(a sermon for September 5, 2021, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on Matthew 22:34-40)
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Actually, it’s a very good question; and despite the fact that it was clearly posed as a “gotcha” question on the part of the Pharisees who were seeking to discredit Jesus, truthfully it was something I would have liked to ask, especially now after having spent the past three Sundays looking at the ten commandments! Because biblically speaking, folks, not to mention in terms of how you and I seek to live in faith, those ten commandments are only the beginning of God’s Law!
One of the things we haven’t really talked about over the past few weeks in our survey of the ten commandments is the fact that according to scripture there are within the Torah – that is, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) – some 613 additional commandments that elaborate on the original ten (and by the way, if you’re counting, that amounts to 248 “thou shalts,” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for every day of the year). These are laws that address everything from human relations and care for the poor to proper rituals surrounding worship and offering sacrifices, as well as copious rules regarding food, sex, clothing, and matters of justice; all of which were considered by ancient Jews to be essential and unbreakable laws. And this is to say nothing of the words of prophets, both major and minor, found all throughout scripture; precepts that seek to have us follow Yahweh more closely and which ultimately hearken back to those first ten commandments in Exodus!
So many teachings, so many words, so many ideas and statutes and laws: some – like eating pork and shellfish, or wearing clothing made from mixed fabric, for instance – which we don’t really follow as Christians, but still many others that continue even today to inform the ways you and I are to live as faithful followers of the Lord! So how, I ask you, are we to make sense of all of it? Are all these laws still relevant to our lives and living today? Are we simply to pick and choose based on what really matters in life or our own personal preferences? Or is every law to be followed to the letter (as Jesus said, with “not one iota” passing from the letter of “the law until all is accomplished?” [Matthew 5:17]) Or, is there in fact, one commandment more important than all the others, or at the very least, some proper way to condense all of what God asks of us into one very concise idea?
Now the Pharisees, themselves very much “letter of the law” believers, saw the legally acceptable answer to this question to be that “every commandment of the Law is great, because all of the Law comes from God.” But of course, as I said before, this wasn’t the answer they were seeking from Jesus; and to be honest, though for different reasons, it’s not the answer I would be seeking either. What I want to know – and maybe you wonder this, too – is what it is about God Law (or perhaps, more to the point, what is it within God’s Law) that brings it all together for us!
I mean, I’ll readily confess to you folks here today that when I’ve purchased some kind of appliance or I’m trying to download a computer program or a phone app, I don’t want to get bogged down in the complicated minutiae of assembly instructions or software installation, nor do I wish to spend hours upon hours having to make the proper settings; and don’t even get me started on having to call some 1-800 number to activate the device! I just want to hit the switch, push the button, click the mouse and have the thing go! Well, likewise, there are times in my life when I’m struggling simply to walk in faith; to follow the LORD my God closely, using all those commandments as a true guide for following. I want to be, you see, the best I can be before God, but the truth is that with all these many and contradictory laws and the grey areas they tend to engender, to say nothing of my own tendencies to wander of the pathways, I’m not always quite so sure of the way ahead! What I need – since I’m only human, after all (!) – is simply a clear and simple set of instructions. All I want to know – all any of us, I suspect, really want to know in this life is what’s God’s first and most important rule to follow, and how do we follow it?
And the good news for all of us is that, as always, our answer to that question comes from Jesus.
One of the most interesting aspects of our text for this morning is that in the face of such complicated, loaded question, Jesus manages to answer the Pharisees in a very clear, concise and utterly familiar way: First, “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.” The Pharisees certainly knew this; this was from the Shema, words straight from the book of Deuteronomy (6:45) words prayed by faithful Jews each and every morning and again in the evening. And second, this time from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (19:18) And so right away, here are two commandments over which even the learned Pharisees would be hard pressed to argue.
But before they can even begin to ask what about all the other commandments, Jesus adds one more thought: “’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” Actually, I love how The Message translates this: there, Jesus says, “These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” In other words, first we love God – that, as we were saying last Sunday in relation to the ten commandments, is the vertical dimension of our relationship with God – but then we also have to love our neighbor because we can’t truly love God with heart, soul, and mind unless and until we love those whom God loves; that’s the horizontal relationships we have with each other that are reflected in the original ten commandments and which serve to help us live faithfully in community.
