We love the GOAT question, don’t we? “Greatest of All Time.” Well, some love it. We all know that Michael Jordan is the GOAT when it comes to basketball. Don’t even start with me about LeBron. We can also talk about Tom Brady and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky and Mia Hamm and Pele and Djokovic and Serena. But they all are or were great at playing a game, and the discussions about who was the greatest in their respective sports are mere mortals like you and me.
The encounter Jesus had in Mark 12 is not about a game but has to do with commandments, the laws of God. The arbiter of this discussion is not a mere mortal, a talking head on ESPN. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. The one who comes to Jesus is a scribe, and it is the only friendly encounter between Jesus and the scribes in the Gospel. The scribes were considered experts in the law, not the laws of Rome, but the laws of God as found in the Torah. The scribes were the Supreme Court Justices of their day, experts in interpreting the law and rendering binding decisions on their interpretation. This man has just heard Jesus interpret Exodus 6:3 and putting the Sadducees in their place, and he was no doubt impressed. So, he comes to Jesus with a question. It was not uncommon in those days to ask reputable teachers about the law, and to ask them their opinion on the most important of the laws. It was a favorite pastime then to debate the question, of the 613 commandments in the written and oral laws, 248 positive and 365 negative, which is the foremost of all, which laws are heavy and which laws are light? Twenty years before Jesus, the famous Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah with a twist of the Golden Rule. He wrote, “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, everything else is interpretation.” Hmmm. That seems to give me permission to never do anything to help my neighbor; all that is required is that I don’t do anything to harm my neighbor. And here’s something else. Hillel was speaking to Jews about Jews and how Jews are supposed to live. But the question this scribe presents to Jesus is bigger than that. The question is not, “of all the commandments, which is the most important for Jews to follow,” or, which is the GOAT? The sense of the question is rather, “Which commandment supersedes everything and is incumbent on all humanity—including Gentiles?” (James Edwards)
Jesus answers, “And 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.” Then he adds, “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The order is important. First, we are commanded to love God. In fact, we cannot truly love our neighbor if we do not love God first. “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:19-20) So, love God and love your neighbor. That’s the order. But how are we to love God? The manner is important.
We are commanded to love God with all four facets of our person and personality, and Jesus lays rightful claim on each one with four “alls”: all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and of our strength. These are not rigid divisions of our lives, but together they make up all of who we are, and each has an effect on the others. The heart is mentioned first, perhaps because it is central in loving God. Solomon wrote, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Heart and soul are different words, but both can refer to the inner part of who we are, the immaterial substance of our lives. “Soul” could be translated “spirit,” the breath of life that God breathes into man or woman to make us living beings. Our mind is our faculty of understanding and as we feed it from the Word, our love for God should grow with it. Our strength is the power we have from God to love him with our will, to act and to speak and to stand for His name’s sake. Jesus says in effect to you and me, “All of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind and all of your strength belong to me. Love me with them, and when you do, you will also love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus lifted these ancient laws out of the mire of tradition and legalism and made them live in the hearts of men and women who know him.
When Paul entered Athens in the first century and saw it was a city filled with idols, he didn’t turn around and walk out. Neither did he go to the city square with a sign that said, “God hates Athens.” No, he reasoned with the people there, in three very different arenas.
First, he went into the synagogue and reasoned with the devout. The equivalent today would be the church, which was and is the first and best place to reason with people. The decay of our culture is largely a product of the impotence of the church and its compromise of the message of the Gospel. Pastors possessed with a low view of Scripture and a high need for numbers plus members infatuated with a “makes-me-happy-and-meets-my needs” fellowship has largely neutered the effectiveness of the church in America. Paul “was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” to the God-fearers. That must be the foundation of our message from the pulpit every week as we teach the Scriptures to a people starving for the Word of God. Otherwise, what really is the point?
Second, Paul went into the city square and spoke with “those who happened to be there.” He was as comfortable in church as he was in the marketplace. Not everybody is, but we need people who can make friends and meet people in the park, at the mall, in the movie theater, the Laundromat, the coffee shop and in every place life happens. Howard Schultz said his goal in creating Starbucks was to provide a place and an environment where people would be forced into community with each other. Cindy and I were in the Sherlock Holmes pub in London a few years ago, enjoying fish and chips, and the couple next to us was speaking “American.” So, we struck up a conversation with them and had fellowship for a half hour. It’s amazing what people will tell you about themselves if you just ask a question. When that happens, you have an open door to gossip the Gospel with someone who five minutes earlier was a stranger.
Third, Paul went to the Areopagus to speak to the intelligentsia. Had Aldous Huxley been a Greek living in Athens then, he would have been there. He was honest enough to write in 1937 about why he objected to the world having meaning and purpose: “For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” Get that? “Don’t let faith get in the way of how you live your life.” We need young people who can answer that argument, not only in the public schools or on the university campus, but in every area of life.
The late John Stott wrote, “There is an urgent need for more Christian thinkers who will dedicate their minds to Christ, not only as lecturers, but also as authors, journalists, dramatists and broadcasters, as television script-writers, and as artists and actors who use a variety of contemporary art forms in which to communicate the Gospel…Christ calls human beings to humble, but not to stifle, their intellect.”
