19The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?37He said to him,You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?They said to him,The son of David.43He said to them,How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet?’
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?
46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Last week we looked at a question of paying taxes, this week the text has us face a question about the law… Which commandment in the law is the greatest? To us, it seems like such a simple question… especially because anyone who has grown up in the church or spent any amount of time around churches already knows the answer… How many times have we heard the phrase, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself?
Questions and answers are an important part of a person's faith journey. When I first started reading the Bible as a high schooler it was because of the questions that were bouncing around in my head… when I first started volunteering in ministry it was at least in part because of the questions that were going on in my heart. Questions are indispensable… the lead us to learn and to grow… they lead us to transformation and new opportunities… but sometimes, what's behind the question is as important as the question.
Just like last week's question on taxes it would appear that this week's question was also asked with ulterior motives. Verse 35 tells us that that the question was intended to test Jesus. In fact in the context of Matthew's gospel everything… all the teaching and all the questions that happen in the 22nd and 23rd chapters are in response to Jesus cleansing the temple and tossing out the money changers right after the triumphal entry… the religious leaders: the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Sadducees and the Pharisees are all trying to figure out who this guy thinks he is to buck the system they all worked so hard to maintain…
And in my read of this text, the person who asked the question, and the people who stood behind him to watch and see what Jesus would say weren't asking because they wanted to learn something… they weren't asking because they wanted to heed what Jesus said and learn to live by it… they were asking to see if they could catch him off guard… if they could trip him up… if they could make him publicly lose face or be discredited in some way. There are some authors who point out that the Pharisees had 613 laws in their purity code and that the Pharisee asked the question in hopes that Jesus would stumble… that he would fumble going through the list in his head… perhaps picking one and then wait, no a different one… or that he would say that the whole law was important… or better yet that he would say none of the law was important… then they would be able to accuse him of heresy. But the thing that was clear is that they already knew the answer to their question… or at least they thought they did.
I don't think I realized how prevalent this kind of thing might be until I was at a Christmas party a few years ago. I think it was my second year of Seminary, I was working part time as a tutor for an SAT prep course… the party was being thrown by the company I worked for. Nobody knew each other but we all got to clock in for the party so of course we all went… and for a couple of hours we all stood around and engaged in the usual cocktail party chit-chat… the kind that happens when you don't know the other people and don't figure you're going to see them very much after that day… you know very surface level stuff — where you live, what do you do, do you have any plans for the holidays… that kind of stuff… except when someone asked me what I did and I told them I was studying to be a minister. It was like the floodgates opened. There were a couple of people who started asking questions…
And I remember feeling totally on the spot and a little bit cornered;
they were asking the big questions… the kinds of questions that
don't have an easy answer… things like
If God's for real,
why doesn't God do something about the problems of the world?
Well, what about the fate of all the people who never have the
opportunity to hear about Jesus? How could a loving God send anyone
to hell, let alone 5 billion people? And usually when people are
asking those kinds of tough questions, I tend to think it's a good
thing because it means they're searching; and when people are
searching I believe that God's at work finding them … but that
day, those questions weren't about searching… They weren't
asking to learn something, they weren't asking to attempt to
understand. They already knew everything they wanted to know…
they knew that there are hard questions… they knew that their
questions didn't have easy answers and they might not have
satisfactory answers at all. And I remember walking away from that
discussion feeling both blindsided and discouraged because it seemed
like those two people were using the fact that I didn't have an easy
answer for their impossible question as justification for their
dismissal of the Christian faith.
As I have reflected on that experience and at least a few more that were similar through the years, I realized that questions are indispensable… and they are a great avenue to growth unless the question that's being asked is being asked as a way to avoid the call of Christ. And some have suggested that's what the Lawyer in our story was up to… The lawyer asked about the greatest commandment. The first one Jesus gave comes from Deuteronomy Chapter 6…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your might. Sound familiar? the text continues:
these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them
to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you
are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on
your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on
the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
If the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus, they were certainly
disappointed by this answer… it may be the least controversial
thing Jesus ever said… This passage is
because that's the Hebrew word that starts it off. And to this day,
if you ask Jewish children about the greatest commandment, they'll
probably recite that passage to you and they might even do it in
Hebrew… That tradition has been passed down since long before
Jesus time. The second command Jesus gave comes from the Leviticus
passage we read in worship this morning… Jesus wasn't the first
to sum up the law with these two commandments and there was pretty
much broad agreement that the two commands was a good summary of the
law… So if our passage stopped there, Jesus probably would have
passed the test of the lawyer and the Pharisees…
But Jesus wasn't done. At the heart of being a faithful Jew, the law wasn't about rules and regulations, it was about relationship, specifically relationship with God and relationship with other people - and relationship doesn't happen because of philosophical questioning… it takes commitment and it takes action. And Jesus makes it clear that he's more interested in how they're going to live the law than how they're going to rank it.
What do you think about the messiah? he asks and then when they
respond that he's the son of David, Jesus goes on to quote
the 110th Psalm to show
the Pharisees that even their beloved ancestor King David understood
himself to be subject to the messiah… And if David, why not
them? So again, Jesus turns the tables. They started out with a
question about the law and Jesus reframes it so that it's a question
about life… What are right relationships… How are you
loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul? And
also, how are you loving your neighbor?
In some ways loving neighbor seems a little bit easier to grasp… It seems more tangible, perhaps more practical… we can touch, see, and know what love for neighbor looks like… everything from conversations on the front porch with the people who live next door to making meals for the family crisis center can be seen as loving neighbor. Everything from making a donation to SOTI to tutoring a child in need can be seen as loving neighbor… Whether it's offering time, food, labor, goods, whatever it may be, if it's done in order to benefit someone else, it can be a part of what it means to love neighbor… and clearly that's important in our faith journey, especially when our mission as a church is to serve.
But even that gets second billing according to Jesus. The greatest commandment and the first priority is to love God with all that we are… and that begins by recognizing what God has done and responding. When we pray in gratitude for the gifts we've received, it's the beginning of loving God. When we joyfully worship, it's an expression of love for God. When we strive to learn who Jesus is and choose to follow his way, it's an expression of love. Any time we take on a spiritual discipline with the intention to grow in our faith it's an expression of love for God. And it does take a commitment on our part… a commitment of time, of energy, of resources a commitment of whatever it is that you have been given… and after all , in this stewardship season wouldn't it be a good idea if the standard we use to judge how we're doing was the standard that Jesus called the most important commandment? To love God and to love neighbor? And the two are linked… loving God with everything we are will inevitably lead to loving others as well… caring for others is the byproduct of following the way of Christ. The consequence of being loved more than we could ask or imagine is that we want to share that love with people who don't know it… the end result of gratitude for what we've been given, is that we want everyone else to have enough too… and the response to recognizing the gifts in the first place has to be some level of joyful appreciation of who God is… These are the things that define us as Christians and these are the things we strive for in the stewardship season and beyond. May they be reflected in all of our lives.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on October 16, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland