“The Best Thing You Will Ever Hear,” Lectionary Sermon for 30th Ordinary, Pentecost +19 AOctober 23, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18  

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
 Speak 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.
 You 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. You 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.
 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You 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.

Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

The Best Thing You Will Ever Hear

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Most of you know how much I love the Old Testament, or as it might be better called, the Hebrew Bible, or Torah.   It was not just because I taught Old Testament for so many years at the Bible college in Croatia – though that only increased my love for it.   I love the Hebrew Bible because Jesus loved it.

Jesus “got” Torah

It comes out of his mouth all the time as an adult; it was already deeply inside him as a boy.  Remember the story of when Jesus 12, he was already astounding the adult men in the temple with his grasp of Torah.

There are those amazing kids that sometimes you see on TV who have incredible memories, who can memorize huge amounts of material.  I saw a program that showed a boy in Pakistan (I think) who by age 11 or 12 had memorized the whole Quran.

I don’t think that Jesus merely memorized Torah and impressed the temple adults by simply reciting.  Luke tells us:

47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  

Those words, “understanding” and “answers” seem to go way beyond reciting from memory.  Clearly Jesus had already begun to internalize the meaning of the scriptures of the law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, as Jewish people describe them.

God as “Father”

Remember how he replied to his parents who were upset to find him not with them on their return trip but still in the temple?

48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 

That last phrase, “my Father’s house” already shows that Jesus had come to understand Israel’s God, Yahweh, as his “heavenly Father.”   Jesus knew God, not just a vengeful, wrathful, distant angry deity whose main job was smiting the wicked, but as his “Father.”

This is, of course, the insight that beings the prayer that Jesus, years later, would teach his disciples to pray.  “Our Father who is in heaven….”

It is as if the 12 year old Jesus had just read the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah in which God, as a father, speaks of his people Israel saying,

 “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

The “Great Shema” – Israel’s Creed

As a boy and then as a young man, I’m sure that Jesus spent hours in meditation on the scriptures of the Old Testament.  Certainly he, like every faithful Jewish person, would recite, several times a day, the central creed that proclaimed Israel’s unique assertion of monotheism: there is only one God alone.  They called it the “Great Shema” and it come right from Moses in Deuteronomy:

 “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

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with all your might.   (Deut. 6:4-5) 

This is the exact verse that Jesus quoted when he was tested by the Orthodoxy Police, the Pharisees who sent their best Torah scholar to Jesus that day.  Of course he got it right, it was easy.

But it makes me curious: why would they send in the heavy guns of a Torah scholar to ask Jesus the easiest question in the book?  I’m speculating here, but I think there must have been a reason.  Surely they all knew that every Jewish boy of 12 could tell you what the greatest commandment was.  Everyone knew the right answer.

Did Jesus Abandon Orthodoxy?

Could it be that after having observed Jesus for a coupe of years, the way he lived, the people he chose to be with, the things he said, they expected that he had moved away from Jewish orthodoxy?  Of course he would know what all the real Jews would say is the right answer: the Greatest Commandment is

 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

But here is someone who has treated some of the laws as optional!

  • He has touched unclean people, even lepers.
  • He has done work, like healing on the Sabbath.
  • He has had table fellowship with notorious sinners: prostitutes, tax collectors and the like.
  • He has consorted with Roman soldiers and non-Israelites like a traitor.
  • And as a final act of abandonment of Jewish orthodoxy, he came to the House of God in Jerusalem, the temple, and shut it down, at least temporarily.

Clearly, the orthodoxy police surely thought, this heretic has abandoned our core values.

Indeed; if the whole point of the faith was to keep the 613 laws, as the Rabbi’s counted, then Jesus looked like he had missed the main point about what God wanted from his people.

So maybe he had indeed rejected the Greatest Commandment.

“Getting” the prophets

But of course Jesus had done nothing of the kind.  Rather, as he had reflected, for example on the message of the prophet Isaiah, he knew that God was capable of looking at his people’s behavior and saying, as Isaiah recounts:

 “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen…” (Isa 1:12-15).  