Hey, college students just arrived on campus, high school students, and all others reading this column: How can you use what God has given you to serve him and make his name great? It doesn’t have to be big or important. You do not have to be famous or rich or powerful or brilliant. Simply use the talent and ability and intellect God has given you for his sake. Share the truth in the church, in the marketplace, and on the campus. Because, with all due respect to academics and philosophers and Christless religion, what the world needs now is not a sloppy kiss of “I accept you just the way you are,” but the life-saving truth that is only found in Jesus Christ.
Go gossip the Gospel.
Why does the Bible instruct the followers of God to give? It is not because God needs our money. He owns everything and has no need. He even said, “If I needed anything, I wouldn’t ask you!” It is also not because the church needs it. The church does need the people who are a part of it to give, but it is sustained by God. No, the reason why we are called on to give is so that we will learn to be like the giver, God himself. Paul wrote two chapters of his second letter to the Corinthian church to urge them to give generously. The centerpiece of his argument is this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” God gave more than we could ever imagine and certainly ever repay when he gave his Son to the world as a sacrifice for sin. Will we learn to love like that through our own giving? Will we also learn to do so cheerfully? Because here’s an interesting truth from Scripture: God loves a cheerful giver.
A little girl was given a dollar and a quarter by her mom on the way to church. She was told she could put either one in the offering plate and keep the other. On the way home the mom asked what she gave. The little girl said, “I was going to give the dollar but right before the offering the preacher said God loves a cheerful giver, and I knew I would be a lot more cheerful if I gave the quarter.” I don’t think that is exactly what Paul had in mind. But wait. What does that mean, “God loves a cheerful giver?” God loves everybody, right? So why did Paul say this? I was praying about that last week, and my mind went to Jesus’ words, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such to worship him.” God seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth. God loves a cheerful giver. If God seeks worshippers if God loves cheerful givers, I want to be found by him doing just that. That requires a commitment of the will, but it also requires faith.
Giving is an act of faith in God’s abundant provision. Therefore, most give sparsely or not at all. If they were able to be honest about it, they would have to say, “I am afraid if I do this, I will not have enough.” A pastor said to one of his members who happened to be a farmer, “Brother Bill, if you had $1000, would you give the church $500?” Bill said, “You know I would, pastor.” Then the pastor said, “If you had two pigs, would you give the church one of them?” Bill replied, “That’s not fair, pastor! You know I have two pigs!”
It’s easy to sing “Take My Life and Let it Be,” and even the verse that says, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold…” but it is much harder to live that song. It requires faith. And obedience.
How about you? Are you learning to love like God does through faithful and cheerful giving?
The story goes that a houseboy was hired by a group of American soldiers during a war to take care of their needs. The soldiers liked this young man, but they tormented him mercilessly. They nailed his shoes to the floor while he slept. They put grease on the stove handles, and mounted a bucket of water over the door so that he got drenched when he walked in. Through it all, however, he never complained. He just went about his work, and smiled, and seemed to take it all in stride. One day the soldiers began to feel guilty, so they called him in to apologize. “We want to stop all our pranks, and tell you we are sorry,” they said. “We won’t do it again.”
“No more nails in my shoes?” the houseboy asked.
“No more,” the men promised.
“No more sticky on the stove?”
“No more,” they said.
“No more water on my head?”
“No more,” they answered.
“OK,” said the houseboy. “No more spit in your soup!”
Ahh, revenge. It comes to us quite easily, doesn’t it? Francis Bacon said, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.” Lord Byron said, “Revenge is sweet.”
The late financial counselor, Larry Burkett, used to tell the story of the man who bought a Mercedes for $50. He was looking in the L.A. Times classified section one day and saw an ad for a nearly new Mercedes for $50. Sure that it was a misprint, he called the number and the woman assured him that the car really was for sale for that price. He told her be would be right over, and set a new land speed record getting to her house. Expecting to find a problem but hoping against hope that this was not a dream, the man discovered a shiny new Mercedes, in mint condition, in the woman’s driveway. He quickly wrote her a check for $50 before she could change her mind, and when she handed him the keys, he said, “Do you mind me asking why you are selling this car for this price?” She said, “Not at all. My husband decided he didn’t want to be married to me any more, and he left me for another woman. He called two days ago and said we would divide everything up and told me to sell the Mercedes and send him half.”
Ahh, revenge. It just seems to feel right, doesn’t it? The problem is, many things that feel right are deadly wrong. Revenge may feel great going down, but you pay for it later. Getting revenge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Jesus made it clear how I am to respond when someone hurts me. If I have been offended, I am instructed to go to the person who sinned against me and tell him what he did. Just the two of us, face to face. Jesus said, “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” That’s the goal, that our relationship would be restored, not that I get my pound of flesh. If he will not listen, then I get a trusted and mature friend and go back to him. Just the 3 of us, face to face. If he still will not listen, then I go before the church leadership with the problem. In every step, restoration is the destination, and forgiveness, not revenge, is the vehicle that will get you there.
A restored friendship is much sweeter than revenge could ever be. If you don’t believe it, call me when you want to sell your Mercedes.