Some time ago now, I had the chance to preach at New Covenant Fellowship in Luton, on the first of the church’s six foundational values: to (1) love God and (2) love people, a place of (3) the Word of God and (4) the power of God, and a place of (5) holiness and (6) freedom. More than a year later, I’ve finally written this up as a full post, because it’s a message close to my heart, and I believe an important one.
1. Loving God Is The First Commandment
Then one of the scribes… asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’ Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. There is no other commandment greater than these.
So here in Mark 12, after Jesus has dealt with a succession of trick questions from the religious leaders, finally a scribe stands up and asks Jesus a genuine question. And the question is an important one for all of us with busy schedules trying to squeeze in as many as possible of the things that we have been told ‘thou shalt do’ into our limited time. What is the first priority?
Jesus answers simply and straightforwardly with the words of Moses: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, will all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”. Which, as the scribe rightly points out, is far more important than going through the religious rituals of offering “burnt offerings and sacrifices”.
And lest we think that as ‘New Covenant’ Fellowship, our situation is somehow different from those under the ‘Old Covenant’, let us point out this – that we Christians need to be reminded just as much as any Jew ever did, that loving God is not a matter of just going to church and fulfilling whatever religious obligations are expected of us.
It’s a matter of all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.
But here’s a question that is worth asking: is the command to love God a distinct requirement from the command to love our neighbour? When Jesus follows this by saying that “the second commandment is like it”, is Jesus saying that our first priority is to love God, and loving our neighbour is our second priority–or is he saying that they are both together the same most important commandment?
2. This Is More Important Than The Second Commandment
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that”
In Luke 10:25 we find a situation very similar to the one we’ve just examined in Mark 12, except that instead of Jesus being asked what the most important requirement of the law is, this time Jesus is doing the asking. And although it sounds like the man has been listening to Jesus (he sums up the law in exactly the same way Jesus does), he doesn’t really seem to have grasped what Jesus means, as is made evident by the man’s attempts to “justify himself” after Jesus agrees that the man has “answered rightly”.
But we should note that although the man’s answer is fairly good, he – like many people today – fails to distinguish the First Commandment from the Second. Instead of clearly noting that before we can love our neighbour as ourselves we must first love God completely, he jumbles them together. And perhaps – just perhaps – this failure to the see that absolute priority that loving God should have goes hand in hand with his failure to understand the implications of the summary of the law he recited.
Now Jesus responds to the man not by quibbling about this detail but by telling him the unforgettable Parable of the Good Samaritan. But Luke, author of this particular historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry, does seem to think that this detail needs some more dealing with – for he deliberately follows this incident with a story that deals with the precise issue here in question, the story of Mary and Martha.
Here, Martha is working hard to love her neighbour. But since multitasking is a myth that means that she is “distracted with much serving” from the main task of loving God – even when He is present in her very house! Her sister Mary however is focussing on the First Commandment, “sat at the feet of Jesus” and giving Him her undivided attention – but to the detriment of the Second Commandment, which would most obviously be expressed in fulfilling her household responsibilities to help Martha serving the guests.
So Martha, understandably enough, tells Jesus that he should tell Mary to help her. There’s a time and place for loving God first, but when there are things that need to be done to honour the neighbours that are visiting your house, surely the second part of Jesus’ summary of the law takes priority over the first?
But Jesus’ response is unambiguous: No! “Martha, you are worried about many things. But one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen that”. And thus our question is answered. Loving God always takes priority over loving neighbour.
3. This Is Offensive To Some People
Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?
Now this is offensive to some people. Including some followers of Jesus. And if we flip forward to John 12, we’ll see that this was the case even in Jesus’ day.
We’re still staying with Mary and Martha, now some considerable time after the incident described in Luke 10. Martha is still the one dutifully serving (Jn. 12:2), Mary still shows no sign of doing so. Instead she is taking her devotion up a level – not just sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Him speak, but actually anointing His feet with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair. And this isn’t just any old perfume–according to one disciple’s unimpressed assessment of the situation, this stuff is worth three hundred denarii. Which probably doesn’t mean anything to you. So let’s break it down: one denarius was a day’s wages. So three hundred denarii was a whole year’s wages!
Translated into modern British terms, at a minimum wage of £6.31/hour for an adult, and supposing that a day’s work is eight paid hours long, that’s over fifteen thousand pounds! Which is a lot of money to pour over someone’s feet. Like the watching disciples, we cannot help but ask ourselves the question: Is such a use of resources good stewardship? The scandalous thing is that Jesus seems to think so. Not only does he say that Mary has “done a good thing” (Mark 14:6 ), but even more remarkably adds that “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her”. It seems difficult to avoid the implication that the gospel is incomplete if we fail to include the exhortation to extravagant worship–indeed, offensively extravagant worship.
