This morning I spent some time with the Oxford International Outreach team. They are at the start of their second (and final) week running a coffee bar each night for international students. Optional Bible Studies form part of this. It was good to hear of their progress so far and it would be great to pray for them over the remainder of the week.
I was there to speak on Mark 12:28-34 which was to be their study for this evening. Although it is a well known passage I realized that I had never taught it before. It is an intriguing passage because it raises again the role of the Old Testament Law. It is also a tricky passage to understand- how are you supposed to read v.34? So having worked quite hard at it I wanted to write up my conclusions (for my own benefit if not for anybody else…)
I started by observing that one of the privileges of working in an international coffee bar is the range of people that one gets to meet- not just the western materialist but also those from eastern cultures and those with religious as well as atheistic backgrounds. One of the people I remember best from my time involved with what was then Meeting Point was a French Roman Catholic, who was delightfully sincere and completely insistent that good deeds and church attendance would get him to heaven. In Mark 12 we get to see Jesus dealing with those who are religious.
Unlike others in the chapter, the teacher of the law appears genuine in his interest in Jesus’ opinion. The discussion hangs around a key issue for any human being but one which particularly interests the religious- what does God require? What are His most important commandments?
Here are five things to notice- and make sure you read the fifth because if you miss the last one then I may have led you into heresy…
1. God wants us to believe that there is one God v.29
In order to know how to treat God we must know who He is. The emphasis from Deuteronomy is that God is one. We are required to believe that- in contrast to the philosophical pluralism that is so popular. “You do realize Jesus disagrees with you,” is a line that we need to use. There is one God.
2. God wants us to love Him with everything we have v.30
This is so familiar that we miss the challenge. It is the word “ALL”. To love God with part of my heart, soul, mind and strength would be relatively straightforward. But God wants all of us. Every thought directed to His will; all our desires and ambitions focussed on Him. That is not unreasonable- He is our Creator and we should give our absolute all to Him. But this verse is a reminder of the high standards that God has.
3. God wants us to love our neighbour as ourself v.31
These words sound lovely. We all acknowledge that love like this would make the world a better place. But enjoying the sentiment can again blind us to the challenge of these words. The challenge is found in the phrase “as yourself.” Let me be honest- I love myself. I spend huge quantities of the day concerned about my welfare and mood, anxious that I have enough food and sleep. I am very interested in myself. What God demands is that I have the same level of love and concern for my neighbour- and that category is much broader than simply my friends. Once again that is not unreasonable- why should I merit more of my love than others? But I am afresh confronted by the reality that God has very high standards.
4. God says these things are more important than religious ritual v.32-33
The teacher of the law agrees with Jesus. He adds something as well in v.33 that the Old Testament would support- namely that these two loves are more important than the religious ritual of providing burnt offerings. That’s familiar ground for those of us at Woody Road who have just finished Isaiah. But it provides a challenge to those of us who are involved in so called religious activity. Our church attendance does not cover up the question as to whether we have loved God with all that we have and loved our neighbour as ourself.
5. God wants us to admit that we can’t do it v.34
So we get to the end of the conversation and Jesus and the teacher of the law have got on well. But how do you read v.34? That’s the crucial question in understanding the passage. Is Jesus communicating the message that we should try our bets to keep the law?
At one level it sounds like this is the case- because in some ways Jesus’ comment is positive. The teacher of the law is wise in his handling of the Old Testament. He is not far from the Kingdom- certainly not miles away.
And yet in another sense Jesus’ comment to the teacher of the law is shocking. He says to the teacher of the law, a religious leader- “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Isn’t that a bit like saying to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “You are almost a Christian”? This teacher of the law may not be far from the Kingdom but he is not there yet. I’m convinced that is the right way to read the verse because of the response of the crowd- nobody dared ask him another question. It is unlikely the crowd would have responded this way had Jesus’ response been purely positive.
What is going on? In this passage Jesus is illustrating what Paul will say in Romans 3:19-20. Jesus is observing that understanding God’s commands rightly is not enough. Even trying to keep them will be insufficient. What is required is to feel the full force of those commands- because they will reveal to us our sin. When I hear the word “All” in v.30 and reflect on my mixed up heart and mind and when I hear the words “As yourself” in v.31 and ponder my self-absorption then the cry of my heart is “God have mercy on me a sinner.” I realise I need a Saviour, a Rescuer, a man who is willing to give his life to ransom me. I need Jesus- and I am so thankful for Him. In this passage Jesus is illustrating what Paul will say in Romans 3:19-20.
The tragedy for the teacher of the law (and also for my Catholic friend) is that the conversation reveals he has not gone the full distance in recognizing Jesus. “Well said teacher” is hardly the language of one who understands his need. And it is the tragedy of all those bound in self- righteous religion- maybe not far from the Kingdom but not having felt the full force of the law such that we look to Jesus for our entrance to the Kingdom.
Have we forgotten the rigour of God’s commands? I ask that not simply that we might try harder but that we might give up the impossible attempt to save ourselves though religious effort. For only if we have been brought into the Kingdom though Christ alone will we be in a position to invite others to come in.