Matthew 22:34-46 (CEB)
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. One of them, a legal expert, tested him. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Now as the Pharisees were gathering, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
“David’s son,” they replied.
He said, “Then how is it that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called him Lord when he said, The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool’? If David calls him Lord, how can he be David’s son?” Nobody was able to answer him. And from that day forward nobody dared to ask him anything.
A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.
As we pick up the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew again this week, the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus. This time it is the Pharisees who are publicly confronting Jesus in order to discredit him and damage his reputation. Pharisees were a religious and political party in Palestine during the time of Jesus. They were known for their strict adherence to keeping religious laws. Another group during the time of Jesus were the Sadducees, who were members of a Jewish group that opposed Jesus during his ministry.
One of the Pharisees in our Gospel story asks Jesus which commandment in the law is the greatest. Once again Jesus gives a clear, wise and simple answer that gives us a snapshot summary for living a life of faithfulness.
(Read Matthew 22:34-46)
I won’t ask for a show of hands, but my guess is some of you tuned out when I began reading our Gospel scripture because you heard once again the well-worn theme of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. While we may think we’ve heard this many times and the idea of loving God and loving neighbor seems simple enough; it’s the execution that gives us trouble. These are words of Scripture that need to be absorbed and lived out in our daily lives.
Wrestling with the questions of who is God and who is my neighbor and what does it mean to love them, is at the heart of our faith and discipleship. In Jesus’ day there were hundreds of commandments that made up the law for faithful Jewish people to keep and Jesus cuts through all of them and basically says, love God, love neighbor, love self.
Like I was telling the children earlier, imagine these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, hanging like a door on its hinges. Have you ever tried to use a door that has a faulty or broken hinge? You literally have to pick up the door to open or close it. When we think about it, we realize that any door is essentially useless without at least two hinges for support, one at the top and the other at the bottom. Without two hinges, a door won’t do what it is supposed to do…open and close.
Now think about the two hinges by which we hang the door of our Christian faith–love of God and love of neighbor; you cannot have one without the other. This love of God and love of neighbor is not an ‘either/or’ proposition. It’s the same love…love of God is love of neighbor; and love of neighbor is love of God.
Our text today concludes a long question and answer section in the Gospel of Matthew between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. The questions have been posed to Jesus by both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The question asked of Jesus by the Pharisee legal expert was neither unusual nor new because rabbis had long engaged in ranking the commandments. And Jesus’ answer is not original either because rabbis long before Jesus had also combined these two commandments from Scripture.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” comes from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from the 19th chapter of Leviticus. But, Jesus added, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
The difference with the questions posed to Jesus was that the questioner was disingenuous. His question was an attempt to stump or discredit Jesus because much was at stake, including Jesus’ identity and authority.
What was appealing about Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question was that he took something meant to be complicated and presented it in a simple formula.
Author and Pastor Laurel Mathewson writes about some advice given to her when she was fresh out of college and lamenting to an acquaintance about how complicated and overwhelming life seems to be. The acquaintance said, “Oh, but we have been given a simple code…love God, love your neighbor.” Then this person said, “When things get overwhelming for me, I repeat again and again: Love God, love your neighbor. Love God, love your neighbor. This is all that’s really asked of us.”
Mathewson said, “Those simple words seemed to unlock a door for me.”
And when we think about it, this basic, foundational teaching of Jesus that we are given sums up the Gospel and remains the primary focus by which we are called to live in this complicated, often unjust, overwhelming world.
Perhaps we can try that this week…when we get to the point of being overwhelmed when life gets messy or when the news of poverty, war, violence and disaster shake us to our core; try repeating what is our call…love God, love your neighbor…love God, love your neighbor.
If we think again about the two hinges of a door, consider the top hinge representing love of God. What would it be like to commit ourselves each day to love God with all our heart, soul and mind?
In our age of social media, to ‘like’ someone’s posting or status update on Facebook is a great compliment. But in our faith, liking God is not enough. Jesus is clear that a total devotion and complete surrender of our heart, soul, and mind is required in our love of God.
This kind of love involves spending time with God in prayer and worship and is much less about our sentimental feelings and emotions and much more about our actions, our integrity, and our ethics. This kind of love is demanding and risky. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus into all kinds of uncomfortable, even dangerous situations. And, eventually, it’s the kind of love that gets Jesus killed.
Now, think of the bottom hinge of our door, which Jesus says is like the first…“You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The biblical definition of neighbor or the question, “Who is our neighbor?” can be summed up as anyone who God loves. And since Scripture tells us, “God so loved the world…,” that makes our definition of neighbor about as broad as it gets.
Still, current battles among people in the world of different religions and the violence done to one another in the name of God, may make us wonder if it is possible to love who God loves.
There is an old African parable about a small prosperous village on the banks of a large river. The villagers had what they needed to create a happy, healthy, secure and productive community. For generations they worked, learned, and played together in peace.
Then one day, one of the villagers noticed a baby floating down the river past the banks of the village. The compassionate villager pulled the half-drowned baby out of the rushing water, revived him, took him into her home, gave him dry clothes and fed him.
Over time, the little village began to be inundated with babies floating down the river. It became more difficult to feed them and locate families with whom to place them. The villagers struggled to find ways to cope with the growing crisis. A few were resentful and felt the babies should no longer be rescued. Others continued to minister to the increasing numbers in their midst by looking for new ways to enlarge the food supply and building more houses in the village.
Then one day, one of the villagers had a bright idea: “Let’s send a small delegation of villagers upstream to find out why all these babies are floating down the river.”
In any crisis or dilemma, eventually, the ‘why’ questions always comes up.
When it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, there is a concept of “downstream” ministries and “upstream” ministries.
As a faith community, we are involved in many wonderful “downstream” ministries such as the use of our Wesley Funds to help folks with food and gasoline; the loving provision of the Sunshine Supper; preparing Emergency Boxes for those displaced from their homes; our support of the local Food Pantry; and our work with Shelter From the Storm, Faith in Action Day, Camp in the Community, and many other caring ministries that connect us with people in need.
Then we begin to ask ‘why’…“Why are these neighbors hungry, or without a home, or without the basic necessities of life?” The next question to ask is, “In addition to our wonderful, caring ‘downstream’ ministries, do we have people also going upstream to investigate?”
Downstream ministry shows God’s love and helps meet the immediate needs of our neighbors. But like our two-hinged commandment, the door will not work properly without upstream ministry as well.
Upstream ministry includes faithful people dealing with the larger scale social, political and economic issues that will impact our neighbors for years to come.
Upstream ministry includes calling upon and praying for leaders in decision-making and policy-making positions to ensure that community, state and federal budgets reflect moral and caring values.
Upstream ministry includes giving voice to the needs of those neighbors who are poor, or vulnerable, or victimized and too often forgotten by society.
Upstream ministry includes working for public policies that strengthen and heal our communities and support our neighbors in need.
Not everyone can do upstream ministries, but many can. We need both—those caring for neighbors in immediate need and those making change in the system upstream.
Near the end of our Gospel story, after answering well to each question brought by his opponents, Jesus had his own question for the Pharisees, asking, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
The question ended up really being more of a riddle and it silenced the Pharisees. But the point of the question is to ask, who is Jesus? Who is Jesus in your life?
Instead of thinking of this greatest commandment as well-worn or tired, pay attention to how it is that we are loving God above all else and how we are loving those who God loves. When these two hinges are firmly in place, we will know God’s peace and love in our own homes, our communities, our nation and our world…and we will know who Jesus is in our lives.
This is the Good New of God this day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.