The Greatest Commandment

Scriptures: Mark 12:28-44

As we continue our study in Mark, once again the scribes and Pharisees have tried to question Jesus and his authority. They’ve had a hostile relationship with him. He’s been arguing with them, when this one scribe comes in who is apparently with Jesus’ ability.

I’m not sure how much sarcasm is in there. I don’t want to read too much, but when he asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, Jesus answers from the Shema, in Deuteronomy 6:4, something that they’re supposed to repeat every single day.

Jesus answers, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is like this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than this.”

He uses it singularly, because these two commandments are like flip sides of the coin. You can’t have one, really, without the other.

The scribe, then, sits in judgment on Jesus’ answer, and says, “You’ve answered well.” Then Jesus sits in judgment on the scribe, and says, “You’re not far from the kingdom of heaven.” I think that the authority that he had to say that, remembering that access is given through God’s intervention, is what shut everybody else up.

Then he talks about the scribes and the Pharisees, and he denounces them. He says, Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplace, and have the best seats in the synagogue, and places of honor at banquets.”

And I thought to myself, “Long robe …” [looks down at his minister’s robe, then at the minister’s seat he uses] I hope I’m not one of those scribes. As far as I know I don’t devour any widow’s houses for the sake of appearance, or say long prayers just for show. But it’s a warning for all those who are in leadership.

Then we come to the widow’s offering, which is immediately afterward, as he sat down opposite the treasury. I’m going to get into this passage, and these four verses are actually going to be the focus of my sermon today.

Because they all relate to the greatest commandment. They all relate to loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. The scribes, that he was declaiming in the middle passage, sought the approval of men, of civilization.

They sought the honor and the social status. They did not place God first. Here in this passage, we see, once again, some people who were doing something for the sake of men and society, for show. And then those who show the love of God. Hopefully we’ll be able to see the link between these as we go.

First, a modern parable: “Once upon a time, a pig and a chicken were walking down a village street. They came upon a church sign which was advertising a bazaar and breakfast which was going to be held in a few days.

“At the bottom of the sign, the menu was given, and it read ’Ham and eggs will be served from 6:30 to 8:00 am.’ The chicken turned to the pig and said, ‘See?’ Even we can help the work of the church!’

“‘Yes,’ said the pig, ‘but yours is only a contribution, mine is a sacrifice.’”

A more modern story in a more serious vein: “Two wealthy Christians, a lawyer and a merchant, joined a party that was going around the world. Their pastor asked them to take pictures of anything which they thought was unusual.

“In Korea, as they were traveling, they saw in a field a boy pulling a crude plow, while an old man held in his hands the handles.. Not sure why, but the lawyer was amused, and took a picture.

“Commenting to the guide, he said,’That is an unusual sight. I suppose they are very poor.’

“The guide replied, ‘Yes. They are poor, that is the family of Chi Noui. When the church was being built in this area they were excited to give something to help it along, but they had no money so they sold their only ox and gave the money to the church. This spring they are taking turns pulling the plow themselves.’

“The lawyer said thoughtfully, ‘That must have been a real sacrifice ‘

“The guide said, ‘They did not call it that. They thought it was fortunate they had an ox to sell.'”

“The lawyer was real quiet after that event. When they reached home, the lawyer took the picture to the pastor. As he sat down in the pastor’s study he said forcefully, ‘I want to double my pledge to the church. And please give me some plow work to do. I have never known what sacrifice for the church and God meant. A converted Korean taught me. I am ashamed to say I have never yet given anything to my church that cost me anything real.’”

Mark says, “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins which make a penny.” Actually, they make less than that. Each of those mites, and that’s what some of the older translations call the coins, “mites,” is about a fifth of a cent. So she put in a half cent, basically.

Jesus said: ’Truly I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance,” (or their excess, depending on what translation you read) “but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

The woman in our text is never named in the Bible. There are only two accounts of her act given in the New Testament, here and in Luke 21, and in both Gospels, they give her story in only four verses. The scene is at the Temple where Jesus made it his custom to go.

He went even though the services were probably quite cold and dead. He never took the position that many take today, that he could worship God outside the church just as well as he could inside the church. Jesus went to God’s house in spite of the failures of its leadership and the people who attended.

Many today blame their lack of attendance on hypocrites in the church. I have always felt that if you are going to successfully hide behind something, you have got to be smaller than the thing which you hide behind.

Anyway, Jesus went to the Temple to worship and to teach, and since he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, he has the same attitude about worship at God’s house now as then. Jesus is interested in the people who attend God’s house.

He is interested in their worship and their giving. He was interested then and he is interested now. Because the worship and the giving we do reflect our understanding of the Greatest Commandment.

The meaning of this story that is shared is very clear. Jesus is pointing up the true emphasis on giving, not from the leftovers, or a little bit so that a person won’t notice it, but giving from the point of sacrifice.

One pastor in a sermon on this text said, “It is simply that true giving is relative to what is left, not absolutely the gift. As Jesus sat there among the alms boxes and watched people making their contributions, out of all of them one widow stirred him and moved him to say here was the real thing.”

To put the matter with stark concreteness, that two pennies, that two mites, that half cent, was her next meal. Now you have to picture this in the temple. The closest I can come to it in my mind is a casino. That may sound strange, but hear me out.

The way they collected the tithe in the temple was not by having ushers come forward, passing plates and things. They had thirteen boxes, and each of those boxes had a sort of trumpet-like aperture that you tossed the coins down into, in order for them to be collected.

