A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 27/11/21 for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost Year B Proper 26 (31) on Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”Mark 12:28
How do we live? That, it seems to me is the big question. People in every age have asked it, in as many different ways as there have been cultures. Sometimes, as here, both the question and the answer have been explicit. Sometimes implicit – you have to look below the surface froth of events to have a sense of what is really driving things. But there is no escaping it. – all of human life is driven by this overarching question. How do we live?
What do we place on the altar in the Holy of Holies in the centre of our lives?
It might seem as though I am drawing a bit of a long bow here. Is it really true that all people ask how to live? All cultures? Really? Those of a psychological bent might ask: What about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that famous pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom , up through safety, love and belonging, esteem and finally, right up the top, “self-actualization”, where questions like “how do I live” are capable of being asked.
But even that theory, which presents itself as a scientific truth, is merely another attempt to explain life. At one level, sure. If you don’t eat for a prolonged period, or don’t breathe for a much shorter period, you won’t be able to do much in the way of morality.
But it is fundamentally materialistic, saying, as far as I understand it, that only once your physical needs have been met will you have the leisure to behave morally. It makes a sort of intuitive sense – it’s very easy to imagine being extremely hungry and stealing something to eat, for instance.
But is it the full picture? Is the “one thing”, the “first commandment” that you have to fulfill your Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in order to behave morally?
This is clearly not the case. I haven’t been following the shenanigans with the Crown Casino, Victorian Labor Party branch stacking, or the ICAC enquiries into the NSW Liberal government, with a really forensic eye for detail, but it is pretty clear that any crimes or failings of ethical behaviour weren’t driven by starvation.
And that apparently remains true right down at the bottom of the Hierarchy of Needs. In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of my all-time favourite books the Jewish psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl writes about his experience of life in the concentration camps. He saw people, driven to the absolute limit behave both heroically and terribly, and from this he draws the conclusion that materialist accounts of how to live are profoundly inadequate to the reality of human life.
In the first Jewish temple, built by King David’s son King Solomon, that fascinating and flawed figure, the absolute centre of the temple, the Holy of Holies, held the most precious thing the Jewish nation possessed. The Ark of the Covenant. The box which contained the actual stone tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments. This testament to their covenant relationship with The Lord was at the absolute centre of their worship. But it was not itself worshipped – that honour belonged only to the Lord.
So when the First Temple was destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant lost, it was a catastrophe.
And it must have presented something of a problem when they came to rebuild the temple several generations later. What would they put at the centre of this new, even more majestic, temple? What could possibly take its place?
The answer was that nothing possibly could. Perhaps initially the idea was to retrieve the Ark from wherever it had ended up and restore it to its rightful place. But it was never found, and has been lost to history, despite Indiana Jones’s efforts to recover it.
There is a powerful metaphor here. We each have a holy of holies in the centre of our lives. We may not always live up to what we place there. But it is a powerful influence on how we live, in times of plenty like the Crown Casino executives, or in times of desperate oppression, like Viktor Frankl and his fellow concentration camp inmates.
Perhaps there might even be a bunch of things competing on the altar at the centre of our hearts. We live in a world desperate to sell us stuff, and in order to do that, it has to get to the centre of our lives to persuade us that this car, this insurance policy, this house, this whatever thing which is going to transform our lives.
Or, worse, some terrible ideology, some idiotic conspiracy theory, or something even worse, could come to stand in for the Ark of the Covenant and cause us to do idiotic or terrible things.
If that altar at the centre of our lives is empty, then all sorts of things can replace it. Some trivial, some terrible. All of them are the thing which the Holy of Holies was precisely intended to destroy: all of them idols. All of them little gods who can draw us away from the Most High if we allow them to.
The Second Temple left the Holy of Holies empty. But that emptiness was itself a kind of fullness, because it was a witness to not being prepared to compromise with the covenant. To have placed something else there, some work of human hands, would have been to put something else in the place of God.
Hence the first commandment. “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.’”
We need to put God at the centre of our lives. Not the hundred and one competing idols who swirl around, attempting to insert themselves where they have no right to be.
But what exactly does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength”? What does it mean to allow nothing else to usurp God’s altar at the centre of your life?
The answer is in how Jesus frames this first commandment.
He begins with the Shema Yisrael, the prayer prayed twice a day by pious Jews. It explains who God is. Not the theoretical construct of the philosophers, not the “matter of ultimate concern”. The emptiness on the altar is really a sort of fullness, because it is the unconditioned God in Godself who dwells there – the God who intervenes, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Jesus goes on: “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
What does it mean to love this God of Abraham and Jesus? It needs to entail loving our neighbour as ourselves. While that’s a big ask, they have to go together.
A love of God can easily become an obsession over some variety of ritual purity or theological correctness. A love of the abstract “god” in quotes who can never afflict the comfortable, who always weighs in my side in the political arguments, who is there to make me feel good. If your god isn’t leading you to greater love of your neighbour, then it is only a little g God. If your God is not the God of Abraham and Isaac – the God who enters into covenant relationship and who calls us into community, then it is not God at all.
But love of neighbour in turn requires love of God. Who God is for us – what we place on the altar in the centre of our lives – will determine both what loving our neighbour looks like, and our ability to actually do it at all.
Our idea of God will determine the picture of human flourishing we bring to our love of our neighbour. If our basic picture of the world is a materialist one, like the one implicit in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs above, then we will be strongly tempted to content ourselves with making sure people are fed and housed. And, while that is certainly important, it is far from the whole story. Because, at the centre of our lives is the transformative love of the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. That is what we will want, ultimately, to convey
Basing our life on God’s love as the primary thing, with love of neighbour as how we operationalise it, how we carry it out, also makes us a lot more able to actually do so. There is a question of motivation here: why are we loving our neighbour as ourselves? How will we react when our neighbour declines our love? If we are helping the poor, it is, as any social worker will tell you, punishingly hard work. People are rarely grateful, and your ability to actually help people will be compromised by how sheerly annoying people can be. We need to feed our own needs for validation, for gratitude, for everything that enables us to keep going from something else. From that transcendent something who we Christians dare to name as the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
So the question comes back to us. We stand, like the Scribe, and ask Jesus: what is the first commandment? Where do we start? How do we live?
And Jesus replies: “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.”
 Paul Tillich’s phrase, attempting to contextualise the Gospel into his culture via a sort of Existentialism – I got a lot out of The Courage to Be, but ultimately, for me, it runs out of steam before it can be a full theology.
Image: A signpost of the Camino de Santiago, Author’s own.