The Greatest Commandment – Lectionary 10/25/2020

Matthew 22:34-39

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.’

Sermon Text

            Next week we celebrate All Saint’s Day, the day when we remember all those who have gone before us to glory. A day when, if not in actuality, then in our awareness, we can see the glory of heaven just a little bit closer to us. It is a celebration of the promise of God to be with us throughout all eternity. All Saint’s Day waits for us, just a few scant days away, to give us hope in the resurrection and in the present bliss that is given to all Saints who have left us.

            The celebration of All Saint’s Day next week is a fixed point in our calendar, but equally fixed is what will transpire just two days later. “The Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November,” marks the day of our National Elections in the United States. This year, there seems to be an urgency in the air about an election. In a year of plague and disaster, unrest, and unrighteousness, in a year that will no doubt go down in history as the defining moment of a generation. The toll of the bells, the passing of each hour as we approach this day, ring out in silence and pulls at our hearts to give us all pause. There is an anxiety that is thoroughly thought of, and is sometimes voiced, something feels different this year.

            As this is our last Sunday before the election which is not already devoted to a specific celebration, I thought it apt for us to look to scripture and see what we wisdom it can give us about our present situation. I preface this meditation by saying that this journey into the scripture to find wisdom will not, and is not intended to be, and endorsement of anything but that same scripture, of the God who illumined its writing, and of the faithful people who depend upon it. God has wisdom for every moment of our life and the more that a situation brings us to an uncertain place, the more completely we must cling to the teachings of God that are offered to us. So, anxious people of God, let us come to the scripture, to the well of God’s grace, and pull life out of the deep waters, the waters that are deeper than creation itself.

            Our scripture tells us about one of several moments in which someone comes and asks a question of Jesus. The question is not asked in earnest in Matthew’s telling of this story but is meant as a trap to catch Jesus in a lie. It is the sort of thing we are accustomed to in our modern world, but we should not think that this is anything new. The “Gotcha,” question is as old as humanity itself, from the moment that Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’ opposition asks a simple question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

            The scandal of such a question can sometimes be lost to us in our Christian circles, but we must look at what this question would mean to a Jew in Jesus’ context. There were two major parties in Judaism at the time – The Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Biblical purists, reading only the Torah – that is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees were more expansive – they believed in the authority of the prophets, in the teachings of ministers and sages throughout history. The two parties were highly divided, one was in charge of the Temple – the unyielding Sadducees – and the other led the people and taught them God’s word – the searching Pharisees.

            The one thing that these two groups agreed on was the Torah, the bedrock of Judaism. In the Torah were all the good teachings of God. It not only numbered 613 strictures for the people to live their life by but told their story. The story of how God took a normal man in Babylon and made him the father of a nation. The story of how that nation came to live in Egypt, to become enslaved. How God lifted that nation out from under the hands of oppression and freed them to take hold of God’s promises. The Torah had all things needful within in, and to take hold of the Torah was to take hold of the sum of wisdom. The uniting principle of all Judaism was not a list of rules, it was God’s words breathed out and etched onto paper, the foundation of their faith that was their salvation.

            In asking Jesus which commandment, out of something like 613 of them, was most important, the trap was meant to show him as a something other than what he was. If he prioritized one command over another, it would be easy to accuse him of all manner of wickedness. Jesus could have been written off as an anti-government radical, as an antinomian relativist, as a dangerous visionary bent on revenge. The beauty of the trap which was set for Jesus is that most people would be unable to find anything like a right answer. We as human beings are too prone to extremes, to find our favorite feature of a thing and lift that up above all others.

            If any one of us were asked what the greatest commandments were, if we did not know the answer that Jesus gave, then we would no doubt find that we all have hundreds of different understandings of scripture. Some among us would emphasize purity laws and some economic ones. For some we would be caught up in esoterics of proper worship and others lost in the weeds of what constitutes someone worthy of God’s salvation. The commandments which we prioritize in our life are the ones that we not only keep, but the ones which we find ourselves searching out, making sure others are keeping to them, enforcing above all others.

            The question was not being asked to just anyone though. The scripture we read today shows an oblivious party coming to God and asking God what in God’s law is most significant. The one person who could not be tricked, the one person who could give the correct answer and who we have no reason to doubt. Jesus looks beyond the intent of the question to trap him. Jesus looks beyond the opportunity this moment would give him to humiliate his opponents or to cast dispersions on them, and instead gives them the truth. A hard truth, but one that no one could deny. It rested in their soul and took root. Whether or not that root would grow into a tree, would produce fruit, well that is never answered for us.

            The truth was, that if we were to truly understand God’s love and God’s instruction, then nothing would be more significant to us than Loving God and Loving our Neighbor. Nothing. It is a litmus test that is only difficult in extremity. Whenever we do anything in our life, we do so with these tests to determine whether or not we have acted properly. If I say something cruel that makes me feel good in a moment, have I honored God? Have I honored the person I spoke to? If I spent my money on the fifth or sixth frivolous expense I happened upon that month, have I loved God with that action? Have I spent my money wisely when my neighbor is living hand to mouth?

            Those are two obvious examples of this metric, things that we can grasp onto and see the binary of a yes or no answer. Excessive and wasteful spending and cruelty are obviously wrong, but the question gets complicated when we begin applying it to the larger things in life. Is it a just thing to support X law or Y candidate? Is it right to buy from this brand, when so much of what they do hurts so many people? If someone who I disagree with is actively hurting people as a result of the stance they hold, when does my politeness become complicity?

            The metric which Christ gives us is not meant to be glib, it is not meant to be the end of the conversation. It opens up a world of options for us to explore, a world of questions and answers that we could only imagine before. If the greatest commandments, if the sum of God’s law is that we love God and one another, then there is a great deal we have to change. As our confession before communion every month says, “We have not loved [God] with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done [God’s] will, we have broken [God’s] law, we have rebelled against [God’s] love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.

            The next few weeks are going to be difficult for a great many people. The reality that politics is not just a nebulous thing that exists, “Over there,” but something that impacts every aspect of our life has become more obvious in recent years. Many will be going to the ballots knowing that, depending on what laws pass and what people take office, their life may well be in danger – if not from one thing than another. The next few weeks will be highly charged, they will be vicious, and God help us they may even be violent.

            The Christian response in the midst of all this, in the middle of a world that does not know what to do, is not to shout from ivory towers about the importance of civility. It is not even to ask all people to take on a moderate attitude. That would be a dishonest assessment even of our own views on most anything. The world is as it always has been, desperately searching for an answer to the great questions of life. In a world clinging to find what is real, what is lasting, we can provide an answer, like Jesus did before us.

            We can look at those we meet in our daily life, whether they be friends or enemies, and we can tell them the truth. That above all in this life, we hold two banners – we love God, and we love others. We are never called to do one or the other, but in all things, we must embody both. John Wesley put it succinctly in defining the work of the Christian as, Doing no harm. Doing good. And attending to all the ordinances of the faith. If in doing good, we cause harm, we have failed. If in doing good we fail to attend to the work of God, we have failed.

            The path ahead, not only in the next few weeks, but for our entire futures, is not going to be an easy path. It never has been, and we should not pretend otherwise. However, we walk this path with the full knowledge that the one who has laid this challenge before us is the very same person who will see us through it. In the uncertainty of daily life let us learn to turn to Christ and hear his words. We will Love God and one Another we must have faith in that much. – Amen.

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