Mark 12:28-34 New International Version
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.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
I thought it would be interesting to re-imagine that conversation between the teacher of Jewish law, and Jesus, as if it were a baseball game. So let’s play ball!
It is the biggest game of the season in the Jerusalem baseball league. The home team, the Temple Pharisees, are hosting the Galilee Disciples. It is one of the last regular season games. Tension has been building between these two teams. The big city Pharisees don’t want to be beat by these small town players, some of whom look more like fishermen and farmers than they do ball players.
Jesus is up to bat. The bases are loaded. Simon is on first, James is on second, and John is on third. The other disciples are on the bench, all eyes on the batter. They are 3 runs behind, it is the last out, and they really want Jesus to bring their team-mates home.
The infield and outfield positions are staffed with Pharisees ready to pounce on the ball, and make the play. They just need an out, and this game will be theirs.
There is a home field advantage in this game, because the Pharisees have also supplied their own umpire. The umpire pays close attention to how Jesus addresses the ball, and what happens when he hits. Will it be fair or foul?
I once knew a Toronto Bay Street lawyer who volunteered in the summer time as a little league baseball umpire. He also encouraged his daughters to be umpires, because he believed that it was good training. To be an effective umpire, he said, you have to know the rules inside out. You have to watch carefully, and very quickly make your call, and be decisive when you make it.
The Jewish religion in Jesus’ time was very much about following a list of 613 rules from the first five books of the Bible, so the teachers of religion were a bit like lawyers, or umpires who expected people to follow their calls.
My son Joel, who will turn 20 in a few weeks, said just the other day how much he misses playing ball. I can remember being at one of his games when a very excitable assistant coach was almost ejected from the game, because he kept challenging the umpire’s calls. His behaviour was such a contrast with the kids on the team, who were there, most of them, because they love the game, and wanted to play, and weren’t all that caught up in winning or losing.
The Jewish teachers of the law saw Jesus as a threat to their ability to run the religion game. They may have just been itching to call him out on strikes, or even throw him out of the game altogether. But back to our game, between the Temple Pharisees and the Galilee Disciples.
The pitcher sends one flying towards Jesus. “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus might have seen that one coming. He looks relaxed and ready. He takes his swing, and makes a good connection. He says:
“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.”
It’s a hit!
The pitcher nods and smiles. He respects a good hitter. After all he loves the game, and wants to see it played well.
Jesus is quoting the Shema, a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy recited twice a day by pious Jews. It is foundational to their faith that there is only one God. This is a way of saying that all other gods are false gods- distractions from the true faith. We are to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind and strength.
Even the umpire looks happy. “Fair ball!” The crowd is waiting for Jesus to run the bases. Even a good hitter has to touch all the bags, to score. But Jesus isn’t ready to move. He watches the ball arc into the sky, and says, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The crowd are going crazy! They can see why Jesus was in no hurry to run, because this ball is out of there. He has literally hit it out of the park.
Jesus sets down his bat, and makes a leisurely circuit of the bases. When he gets back to home plate, Simon and James and John have all made it in. They are so excited. They embrace Jesus. The pitcher runs to the plate to congratulate Jesus, and even the umpire is uncharacteristically enthusiastic. Something important has just happened.
The pitcher says, “Well said, teacher!” The crowd is going wild. Both benches are cleared, and all the players are jumping up and down. But it is not a brawl, it is a celebration. The pitcher calls for quiet. The umpire nods his head in agreement. He wants to hear what else the pitcher has to say.
“You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Now the crowd is very still, as the pitcher’s words sink in. They can’t believe their ears. The star pitcher of the Pharisees had just agreed that it is more important to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself, than it is to make sacrifices at the temple.
That ball really was hit out of the park. And out of the temple. Because a Pharisee has just realized that following God is more important than simply following the rule book, and going through the motions.
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
What did Jesus mean when he said the Pharisee was not far from the kingdom of God?
In Luke’s Gospel there is another story of Jesus facing the hard pitches. One of the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come. “He answered them, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-22)
To love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. This is all about being in relationship. How we are connected to God, and to others, and to our true self. These connections make our lives bigger, and truth to tell, much more worth living.
This is a movement beyond a religion of rules, where we always need external guidelines, and umpires to tell us if we are safe or out. This is a movement towards learning, or remembering who we are, and what life is actually all about. It is as if the Pharisee, who has been going through the motions of religion his whole life, is starting to wake up, and see it all in a deeper way.
When I watch baseball, at any level, from little league to the big leagues, I love watching the players for whom the game has become natural. They are so into it, they don’t really have to think hard before they make a play. It is as if their deeper self just knows what to do, and they do it. They are really in the game. I also love watching the ones who just seem to be having a great time- playing as much for the joy of the games as anything else. Ever watch the Jays star first baseman, Vladimir Guerrero Junior? He’s like that.
When Jesus told the Pharisee he was not far from the kingdom of God, what he was saying is that the Pharisee was beginning to get it- he was moving from following an external religion, to living an internal faith- one that he knows from the inside out. The Pharisee is beginning to see that the point is not just to follow rules, to stay out of trouble with the religious umpires.
The point is to love, because it is in loving that we actually have the experience of knowing that we are close to God, because God is all around us. Love is not just a feeling, or an idea. Love is actually a powerful force, at work in the universe.
In the first letter of John, it says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
The letter goes on to say, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
When we open ourselves to consciously loving God, and other people, and ourselves, we can experience God’s love as a powerful energy that flows into us, and through us. When we live, and love in this way, it is a whole new ball game. Amen