What in the world had they done to get God so angry that he rejected worship; sacrifice and even prayer?  Isaiah goes on to recount God’s next words:

Wash  yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa 1:16-17)

What is important to God?

Through Isaiah the prophet, Jesus learned what was important to God and what was not.  Worship; sacrifice and prayer were meaningless and unwanted by God if they were brought by people who were dirty and needed to wash.

What made them unclean?  In Isaiah, God said the oppressed were going un-rescued, the orphans were going un-defended, and the widows had no one to plead for them.  The people had stopped seeking justice; they had stopped being good.

What does God want the most?  That we love him with our all of our hearts, our entire souls, and all of our minds.  How can you see into a heart and know if love like that is there or not?  Not by counting sacrifices or hearing prayers; but by watching how people who claim to love God treat those in need.

The Heart on Display in Actions

With words such as those burning in his heart and mind, Jesus quickly adds to the greatest commandment, the second, which he say, is exactly like it:

 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18)

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This too is from Moses – which is where Isaiah learned it.  There is, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, a clearly discernible trajectory of teaching that gets started with Moses, developed and filled out by the prophets, and arcs through the teaching of Jesus.

There may indeed be 613 laws about what to eat, what to sacrifice, what it is that makes you ceremonially impure and what you need to do about it; there are special days that must be observed and annual pilgrimages to make, but the best news you will ever hear is that these all hang on two central pegs, two commands at the heart of it all:

 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Primary and Secondary

Jesus understood that to love God with all of the heart made the temple and all of its sacrifices secondary.  One day it would come to an end anyway.   Jesus understood that true love for God was demonstrated, just as Isaiah had written, in acts of justice toward the weak, the poor, the and the vulnerable; the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

The “neighbor” you were to love could wear the recognizably local clothing of, and speak with the local accent of a fellow Israelite, or the neighbor could be a Samaritan, or a Roman, or Canaanite – because the One God of Monotheism, celebrated in the Great Shema, was Heavenly Father to them all.

So what about the other commandments?   Does God care if we honor our parents?  Of course: Jesus taught that.  Does he care if we lie or murder, steal or commit adultery?  Yes, Jesus affirmed those commandments.  Does he care if we tithe?  To Jesus, where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  To Jesus, the tithe was the starting point.

And what about worship and prayer?  Were these important to Jesus?  Of course!  He is the one who taught his disciples to pray

“Our Father who is in heaven, holy is your name, Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

Jesus prayed and fasted, and practiced all of the classical spiritual practices that characterize everyone who takes their faith seriously.

Not losing the forest for the trees

But he did not lose the forest in all the trees; he never lost sight of the end game.  He always knew what all of those practices and commandments were there to accomplish.  All of it gets down to loving God with everything we have in us, and loving our neighbors near and far with acts of justice and mercy.

When judged by those standards, how are we doing?

Two Opportunities for Self-Evaluation

Two special times of the year are just around the corner: both of them will provide us opportunities to review our lives and to make re-alignments according to the two greatest commandments.  Our challenge is to use both of these moments to examine ourselves before God, and to commit ourselves to being his faithful disciples.

The first is our annual stewardship season in which we examine where our hearts are in relation to our earthly treasure.  It is now already time now to start

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the personal spiritual discernment process, asking God what kind of response he is leading us to make this year.   In stewardship season we intentionally draw the connection between our hearts and our treasure, as Jesus did, and ask ourselves how we can love the Lord with our whole hearts, and what that will mean about our treasure.

The second is the season of Advent which is the start of the new year for the the church, as we await the coming of our Lord.  Advent starts the Sunday following Thanksgiving.  In advent we examine our lives to see if we are living in such a way as to anticipate the coming of the Lord.  We use the opportunity of a new years beginning to re-start spiritual practices that have fallen into disuse or neglect.

There are helpful resources if you would like devotional guides to walk through Advent, and there is time now to order them.  It is time to be as focused as we can on aligning our lives with the two Greatest Commandments.

This is our high and holy calling: we are here to live as Jesus’ disciples, according to the two greatest commandments:

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

 

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One thought on ““The Best Thing You Will Ever Hear,” Lectionary Sermon for 30th Ordinary, Pentecost +19 AOctober 23, 2011

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