Sermon: The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Oct. 26, 2014
Matthew 22:34-46

There is nothing more frustrating, nothing more irritating, than trying to have a conversation with someone who is not really interested in knowing what you think, or in learning from you, but is intent only on trapping you in a contradiction or a misstatement of some kind in order to undermine your position and your credibility. In the political arena recently, maybe you heard the news about Allison Lundergan Grimes, who is running as a Democrat in Kentucky to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell. She tried her best to evade answering a question posed by a Kentucky newspaper that was designed to trap her. “Who did you vote for, for President in 2012,” they asked. They didn’t really care who she voted for; they could pretty well guess who it was. She’s a Democrat, right? So she probably voted for President Obama. But if she goes on record as saying that she did, then it can be used against her in a state that is not fond of our President. She tried to get around it by claiming the sanctity of the ballot box, saying her vote was a secret vote. And all that did was give her opponent a different kind of weapon – she’s not brave enough to say who she voted for. Either way, she loses! But then, that was the purpose of the question.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is an even worse predicament because there’s no debate like a religious debate since the parties all claim to have God on their side, and feel great urgency to oppose and to silence those who would challenge or reinterpret long-standing positions. The setting is Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week of life. He’d come into the city with the acclamation of many, but since his arrival the tension has been mounting between him and the religious authorities. They pose many questions to him about paying taxes, loyalty to Caesar, and the validity of the resurrection. Not that they want to know the answers to the questions – they know they already know. But they’d like to discredit Jesus by exposing his ignorance.

They are put out by this itinerant, laboring class teacher from Galilee. Who does he think he is? They have spent their lives studying and being trained professionally as leaders of Israel’s spiritual life. They knew every detail. They are the ones who know; they are the ones who are the authorities. Jesus and his followers, on the other hand, have very little experience, very little education, and therefore should have very little authority or influence over anyone or anything.

However instead of effecting his humiliation and undermining of his authority as they’d hoped and planned, Jesus has held his own with them. So they pull out all the stops and have a lawyer, one well versed in all the laws of Moses, to ask the final question. Which commandment is the greatest, he asks? Which of the 613 laws of Moses is the most important? The plan is obviously whichever law Jesus picks, the lawyer will ask why he didn’t pick one of the other ones.

And besides, there isn’t one that is greater than another, all 613 were to be observed and were considered of equal importance. They all hang together; to violate one is to violate all. Some even divided the 613 into 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for each day of the year, and 268 “Thou shalts,” one for each bone of the body. Thus, the law applied to all of ones times and all of one’s movements.[i]

So which one are you going to pick, Jesus? Gotcha!! It’s a no-win situation! But Jesus’ choses to answer by stating the essential core of their faith, from which all of these rules have sprung. “It’s the love!” he says, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. “Everything else in scripture—all the law and all the prophets,” Jesus says, “relates to these two things.” Now, who’s got whom?

The heart of our faith, Jesus insists, is about loving God. We are to love God with all that we are – our heart, our soul, and our mind. For the Pharisees that would have meant adherence to the 613 rules that governed all of life and required living every day in mindful attention to all the laws of God. And, for us as United Methodists, John Wesley stressed the importance of regular routines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, worship, and partaking of the sacrament of holy communion. In this commandment we are taught that part of ourselves is separated from our complete devotion and love for God.

This first law would have been enough to answer the lawyer’s question, but Jesus adds the second law, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because he knew we really cannot love God with our entire heart, soul, and mind, unless and until we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The second greatest commandment is not secondary to the greatest commandment then. It is essential to it, for, as we heard in our Epistle reading, we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors whom we see every day. There are too many people, now as then, cling to the first commandment and somehow have forgotten the second; they proclaim their love for God, while continuing to treat others outside their personal circle of friends and family quite badly. But Jesus doesn’t instruct us to love only our brothers and sisters, but to love the neighbor, the one—whoever she or he happens to be— whom we encounter regardless of circumstances.