And so, the greatest commandment is twofold: to love God and to love our neighbor. Moreover, writes Episcopal priest and author Rick Morely, “It is the very core of the Gospel. It is the distilled essence of Jesus’ teaching. AND, it’s the words behind the actions of Jesus’ Passion. [Because yes,] his life, death, and resurrection was the physical manifestation of the love that he taught.”
This sermon series has been all about going “back to the basics… of God.” But what we always need to remember, friends, is that “the basics” of God always comes down to LOVE. We’ve said it again and again throughout these past few Sundays: God gives us life, God gives us his name, God gives us a Law… and all of this as one way of giving us his LOVE! And our response to that, yours and mine, is also, ever and always going to be about LOVE… and that, while it’s most certainly that very clear set of instruction we’ve been seeking, alas, it doesn’t always seem as though it’s all that simple to follow!
Or maybe it is.
The late Marcus J. Borg, the renowned Biblical Scholar and theologian, has written that so often “we have made being Christian very complex, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right. But being Christian,” Borg says, “is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple.” And basically, it comes down to this: being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves; and what God loves is the world… “not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation.”
Being Christian is about transformation, our working with God to become that kind of person; understanding of course, that we’re not talking about love in some sort of passive sense, but love actively, doing what we can do to be about the business of God’s love in the world. We are called by God to be the purveyors of God’s love: bringing light into darkness; lifting up the fallen and bringing them hope; doing justice in the places and amongst the people where “the power of politics, and the politics of power” seem to reign supreme. It’s about living unto the love we have for God by letting it be transformed into the love we show for others; a simple thought, to be sure, but where the law and the prophets are concerned – as well as the mission of the church and, might I add, our own Christian walk, yours and mine – it’s where everything starts and the pegs on which its success is hung.
Because never forget – and I’m quoting Marcus Borg here again – “You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be mean… being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It’s as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.”
One of the books that was on my summer reading list this year was one entitled Hiking Through by Paul Stutzman, the true story of an Ohio man (actually from Sugarcreek, which was very near to where we lived out there) who after his wife passes away from cancer decides in his grief that he needs to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. I recommend this book highly; it’s all about the hiker culture and so-called “trail magic” along the way, but it also has a lot to say about grief and faith and deepening of one man’s relationship with God.
At one point late into this journey Stutzman shares how he got it into his head that he wanted to have a little radio and headphones with him; in order to get the news and weather and maybe listen to a nearby “golden oldies” radio station. It seemed harmless enough, and since by this time he’d been on the trail for months in every possible kind of climate and terrain, a radio
would be a welcome relief from the rigors of the hike.
“But something was wrong,” Stutzman wrote. “Out here in the woods, this toy was destroying my newfound freedom. I no longer heard my footsteps on the pine needles or the birds singing or the wind rustling through the trees. Sure, the golden oldies station was playing my kind of music [and]… reminded me of my past, but somehow I was being robbed of the present. I had traded the joy of nature and conversing with God for a little radio clipped to my backpack. The radio had to go.” Once the radio was back “stashed at the bottom of [his] stack,” the distraction was gone and all was right once again, and gave way to a simple and yet heartfelt prayer: “Thank you, God, for Your beautiful creation,” to which Stutzman could hear this reply: “Welcome back.”
I love that passage because not only did it serve as a reminder of how quite often the best music of all is the music of God’s creation, but it also seemed to me to be a parable for the ways that you and I are so often distracted from our walk with the LORD and being the Christians that we are called to be. We love because God first loved us, beloved, and when we love as God has loved us our relationship with God deepens and grows and the relationships we have one with another cannot help but take root and grow as well.
God gives his breath of life, God gives us his name that we might know him, God gives us a Law so that might closely follow him, but in and through everything else, God gives us LOVE…
… so that you and I might be transformed to love.
And as we do, friends, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.