The closest I can come to it, I know there are some of these machines that you bring in a whole bag full of change to the bank, you can toss it in there, and it sorts them all out. Think of the noise that that makes, while it’s sorting them all out.

You see people coming in, bringing bags of copper or silver or gold, and just upending them into this trumpet, and you hear them rattle. Ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching. That’s why it reminded me of a casino. All this money rattling around. A lot of noise. A lot of clanging of metal on metal.

Jesus’ ears were attuned to the fairest noise of all, that of putting in two small coins, the smallest in circulation, worth in purchasing power about two cents. Yet the heart of the giver made it speak.

This was so different, so unusual. Because the widow was willing to give from her heart. Her love for God knew no bounds. She loved the Lord her God with all her heart and all her soul and all her strength.

She gave even though she couldn’t afford it. She gave because she wanted to give. She was not compelled by guilt, or fear, or reward, she gave because she was in love, in love with God. She gave because she felt a deep commitment to God. She gave because this was one way she could respond to God’s blessings in her life.

She gave sacrificially. She gave in humble respect for God. She gave quietly with no fanfare, no noise, but it was the small noise of her sacrifice that drowned out all the noise in Jesus’ ears, The noise of the big givers who gave so that all would see their righteousness, he dismissed.

The noise of the two small coins was heard above the show, the fanfare of the Pharisees giving so everyone would know they were upholding the law. This widow gave from her heart and it was the noise of love which stirred Jesus to say, “This poor widow has put in more than. all….out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” Those two mites were her meal. She was trusting in God’s provision for her, as she honored God.

God is more interested in the attitudes and motives than he is in the gift itself. Let’s face it, to be really honest here, you really cannot give God anything because He owns everything. But we can give in the sense of returning to God that which He has given to us. Anytime that we give, whether it be time, talents, treasures, it is all about “how much do you love God?” Is it truly “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength”?

What we give impacts not only our own discipleship, but the community at large, when we give to the church, out of love for God. We answer the second half of that great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. Your worship together. You give. Your participate in programs.

And you impact not only the people of this church, your fellow believers and brothers and sisters in Christ, but then you reach out and impact other people in the community, as the church provides the resources necessary to help them and show them the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Giving money is not the only thing we can sacrifice in, and this widow may have also sacrificed in other ways. We can sacrifice in prayer, in time, in attendance, and in service. I have known of some with cancer and arthritis who really struggled in pain and effort to attend God’s house. I know of one person who had to take over three hours just to get dressed to come to church, but she was there almost every service.

I’ve seen those who are struggling with end-stage cancer but determined serve and worship God, even if it meant being dressed by somebody else and being brought to the church, wheeled in on a chair. Being in God’s house, to give worship and praise to God for His goodness.

Can you relate to the widow in this story? And I don’t mean the fact she was a widow. Can you relate to her sacrificial giving, and her trust in God to provide the means for living? Where are you? Does this all seem so foreign to you that it is like a story out of a fairy tale book?

Or have you experienced the joy of sacrificial giving, the extreme happiness of a deep love for God, in which giving your all becomes a source of joy and not a duty? Can you give and trust God completely to provide without thinking of getting it back or having regrets that you even gave?

My wife, on the way here, talked about this, and it seems I have a somewhat negative view of duty. Being the theologian that I am and liking to split hairs, I differentiate between duty and responsibility. As disciples we have a responsibility.

A duty is a task, an obligation that’s been placed upon us. The gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is a free gift. If’ there’s an obligation, it’s not a gift. Though I’m sure that as time goes on, she’ll probably correct me in my thinking. She’s far smarter than I am.

But I see this here in terms of giving your all being a source of joy, not an obligation or an onus upon you. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and you love your neighbor as yourself, then giving of your time, talents, and treasures is a way of witnessing to, being faithful to, discipling yourself, and showing others who God is, and how much you love Him, and how much He is worthy of your love.

The third verse to a very familiar hymn speaks of trusting in God to provide. Listen to this verse: “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked, come to thee for dress, Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

Anybody know what hymn that might be? You can look it up in your hymnal afterward. “Rock of Ages.” As we cling to the cross of Jesus, we rely on the Father’s care to provide for us. It is in complete surrender, it is in living sacrificially, when that trust in God is answered by His caring hand.

It is in that giving and that surrender and living sacrificially, we show that we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Because not only does He care for us with physical things, as food, shelter and warmth, but I believe he gives us each other to build up our spirits and faith in Him. The widow was a sign to the disciples, and to us, that Jesus wants us to live in complete trust that God will provide as we sacrificially give to Him from our blessings.

You and I are signs, too, from God for each other, as we walk this journey of faith. I see your witness in your lifestyle and you see mine, and hopefully, we can draw strength from each other. But that is only possible as you and I are walking the road of faith as Jesus would want us to, living sacrificially, trusting in God’s care.

The question can be asked each of us, are we a good example for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Can another see in you or me a love for Christ and a love for God which allows him to trust completely in His power so that he can live sacrificially? What does another see as they observe your life?

Lent is a time of reflection, a time of consideration of what God is, and what He has done for you. It is a time when we examine ourselves. I would challenge you as we move through Lent to Easter and the resurrection and the culmination and fulfillment of that great gift, to consider the great commandment and your relationship to it.

Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength? Serving Him, with joy and gladness, and loving your neighbor as yourself. It takes trust. It takes sacrifice. But the joy that is promised is worth it all. And we have the assurance of the victory, because it has already been won.

May you go with joy to serve God and love Him and share that love with others. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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