How’s Your Love Life? – A Sermon On Mark 12:28-34

The year my dad was in Viet Nam my mom, sister, and I lived in my mom and dad’s hometown. I was about nine or ten years old. Every few weeks I’d go to Alfie’s Barber Shop for a haircut. It was always the same routine. I’d climb up in the chair and Alfie would wrap a sheet around me. Then he’d spin the chair around so we were both looking into the mirror and he’d say, “How’s your love life these days?” 

His question made me so uncomfortable. I would giggle, squirm, and get embarrassed. I wondered if he knew I had a crush on not just one but two girls in my class, Jackie Callaway and Kim Cochran. His question still makes me uncomfortable today, but for different reasons. 

I wonder if Alfie’s question is the unspoken question running through today’s gospel (Mark 12:28-34). 

“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,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

These are the two commandments on which everything hangs. You can’t have one without the other. They are two sides of the same thing. If you want to know how well or how much you love God, look at how you are or are not loving your neighbor. As the scribe in today’s gospel says, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So how would you answer Alfie’s question today? How’s your love life? 

Most of us have come to understand love as primarily a feeling or affection. It can certainly have those qualities. But what if Jesus isn’t talking about our feelings for or affection towards another person or God? What if Jesus is talking about our commitment to them? What if Jesus is really saying, “You shall commit to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall commit to your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder what it would look like in each of our lives today to have the same level of commitment to the lives and well-being of others as we have to our own. If you want to know the depth and character of your commitment to God, look at your commitment to your neighbor, especially the neighbor who is on the other side of the aisle, the other side of town, or the other side of the border. What do you see? To whom are you committed and to whom are you not committed? What do your commitments to another look like? How much are you willing to give and what and when do you hold back? What happens when you don’t get anything in return? 

To put it bluntly, who matters to you and who doesn’t? When I think about the two great commandments in that way I really don’t want to answer Alfie’s question. It doesn’t just make me uncomfortable it makes me nauseous. 

One of the things I know about myself, and maybe this is true for you too, is that I can always find the time, money, and energy for the people and things that really matter to me. And regardless of how much I have I will never have enough time, money, and energy for the people and things that don’t matter to me. I hope you know that I’m not talking about the quantity of my hours or dollars, but the quality and shape of my commitments.

I think we’ve become so familiar with the two great commandants that we no longer hear what they’re asking of us. 

Think about it like this. What if you asked someone, “Do you love me?” And after a long and awkward pause and considerable deliberation he or she said, “Well, up to a certain point, under certain conditions, to a certain extent, yes, I do.” You have your answer but it’s probably not what you wanted to hear. We all know that’s not love and it’s not the commitment we want from someone who claims to love us. (Caputo, On Religion, 4)

The love, the commitment, that Jesus speaks about is all or nothing, everyone or no one. “The only measure of love is love without measure” (Ibid.). 

My guess, however, is that for most of us love is circumstantial. We tend to love others depending on the circumstances: who the other is, what he or she has said or done, how they’ve treated us, whether we have positive feelings about or an attraction to them, whether we agree or disagree with them, and whether we consider them acceptable and lovable. I wonder whose names and faces came up for you as I said that. Who is lovable and who is not? Who meets your criterion and who does not?

Circumstantial love sounds to me more like an investment than a commitment. When I invest in someone I usually expect a return on my investment. I’m looking for a profit. I want to know what’s in it for me. But when I commit to someone, I’m in it for the other, not myself, and I willingly risk losing it all. Isn’t that what we see in the life of Jesus? Jesus didn’t invest himself in the cross, he committed himself to it. Isn’t that why we can speak of the cross as a symbol of love? 

“The mark of really loving someone or something is unconditionality and excess, engagement and commitment, fire and passion” (Ibid., 5). Jesus’ love is not circumstantial and neither is his command to love. The “imperative of love requires the most rigorous self-forgetting attention to the circumstances we confront moment by moment” (Williams, Looking East in Winter, Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition, 7). “Love cannot be dependent on circumstance or attitude; we do not perfectly love if our love depends on someone’s positive relation to us, but only when we accept the variety and instability of how others treat us or regard us” (Ibid., 15).

I don’t know what to do with all that and I don’t think the people listening to Jesus that day did either. Maybe that’s why “no one dared to ask him any question.” Maybe there are no questions to ask Jesus but only questions to ask ourselves – questions about our love for and commitment to others, questions about who’s in and who’s out, questions about how much we are willing to give and how much we hold back.  

“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,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

“After that no one dared to ask him any question.” There was only silence – the kind of silence that speaks and challenges, the kind of silence that reveals the gulf between what is and what might be, the kind of silence that opens a space for something new to arise. 

Take a moment to feel that silence. 

Listen to what that silence is asking of you. 

Imagine what it is offering you and the world. 

How’s your love life these days? 

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