Mark 12:28-34 - The Whole Duty of Man - November 11, 2018

It’s Veteran’s Day, and on Veteran’s Day we remember and express our gratitude for those who have served their Lord, their nation and all of us in the armed forces. Service members understand, probably better than anyone else, the importance of doing one’s duty: of upholding the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and following the orders of commanding officers whether you agree with them, like them, or understand them or not. As Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade: soldiers understand that “theirs [is] not to make reply, theirs [is] not to reason why, theirs [is] but to do and die.” [1] Echoing the conclusion of King Solomon, Jesus teaches us this morning that fearing God and keeping his commandments is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Jesus defines this duty to us; Jesus provides this duty for us.


We have jumped ahead in Mark’s gospel to Tuesday of Holy Week. All day Jesus had held court before the crowds who had gathered for the Passover festival, both those who adored him and those who hated him. He had patiently responded to his enemies who peppered him with ‘gotcha’ questions (Mark 12:13) regarding his authority (Mark 11:27-33), paying taxes (Mark 12:13-27), and marriage in the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). By consistently destroying his enemies’ arguments with the sword of the Spirit…the word of God (Ephesians 6:17) he not only left his opponents speechless, but revealed himself to be the wisdom of God incarnate (1 Corinthians 1:24), the teacher greater than Solomon Israel had been waiting for. (Matthew 12:42)


But Jesus’ opponents had one last hope to discredit him and his ministry before the people. They sent a teacher of the law armed with the godfather of Jewish questions: of all the commandments, which is the most important? This was a loaded question; for at least two reasons. First, the rabbis had shifted the focus from the moral will of God (the 10 commandments) to the numerous civil and ceremonial laws God had given his people [2] which led to endless bickering over which was the most important. [3] (Which was why they probably figured that no matter how Jesus answered, he would tick someone off.) And, second, because Jesus was standing in the temple, surrounded by rituals, sacrifices and washings certainly, one would think that in keeping with his surroundings, he would say that the greatest commandment was something like making sure to bring the full tithe or making sure that the sacrificial animals were without defect, right? Something outward. Something formal. Something a person could do and be done with – that was, and is, the way many people think religion works.


But Jesus doesn’t debate the relative importance of ceremonial washings or sacrifices, nor does he give them his opinion, he gives them more Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4, which isn’t a command but a statement. Hear, O Israel – listen up!; the LORD – “Yahweh”, the great “I AM”, the one who created the universe in six days, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who rescued your fathers from Egypt and promised salvation to all people - this LORD is not just a God; he is our God – who chose us, for no reason other than he wanted to, who has promised to redeem us, who has adopted us as his children. We belong to him and he belongs to us; [This] LORD is one – there is no one like him. He is the only true God. He is the only Creator, Savior, and Judge. This may seem obvious, but, unfortunately, for many people it’s not: our duty as humans doesn’t begin with what we do, it begins with recognizing who our God (your commanding officer) is! Before Jesus commands anything, he reminds us that God loved us first! (1 John 4:19)


If we recognize the LORD – the God who created, saved, and adopted us – as our God, then the greatest commandment makes perfect sense: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. What does the LORD demand from us? Nothing less than perfect, absolute loyalty. He demands that we love him with every fiber of our being; that every thought in our minds, every desire of our hearts, every choice we make and every action we take is perfectly in line with his holy will. The LORD is not the God many people think he is, who is on his knees begging for attention, begging us to try our best to fit him into our busy schedules and lives; he is demanding, commanding us to fit our lives and schedules into him and his will. The primary duty we owe to the LORD is to have no other gods – to allow nothing and no one to take his place as the “commanding officer” of our hearts, minds and lives. And – why would you want to? There is no other God and no other Savior!


