meticulously following the rules regulating worship, diet, social and sexual behaviors – and Jews would say that God’s love for you, your community, and the nation of Israel shines through each of them and so they are equally important.
But Jesus didn’t so much as take a breath as he linked love of God with love of neighbor.
Mark 12:31 The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love of God and love of neighbor: they are one and the same, he said.
As familiar as this sounds to our ears, at that time that was an unlikely combination – a bit of a shocker.
The first is well known from Deuteronomy 6, but the second is only mentioned in passing in Leviticus.
So, Jesus had claimed authority to interpret the Law and Prophets, but his answer set him apart from the Temple priests whose lives were dedicated to burnt sacrifices, from the Scribes and their life-long devotion to study of the Torah, and from the Pharisees who interpreted the Law for everyday life.
For them, in one way or another, obedience to those 613 laws trumped every other concern.
Jesus’ linking of these two laws explains why, when a woman had been caught in adultery, he answered as he did.
The Pharisees had brought such a woman to Jesus expecting him to follow the rules and support her stoning – that was a “no brainer” unless he was advocating some heretical teaching.
But Jesus insisted that despite her sin, God loved her more than He desired that the community be purified by her death.
For Jesus, where love and the letter of the law conflict, law gives way, because love fulfills the heart of the Law. He claimed his teachings are the fulfillment of the Law.
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In agreeing with Jesus, the Scribe would have alienated himself from his astonished peers.
Mark 12:32-33“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 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.”
Christians have been quick to point fingers at the Pharisees for adhering to the purity code above genuine love – and progressives have blamed conservatives for the same thing.
Not to be outdone, conservatives raise similar critiques of progressives … we are all prone to assert our own brand of legalism.
è play video (SkitGuys Forgetting Love)
For Jesus’ followers, love must always trump legalism.
Jesus made a subtle shift in language that further radicalized his answer, although we might miss it if we aren’t listening carefully.
Mark 12:31 And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”
By linking them this way, he transformed what had been two regulations – love God and love your neighbor – into one.
Loving God and loving your neighbor go hand-in-hand – you can’t have one without the other.
It’s found in every book of the New Testament, most famously in 1 John 4:20:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
As surprising as Jesus’ answer may have sounded then, the Scribe’s response should be surprising to us.
He was a Biblical literalist, standing on Temple grounds in front of his peers.
Mark 12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
It’s like Jesus was being encouraging while also saying, “Close, but no cigar”.
That’s a term that originated at 1920s carnivals, where games were for the adults, and the prize was a cigar.
If you missed the target, the person running the game would declare, “Close, but no cigar!”
Hearing the sincerity of the scribe, Jesus was responding with a word of encouragement – you’re getting it, but one more thing is required.
The overarching message about discipleship in the gospel of Mark is we can’t just know things in our heads, we can only know them by doing them.
Just as the Scribe stood out from the other religious leaders who were trying to trap Jesus, sometimes the very people we are quick to dismiss or distrust are the ones who come through.
Five or six years ago Michael and I attended an ecclesiastical council of a high-ranking Air Force chaplain seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.
During his twenty-year career, he had served in battle with servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in bases around the country.
Having been raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, he naturally joined the Evangelical Church Alliance which authorizes most of our military chaplains.
But he had a crisis of faith as ECA started to tighten rules about homosexuality to the point that they strictly prohibited any kind of counseling to someone who is openly gay, bisexual or lesbian.
He couldn’t reconcile this with the needs of many service personnel who are gay.
And more than that, he couldn’t reconcile this strict position with his understanding of Jesus’ teaching.
So, after months of soul searching and prayer, he decided to join the United Church of Christ, which of course ministers to all people.
He had to proceed cautiously with his two-year long transition because if ECA had gotten wind of his impending change, they would have immediately unaffiliated him and he would have lost his career.
And to complicate matters further, his wife made it clear that she would leave him if he made this change.
But there in the Ventura UCC church, he stood before us, his chest blanketed with medals, saying that he believed that to love God is to love your neighbor.
All of them.
When Jesus touches our heart, there’s no telling where we’ll be called to follow, and it may be some of the least likely people who will answer.
One of the biggest traps for Christians today is to love God some of the time, and to love most of our neighbors.
Jesus’ call is more demanding than that.
It is to love God first and always, and to love those He created and loves – which is everybody.
Jesus’ opening words in Mark’s gospel were,
Mark 1:15 “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
“Believe” is not “head stuff”. “Repent and Believe” mean reprioritize your life and live accordingly.
And now Jesus says to the most unlikely of people – a fundamentalist standing in front of the Temple – what he’d said to no one before:
Mark 12:34 You are not far from the Kingdom of God.
In two weeks, we’ll have our annual stewardship Sunday when we present our estimates of giving for the 2022 budget.
So, where’s the “stewardship sermon” to inspire all of us to give more?
This is it – actually, I hope you hear every sermon as a stewardship sermon.
It’s that simple.
How we spend our time and money – that both guides and mirrors how we love God and love our neighbors.
Just knowing about God is “close, but no cigar”.
When Churchill was still very young – seven or eight years old, he was packed off to boarding school.
Not surprisingly, he quickly became enormously homesick.
So, he would write pathetic letters home to his mother, begging her to come visit him, pleading with her to arrange for him to come home for weekend visits.
But Winston’s mother never really had much time for her son – she was far too wrapped up in her busy social life.
So, when she received her son’s earnest letters begging for some love and attention, she usually just tossed them aside.
Indeed, Churchill biographer William Manchester once made a heart-breaking discovery.
While looking through some boxes of Churchill’s old letters and diaries, he ran across one of those letters in which young Winston begged his mommy to come visit him at school.
But not only had his mother ignored his plea, she had even used the backside of the letter as scratch paper on which she scribbled out a guest list for a party she was planning to throw the next month!
In one way or another, every week we invite Jesus to mold our attitudes and our actions.
And every week, Jesus responds – maybe through scripture, or music, or prayers of the sermon.
Then every week we go home and decide whether we’ll open our hearts to his response.
During the next two weeks, I encourage everyone to pray about what is the appropriate amount to give as our response to Jesus’ call.