Why do we do what we do? Sometimes that’s the unanswerable question. Sometimes the answer is simple: love.
I found myself asking lots of why questions about today’s scripture reading. Why did the scribe ask Jesus this question?
28 One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Throughout the Gospels there is an ongoing series of religious leaders investigating Jesus. I suppose it might have been a bit like the process we go through with people who want to become pastors in the Presbyterian church. There are various points at which a candidate has to answer questions. Ordination exams are in writing, but the rest of the questioning is in committee meetings and at larger gatherings like presbytery and congregational meetings. Often the questions being asked are ways of getting to know the candidate better, but sometimes they are not so friendly, even sometimes trying to get the candidate to say something that might disqualify them.
It’s likely that Jesus got questioned with a similar variety of motives. Our gospel writers tell us that some of the questioning was specifically to try to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could arrest him because he was challenging the status quo. Earlier in this chapter we’re reading from today, chapter 12, Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard in which the caretakers refuse to cooperate with the vineyard owner. The religious leaders understand the allegory to be about them, but they are careful about how they respond because Jesus was popular with the crowds.
So they come back and ask Jesus some tricky questions. They ask whether Jews should pay taxes, and Jesus wisely answers, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Then he’s asked about widows who marry again. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? And Jesus confounds them by pointing out the error in their question and telling them they don’t know the scriptures well enough. Burn!
So then, in today’s reading, a scribe decides to try out a question with Jesus himself. It’s unclear whether this is a friendly question or not, but unlike the others, I think this person seems to have sincerely wanted to know more about what Jesus has to say. So the scribe asks, “Of all the commandments, which is the greatest?”
29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
Why did Jesus answer this way?
Jesus has just called some Sadducees out for not knowing scripture, so Jesus uses scripture to answer this question. He’s quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, called the Shema because that’s the first Hebrew word in the passage. “Hear O Israel…” Shema means hear. This passage is recited often in Jewish prayers. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18.
But also, because it’s true that all the laws in the Bible are summed up in these two commandments. For example, the Ten Commandments – first four are about loving God, and the other six are about loving your neighbor. (Exodus 20:1-17)
How we live out those two commandments can happen a million different ways, but the core of why we do what we do, in church, and throughout our lives, needs to be love. Not hate, not greed, not selfishness, not prejudice or racism, not classism or nationalism, not legalism or traditionalism, but love.
1 Cor. 14:1 says, “Let love be your highest goal.”
Why do skeletons have low self-esteem? They have no body to love.
Why is this the text for Reformation Sunday?
Did you know that today is Reformation Sunday? On October 31 in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 protest statements to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was challenging the church’s practice of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. In his statements, Luther pointed out that the Bible is the authority, not the clergy, and that forgiveness comes by grace through faith alone, from God and not from the church.
Luther struggled with the idea of salvation by works, and the image of a judgmental God who was hard to satisfy. Through his study of the scriptures, especially Romans and Galatians, Luther came to see that God is more about love and mercy, and that God offers salvation by grace through faith, and not through works.
Luther was part of a movement that was happening in that time, the Protestant reformation. Reformers like Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Uldrich Zwingli, and many others, were challenging the status quo and asking us to remember why we do what we do.
I was surprised to find this week that some discussions of church reformers include Henry VIII. In 1534, the pope refused to grant Henry an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so Henry protested and established his own church, the Church of England, made himself the head of the church and gave himself a divorce. Henry’s motivation for being a protestant reformer was a little different, maybe the opposite of love, but the denomination he instituted is still in place today, and the Queen of England is still the head of that church.
Why do we do what we do? One of the questions the reformers were asking is whether we are doing what we do to support an institution or are we living out our love for God and our neighbor. This is like what the scribe says in our reading for today as he commends Jesus for his answer. “This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” Mark 12:33 The book of Leviticus is full of instructions and rules for making offerings and sacrifices to God. The religious leaders had expanded those rules include the ways they could and could not be lived out in daily life. As a result, it was easy for religion to be more about following the rules then about the reason for the rules. They were supposed to be helping people to love God and love one another, but that was getting lost.
So Jesus’ response takes it back to the basics. What is the bottom line? Love.
Love is not the word we think of so much when we think about Halloween, though. On Halloween, I cannot resist talking about zombies. What would you call a movie about zombies finding true love? A zom-com.
What is the bottom line? Love. Putting love as the first and most important command means that love becomes the motivation for all that we do. I was thinking about this when I visited the Wichita Art Museum earlier this week. Our Presbytery of Southern Kansas coordinating team met at the art museum this week to do some big picture thinking for our presbytery, and as part of that, our presbytery executive Gail Doering sent us out into the museum to find inspiration from the art. I noticed, as I read the descriptions that are posted beside each piece, that some of them demonstrated this foundation of love as our motivation.
This hammered copper sculpture is called “Road Builder.” It’s by Saul Baizerman, an American artist who was deeply concerned about manual workers and the urban poor. Baizerman hammered copper by hand, a difficult process, and a way of making his art like the way manual laborers do their daily toil. This work took a toll on Baizerman, just like it does on manual laborers. The strenuous process reduced the motor control in Baizerman’s hands and damaged his hearing. His exposure to poisonous chemicals from soldering metal led to his early death at age 68.
What I see in this sculpture and what we learn from Jesus is that Love helps us do hard things. It was not easy to walk the path that Jesus walked, to continually deal with the crowds of people, teaching the disciples who were slow to understand, answering the challenges of the religious leaders who wanted him to go away, enduring the pain of dying on the cross. Why did Jesus do all this? Why did God do all this? Because God loves us all so much. The bottom line is love.
Why do we do hard things? The best reason is love.
Along with hard things, Love helps us do beautiful things.
You might think this abstract landscape by John Marin is an odd choice to demonstrate beautiful things, but Marin believed that to paint the landscape – trees, plains, and mountains – an artist needs to love them. Marin expressed his love of the Tunk Mountains of Maine in this painting with wild, jumping lines and bold patches of color. We see his joy and enthusiasm for the landscape in his freedom of expression.
God’s love inspires us to express that love, sometimes through art or music, sometimes through generosity and faithfulness. In whatever way we are inspired to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we share that with our neighbors, with the people around us, and that is beautiful. And that interplay of love of God and love of neighbors is like a dance.
Love helps us dance.
This painting by Paul Meltsner is called “Martha Graham Dance Class.” Before I saw this painting, I had never heard of Martha Graham, but I suspect that anyone who has studied dance knows about her modern dance style. Meltsner was so inspired by Graham that in 1939 he used what little money he had to produce a series of paintings of Graham.
This painting made me think of the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit helps us dance. The Spirit gives us gui-dance. The interplay of the Holy Spirit with God and Jesus is sometimes described as a dance.
Learning to dance with a partner is like learning to love God and live in that love, as we learn through experience when and how to keep on trusting God and to have depen-dance on Jesus.
I may have hit my exceedance for puns in this sermon.
But I think you may have patience with me and we have patience with one another just like God has patience with us, because of love.
And that’s the bottom line. . . So when you think about why we do what we do, let love be your highest goal.
 Saul Baizerman, American, 1889–1957. Road Builder, 1931–39, Hammered copper, nuts, bolts, and a wood base, Wichita Art Museum
 All of the background on these art pieces is adapted from the descriptions posted next to each piece at the Wichita Art Museum.
 John Marin, American, 1870–1953, Tunk Mountains, 1952, Oil on canvas, Roland P. Murdock Collection
 Paul Meltsner, American, 1905-1966, Martha Graham Dance Class, about 1939, Oil on canvas.