Sermon, Matthew 22:34-46, “Thou Shalt Love!” 30th Ordinary, A

30th Sunday in Ordinary A, October 26, 2008

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Matthew 22:34-46

Thou Shalt Love!

There is actually a book called The Bible for Dummies. I know the bible can sometimes make you feel dumb, especially when you read about ancient practices that do not make sense to us today like laws against:

  • sowing a field with two kinds of seeds, or against
  • wearing a garment made of 2 kinds of fabric (Lev. 19:19).

Before the books for Dummies series was even an idea in a publisher’s mind, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, published a book called “The Bible Makes Sense“.

The only people who would buy such a book are those who have trouble making sense of the bible.

On being concise

  • Brueggemann’s little book was about 100 pages long.
  • I did a little two part seminar on the Old Testament recently – the overview took about 5 hours.
  • Jesus did it with 41 words.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

All the law and the prophets, that is, the entire Old Testament, he said, hang on two pegs: Love for God, and love for neighbors.

This is it: this is the boiled down essence; everything else is just explanation and commentary.
The insulting trick question
We can all be thankful for those 41 words. Jesus had reason not to answer the question he was asked by his opponents – it was meant to insult him and to give him an opportunity to slip-up.

Their idea was to ask an apparently easy question, hoping that maybe, Jesus, in an attempt to be profound, would make a mistake. Perhaps he would say the wrong thing and bring his whole career as Messiah to a close.

The best person to send in for this trick-question job is a Lawyer – an expert in the law – or as they called it, in Torah; the Old Testament.

Say The Pledge
What must have this been like for Jesus? Can you imagine being asked, “Can you recite the pledge of allegiance?” It would be insulting! Like being asked if you were “really a patriotic American”.

That’s what this question was like: “What is the greatest commandment?” It was almost like asking, “are you a real Jew?”

The Shema’
Why? Because every faithful Jew, every day, in fact, several times a day repeated the same creed, the famous confession of faith in one God; the creed of Monotheism.

The first word of the creed in Hebrew is “Shema‘” meaning “Hear” so Jewish people call this creed “The Great Shema”

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. Deut. 6:4-5

Ethical Monotheism
Unlike all the other peoples around them, the Jews believe, not in a pantheon of many gods, but in One single God; in Monotheism.

This one single God was different from so many of the other gods around in that he cares what people do – not just what they do religiously, for the gods, like offering sacrifices and prayers, but what they do for and to and about each other; ethics.

So Jewish people (and hence we) believe, in “ethical monotheism.”

The Gift of Torah
Jewish people will tell you that this One single God gave a great gift to his chosen people: a book of guidance which told them what his legal and ethical requirements were.

They called this guidance, the Instruction, or the Torah – or the Law.

Actually the Old Testament, by the Rabbi’s count, contains 613 commands, or laws.

Included in these are:

  • religious laws, like keep the Sabbath holy, and
  • civil laws, like the need for two witnesses in court for a conviction, and
  • ethical laws like do not covet your neighbor’s wife.

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any such distinction made between laws – they were all on the same level – religious, civil, and ethical laws were equal.

So, it could have been tricky to ask which of the 613 was the greatest – but every Jew knew the most important was contained in the great creed, the Shema:

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.

Jesus’ addition: 2nd greatest law
So Jesus passed the exam, got the answer right, and then added an addendum: the second greatest commandment.

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Jesus did not claim to invent that; it is a direct quotation from the book of Leviticus. (19:18)

But what he did was to bring this command along side the Great Shema, and elevate it to the very next place in priority. Immediately after the great creed of monotheism is the command to love ones neighbor.

Do you want the OT for Dummies? Here it is, Jesus says,

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I love the word “hang”. I picture the Golden Gate Bridge, suspended on those two enormous towers. On those two, the entire span hangs.

The entire Old Testament, all 613 laws hang suspended on these two central commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

All the rest is commentary and explanation.

“Thou shalt…” love?
But this is a problem: how can you say “Thou Shalt Love?”
– Can love be commanded?
– Is that not much more like an arranged marriage than true love?

And to make matters worse, the whole thing ends up being a self-contradiction: The greatest two commandments command you to believe that the essence of your faith is not about commandments at all, but rather about love which is un-command-able!

The Garden of Eden
Let’s go back to the story of the Garden of Eden for a moment. Paradise is pictured as the two original humans:

  • who are in harmony with each other,
  • who are in a world of abundance and security,
  • and who are speaking with God directly
  • without any strings on their arms and legs.

– They are not marionettes controlled by a puppeteer.
– They are free to make real, significant moral choices. Their love is not coerced.

That is a picture of the world as it was intended to be; the world as it was created to be; the world as it should be. Humans, made in the image of God, in free and un-coerced harmony with Creation, Creator, and Creatures.

But these representative humans chose against love, and the chaotic story of human history is the result.

The ache that you feel, when you are alone, when its quiet, is the ache of a broken relationship with God, your Maker.

And the whole long story of the Old Testament is God’s gracious, repeated initiatives, to woo us back.

It’s a long story, but it can be boiled down to its essence and summed-up in 41 words.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

It is crucial that Jesus elevated the love of neighbor command to second place. Why? Because we humans have something wrong with us.

Human history is a tragic record of division and animosity. People – we – are forever defining ourselves into little groups:

  • clans
  • tribes
  • nations
  • religions

We define who is in the group and who is out: the Us and the Them.

We will do almost anything, (or rather, absolutely anything) to promote our group against theirs.

And we will always believe that we have God on our side. There has never been a group who did not.

And so it has always been exactly one short step from a love for God that is 100% heart, soul and mind – just as the Great Shema’ says it should be, to Jihad; holy war.

It is the second highest law that keeps the first law from becoming the legitimation of the suicide vest.

We answer, “No!” Because of Jesus, we understand better what 100% love of God is, and what it is not.

Because of Jesus, we now understand that the Creator of all human beings in his image is horrified by and opposed to their mutual destruction.

God is loved 100% when and only when we are also loving our neighbors as ourselves.

And who are our neighbors? You know the answer.

Images of God
Monotheists are forbidden from making images of God. There is no possible image or representation that could be adequate for God who is infinite; any image would be a limited and therefore distorted one.

But, in the heart of the story of Creation, we find something remarkable.

In the very story that shows us God the creator of everything, whom nothing can adequately represent, we find that he himself has created an image of himself.

Listen to Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;…”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The closest thing we have to show us what God is like, is each other; made in God’s own image. Humans:

  • who are free to act in morally significant ways;
  • who have the capacity to love without coercion
  • who have spirits – who can be in relationship with God

It is now impossible to simply define our group, our clan, our tribe, our faith, and to believe that God is on our side when we neglect the needs of others or engage in Jihad against them.

Jesus himself gave us 41 words on which to hang the greatest bridge ever built – the bridge from God to us and our neighbors:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’


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