4. So We Need The Right Theological Paradigm: Jesus Is Our Bridegroom, We Are His Bride
Lazarus sat at the table with Jesus. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance.
Song of Songs 1:12
So we need a theological paradigm that will help us make sense of this call to extravagant worship. And I believe that in the very words he uses to describe the scene, John is suggesting such a paradigm to us. Look at John 12:2-3 and compare it with Song of Songs 1:12, and the repetition of vocabulary is clear. The theological paradigm we need to have if we are to make sense of the extravagance of love that the most important commandment instructs us to have, is that of Jesus as the Bridegroom King and we, his church, as the Bride. Now some will concede this but then very quickly nullify the power of this by making the excuse that ‘corporately’ it may be true that we are ‘the Bride’, but that it is a theological error to think that individually we should think in these sorts of terms. However this is a flawed argument.
For one thing, it fails to allow for the fractal relationship of the individual believer to the corporate church. But perhaps the most obvious way of looking at it is this: if no individual believer is supposed to show passionate extravagant love for Jesus, then how can the church as a whole ever come to a point of being characterised by such Bridal passion? And specifically in this passage, we see Mary acting quite independently in lavishing an extravagantly expensive love-offering at the feet of Jesus–and John the inspired author describes her action in terms that quite clearly allude to the bride in the Song of Songs. On the other hand though, it is nevertheless important to underscore the fact that this ‘bridal paradigm’ describes a passionate spirituality, not sexual sensuality.
5. Being An Extravagant Lover Of Jesus Is Not Just For The Ladies
Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.
‘Well,’ you might be thinking, ‘perhaps this idea of relating to Jesus as our Bridegroom might be all very well for the ladies, but I’m a man!’ But you just need to read the rest of the Gospel of John to see that this sort of passionate relationship towards Jesus isn’t just experienced by Mary, or just by women, but very definitely by men too. The very writer of the gospel describes himself throughout as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’. John the Baptist speaks of Jesus as ‘the Bridegroom’ and himself as ‘the friend who rejoices greatly at his voice.’ Perhaps the scene bearing the closest resemblance to the extravagance of Mary pouring a year’s wages of perfume at the feet of Jesus, is that of Nicodemus bringing a hundred pounds (that’s about forty-five kilograms – though some translations have seventy-five pounds, or about thirty-five kilos) of spices to anoint the body of Jesus for burial after his crucifixion.
6. The Gospel Is What Tranforms Cynical Men Into Besotted Lovers Of God
Jesus: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus: “How can a man be ‘born again’ when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” John 3:1-16
So how did Nicodemus come to this point of extravagant devotion to Jesus? Had he always been this way inclined? Nicodemus appears three times in the Gospel of John, and to begin with he is the very antithesis of the shamelessly passionate lover of Jesus that Mary exemplifies with her anointing of Jesus feet, and that Nicodemus eventually also resembles with his weighty gift of incense. When we first see him, in John chapter three, he is coming to Jesus by dead of night in order to avoid the awkwardness of being associated with him while nevertheless wanting to quiz him as to the source of his undeniable supernatural power. After a brief but profound conversation, we then see no more of Nicodemus until chapter seven. Here he is still not quite at the point of unashamedly confessing his love for Jesus, but does draw the ire of his fellow Pharisees by questioning their dismissive attitude towards Jesus. It’s only in chapter nineteen – and only after Jesus’ death! – that finally Nicodemus risks his religious reputation by bringing this astonishingly large gift of spices to anoint Jesus’ body. What was it that worked this change in Nicodemus? How was it that a respectable man aware of the importance of maintaining his reputation could be transformed into an unselfconscious extravagant Jesus-lover? The answer is simple: it’s the simple gospel message. This is what Jesus explains to Nicodemus when he comes to him by night, that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”.
Now, hearing this simple message didn’t immediately transform Nicodemus. And that might be because although “faith comes by hearing”, it’s often not (though it is sometimes!) an immediate result–rather, the gospel can sometimes sit silent for some considerable time in our hearts, lying like a dormant seed until eventually, unexpectedly, the living water of the Spirit at last causes that seed to grow and blossom and bring forth fruit. But I think it might be because Nicodemus initially just didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. When Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ comment about the need to be ‘born again’ with a jibe about ‘entering his mother’s womb a second time’, I think he was being deliberately mocking. But when Jesus used the analogy of Moses holding up the snake in the wilderness, I think it’s more than likely that Nicodemus simply had no idea what Jesus was getting at. Not, I suggest, until the moment Jesus died upon the cross–when everything must have suddenly clicked into place in Nicodemus’ mind. This is how God demonstrates his love for the world, by giving his Son specifically to die that we might live, ‘becoming sin for us’ and thus being like the snake Moses held up on the pole so that whoever looked at it might be healed. And when Nicodemus understood the gospel, immediately he was released to become a whole-hearted lover of God.
And when we understand the gospel, we will too.