That’s the first, the second is this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. This is really not a second commandment, but an extension of the first. Because [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, (Acts 17:25) – while our hearts are to serve God alone, our hands are to serve others. Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God, as St. John writes: if anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)


Two questions automatically come to mind: who and how? The world has made a mess of these questions, but the biblical answers are clear, if not easy. Your neighbor is the person you are “next to” (πλησίον). Your neighbor is the person next to you in bed, at home, at the office, in the checkout line, at the 4-way stop sign, sitting behind you right now. How are you to love them? We already heard Paul’s definition of love: love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8) If you look through commandments 4-10, you quickly find that warm, fuzzy feelings are not listed anywhere. In the Bible love is not an emotion; it is action. They are commands and prohibitions regarding how you are to act in relation to your neighbor’s authority, life, sexuality, possessions, and reputation. By respecting his or her authority, by protecting and supporting the lives and livelihoods of others, by keeping yourself and others sexually pure, by helping them keep their possessions and by defending their reputation you are loving them as you love yourself. That’s it. That’s the whole duty of man in one word: love; love God above all things, love your neighbor as yourself. Even the teacher of the law had to agree that these commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.


And yet, while this confession put him on the road to salvation, Jesus makes it clear that he wasn’t yet saved. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Why? Why can the law bring us near God’s kingdom but not into it? Because the law is perfect (Psalm 19:7) but we are not; because the law can tell us what we must do, but it can’t help us do it; because the law can point out where we have failed, but it cannot take away our failures; because we can make a pretty good show of loving others – but God sees our hearts and sees when we do “good” things grudgingly or resentfully. (1 Samuel 16:7) And, as a result, God has already announced his verdict on the world, on everyone sitting in this room, on each of us individually: there is no one who does good, not even one. (Romans 3:12) And the sooner we recognize and confess that about ourselves, the sooner we will understand that something more than our best effort is needed to be accepted into God’s kingdom, his salvation, his heaven.


Which shows the absolute necessity of the second part of our duty to God. Jesus describes part two in John’s Gospel: the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29) This part involves work, too – but not our work. It is God’s work of creating faith in us to see and believe that the one giving these commands to us has come to fulfill these commands for us. The whole reason Jesus was there on Tuesday of Holy Week, holding court before people who hated him and were planning his death was that he knew that even if we understood God’s Greatest Commandment perfectly, there was no chance that we could ever do it. He knew that we would never love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. He knew that we are too self-centered and self-interested to love others as much as we love ourselves. He knew that left to our own powers and abilities and desires we would be found guilty of failing to perform our duty and doomed to an eternity in hell’s prison.


Jesus came to earth to provide the perfectly dutiful life God demands from us, for us. He provided it by becoming one of us – by voluntarily placing himself under his Father’s authority and placing himself next to the same frustrating, exasperating people you and I call our neighbors. He provided it by loving God with every fiber of his being and loving others infinitely more than he loved himself. And he proved the full extent of his love (John 13:1) by smothering the grenade of God’s wrath for us on the cross – sparing us, saving us, redeeming us from the punishment we deserved. And unlike any soldier, any man, woman, or child to ever live – he could say that he completed his duty perfectly, he did say it (which includes everything God demands of you) is finished. (John 19:30) The whole duty that God demands from you is provided for you in Christ – so that through faith in Jesus we can be absolutely sure that when we stand before God for our performance review on the Last Day, we will hear: well done, good and faithful servant…come and share your master’s happiness. (Matthew 25:23) On Veteran’s Day, because of Jesus, we can be confident that when this tour of duty is over we will be honorably discharged into God’s presence in heaven.


Until then, we still need to know the greatest commandment; we still need to know our duty to the LORD who loved us first. “Ours is not to make reply, ours is not to reason why” – and because of Jesus, our end is not to die. Our duty to our LORD is to know and obey his commands perfectly; and because we can’t, to turn in faith to Jesus – who has! On Veteran’s Day and Judgment Day and every day in between – this is the whole duty of man. Amen.


[2] 248 positive laws – as many as the members of the body; and 365 negative ones – as many as the days in the year; a total of 613 – as many as the letters in the Decalogue. (Wenzel)

[3] For example: if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath…if anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ …you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:16-22)