If you were to make a list of the most successful people alive today, I think Bill Gates would surely be on it. He co-founded Microsoft in 1975, and forty-three years later it’s a mighty force in the world of computer software. And of course Bill Gates has done quite well out of this. As of this year his net worth was calculated at $97.9 billion, so, as the Irish say, he’s not short of two pennies to rub together!
It’s interesting, though, that over the past fifteen years or so Bill Gates seems to have taken a different tack altogether, as he and his wife Melinda have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organization is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Maybe he’s begun to redefine what success means to him.
So if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is about. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), and the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.
Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message?Sometimes in workshops I’ve asked people to define in one or two sentences what they think the essential message of Christianity is. I’ve noticed that many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes, “love your neighbour”. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?
Look at the question Jesus was asked. It wasn’t, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and love our neighbour.
But let me ask you: which comes first in the Christian life, our love for God or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:
‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).
In the New Testament the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments aren’t news, so commandments can’t be the Gospel. John tells us that the Good News isn’t that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.
Mark Twain once said “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” I agree! I understand the commandments very well; my problem is I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? It doesn’t sound like good news to me.
No; the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he demonstrated God’s forgiveness for our sins and gave us hope that our broken relationship with God could be healed. Through his resurrection he’s won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Now he invites everyone to come to him, put their trust in him, and receive the free gift of forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then – once our relationship with God is restored by Jesus – we can call on all God’s resources to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for God’s great love for us.
At the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. Peter was offended; he thought it would be much more appropriate for himto wash Jesus’feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all the Lord has done for me?”
Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? As an Englishman moving to Canada in the mid-1970s I soon discovered that even though we used the same language we didn’t always use the same dictionary. To me, a ‘napkin’ wasn’t a cloth you used at a meal to catch the crumbs on your lap; it was a baby’s diaper! The word we used for ‘napkin’ was ‘serviette’. And I very rarely used the term ‘vacuum cleaner’; we just called them all ‘hoovers’, and there was even a verb, ‘to hoover the rug’!
We often get into these kinds of dictionary problems when we read the Bible. It’s a very old collection of books and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But we probably don’t. In our culture we use this word to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, ‘eros’, which meant passion or desire, or ‘phileo’,which meant the personal attachment we feel for family and friends. But the Greek word used in today’s passage is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.
It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before. My boss said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.
I had no answer for him at the time. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this. “You’re right: no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and work up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s telling me to actin a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feelgood toward someone who hurts me, but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. That’s what Jesus is talking about”.
So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feelanything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments?What practical difference will they make to our lives?
It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds their regrets are usually to do with relationships: their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. As the saying goes, very few people say on their death beds “I really wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us understand that relationships are the central issue in life, and Jesus agrees with this. His two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.
The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he’s done for us. These aren’t four separate watertight compartments of our personality – heart, soul, mind and strength. They’re four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.
The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; they thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used ‘heart’ they meant the will– the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say, “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – ‘souls’ meaning ‘people’. ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life looks like. A purely emotional response isn’t good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this won’t be easy; it will require effort and discipline and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!
In the second command we’re told to love our neighbour and Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus isn’t using a feeling word here. He’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.
And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: ‘love your neighbour’. My neighbours are first of all the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live on my street, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.
In Luke’s version of this story Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a man from Samaria sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That’s how to be a neighbour: it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of ordinary people in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.
So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments aren’t the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has lived and died and risen again to heal our broken relationship with God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and come to God through him, as a free gift. When we’ve done that, then these two great commandments will guide us about how to live in gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to feelings,but loving actionsby which we serve God and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.
Let me conclude by saying again that this is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point.’ The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love.” That’s the main issue.
Have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God from the hands of Jesus? And am I living out my gratitude for that love by loving God with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. As the saying goes, the important thing is to keep the important thing the important thing! And Jesus is absolutely clear what the important thing is.