Why insist on love? Can’t we just toss a dollar into someone’s hat and walk quickly away? Can’t we just give to the church, or let some agency take care of it? Then haven’t we done our duty towards our neighbor? Not really; the kind of love Jesus is speaking of makes it impossible to see someone in need as beneath ourselves, or to consider any one or any group as a nameless, invisible entity. Instead, we are to see each person, each group of persons as worthy of the respect and consideration that we want for ourselves.

If our nation were to love as Jesus commands us to love, what difference might it make? As we think about the big three right now – Immigration, Ebola, and ISIS! As we think about education, housing, healthcare, job training, minimum wage? Locally, what difference might it make? I have been meeting lately with a group of Athens pastors to discuss what we as a faith community might be able to do to influence the negative response that our city government has given to the idea of resettling 158 refugees in the Athens area – not in downtown Athens, mind you, — in the greater Athens area. Many of these 158 persons are Christians who are seeking asylum in America because they have been persecuted in their home country and fear for their lives. They are not coming here just because they want a better job or to see the world; they are coming here to save their lives. So they’ve already been persecuted once. And now our government is saying, “Not yet; not now.” And they put aside and consequently are persecuted again. How might we be able to love these would be neighbors and help them to live abundantly as God intends for all of God’s children to live? What might that look like and how could we help so that the burden placed on public resources does not push us to the breaking point, as has been suggested? I don’t believe this should be simply a governmental responsibility, but it should be a community responsibility, to respond with love to these desperate neighbors. I personally believe that in welcoming these strangers and in being concerned for their needs we will be welcoming God among us in each one of them.

Now, you might think that Jesus would have quit while he was ahead. He’d answered the question; he’d said, as Paul would say later, “love is the fulfilling of the law,” (Romans 13:10). He’d held the mirror up to them and called into question how well these expert law keepers had been keeping this most important law that lay at the heart of Israel’s faith. But he has a question now for them. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

And they give the rote answer, the traditional answer, the answer they’d been taught, just as their fathers and fathers’ fathers had been taught: “The Son of David.” If there was anything they were sure of and knew about it was the subject of the Messiah. They only understood this one meaning of Messiah. They had that one idea; and had no room for another. Why bother to think further about anything when you already have all the answers.[ii] It’s the same way with us when we confuse our idea of God with God, because our concept of God is not God.

They couldn’t imagine the Messiah as any different from what they’d always imagined. And Jesus responds them, not completely disregarding their answer, but showing them it might not be as simple and as easy as they’d thought. He quotes from the 110th psalm, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, by the way. “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put my enemies under your feet.’” Now, the psalms were thought to have been written by David, and so Jesus wonders aloud, If David calls the Messiah “Lord,” how can the Messiah be David’s son?

Obviously, they’d never thought about it that way before. The question had never come up in their discussions of the Messiah who was always thought to be a descendant of David and an even greater, more powerful and successful king that he had been. Son of David is certainly one way to think of the Messiah; the crowds had called Jesus that when he’d entered Jerusalem earlier that week – but are their others? Whose son really is the Messiah? Those first hearers of Matthew’s gospel would have remembered earlier verses, in which “a voice from heaven said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Jesus and his questioners were at an impasse, there was no more reason for conversation. And so, they withdrew to plan how to hasten the day of when he would be arrested, executed, and a problem no more.

Without the ability or openness to see new things, and think new ways, they were unable to recognize the one standing in front of them as anything more than an irritant at best and a threat at worst. How sad, how tragic for them, they missed the Christ standing in front of them because he didn’t look the way they’d always assumed he’d look.

And for us as well, if our hearts are not open, if we do not love with all we are and love our neighbors as ourselves, if our minds are closed and we are satisfied that we know all there is to know, we may miss the opportunity when we come face to face with the Christ to know in whose presence we stand, and turn away unaffected and unchanged. I will always remember the words I heard years ago in a sermon preached by Rev. Art O’Neill, III, reminded us that we are wrong when we see a less fortunate person and think to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead, he said, we should be thinking, “There by the grace of God goes God.” May God grant us the discernment to sense God’s presence within ourselves and within our neighbors. Amen.

[i] John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 22:34-46, “ October 17, 2011.

[ii] Petty.