Religious hypocrisy and unconditional love. The disparity between those two is as striking today as it ever was. Hypocrisy drives us away from religion in disgust – yet the extraordinary love of God calls us back. But how do we reconcile such a divide?
Here in Mark’s gospel, it is that very division that brings our story quickly to a head. We’ve been following Jesus’ story for a week now, but for the disciples, three years have passed, and Mark 12 brings us to the final week of Jesus’ life. The setting is Jerusalem, and large crowds have gathered from all Israel to celebrate the feast of Passover.
Passover is a religious celebration, as the Jews commemorate how God rescued them from slavery and saved them from death by the blood of a lamb. For now, just know that the city is packed for the festival, and everyone is talking about Jesus. Yet the opinions on Jesus are deeply divided. Many are amazed by his miracles and teaching, but the religious leaders are angry. They scorn Jesus’ compassion – they cannot understand his love for sinners.
How is it that some people can appear so devoted to God and yet so devoid of love? They studied God’s law, yet missed the point badly. Jesus called them hypocrites, honoring God with their lips while their hearts were far away (Mark 7:6). When Jesus arrived earlier in the week, he found that they had transformed Passover into one more opportunity to take money from people.
For me, the conflict here captures a deep divide in Christian practice to this day. Jesus commanded us to love. Christians are to be marked by love. Yet so often we are known for judgmental, compassionless hypocrisy. We resemble the very ones that Jesus spoke against. It should not be.
As for the religious leaders, Jesus exposed their greed and arrogance time and again, and now they’re looking for a way to kill him. In chapter 12, they challenge Jesus with a barrage of questions. They question Jesus’ authority, and try to trip him up with some tricky particular of God’s law. The irony in all this is that these men who were so devoted to the minutiae of God’s law missed the very heart of that law.
However, there was one not like the others. Look at verse 28:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?'”
“‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29-30).
So the greatest command begins with the reminder that the Lord is one. Now the Bible teaches that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Yet all three are united as one Lord. And the command is to loveGod with everything! Jesus goes on:
“The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).
So the law is summed up in love. God’s will for us is more than a book of rules. It is love: love God, love others. Verse 32:
“‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right’…”
Wow. In a sea of hypocrites, one man asks a genuine question, and takes the answer to heart. He shows humility, and when Jesus sees the man’s wisdom, he tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Now watch the contrast. The hypocrites talked about law with their hearts far from God. But this man drew near to God’s kingdom when he understood that love is the very heart of the law. Love God and love others.
The love that Jesus calls us to is a revolution. Love our neighbor, love sinners, love our enemies. Love unconditionally – with unreasonable grace and overflowing mercy. Our greatest works for God are worthless and empty if we do not love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
And here we find another side to the Christian story. People who show not judgment, but compassion. Who undertake the most astonishing acts of self-sacrificing love imaginable – caring for the orphan and widow, for the last and the least and the marginalized – regardless of race or creed or religion or gender or sexuality or anything. They lay their lives down. These people amaze me. They just… love.
I pray that you will have the blessing to know some of those people. I pray even more that wewill be these people. And where on earth can we learn this sort of love? Keep following Jesus, and we’ll find out soon.
For Reflection & Discussion
- What does Jesus say are the two most important commandments? (v. 29-31). Why do you think these two are so important?
- Have you known people who focus on God’s laws yet miss the heart of God’s love? How do you think that happens?
- Have you known people who show God’s unconditional love in real and practical ways? Share their story.