Like literally millions of people across the planet, for me, the past seven months have brought unprecedented hardship…emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I have struggled and continue to struggle to find peace amidst the chaos. I have labored to find the meaning, the lesson if you will, of the times in which we find ourselves. I have explored God’s word, I have prayed for discernment. I have strained to see where God is at work in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, in the midst of systemic racism, politics that have attained a toxic level, flooding, tornadoes, wild fires, loss of employment, closure of businesses, financial burdens that are crushing families. My mind is relentlessly racing and affords me little reprieve. Sleep is a luxury and often interrupted as my mind breaks through to rehash the days event’s. My heart is crushed anew each day as the burdens and losses of individuals, families, our nation, and our global community increase. So back in July when Deborah invited me to preach my first thought was, can I effectively share the spoken word at a time when I am struggling so very much. I wasn’t sure. I agreed to review the October themes and pray. As I went through the weekly themes and the accompanying scriptures I landed on October 25th and the passage of scripture known as the greatest commandment. And as I read that passage I discerned a simple message.
We are living in a very divisive time in our country. Our politics are toxic, and that toxicity is resurrecting racism, division, hatred, fear, nationalism and prejudice. I find myself wondering “How will history record what we are living through today. What will historians write about what is happening today?” And while you and I likely will not make it into a history book, we still need to ask ourselves, how will history record how we have responded. How have we as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, responded to the events unfolding in this period in time?
Throughout the history of the world, religion has been the cause, the instrument of unspeakable acts against others. During the Middle Ages, Muslims came into conflict with Zoroastrians during the Islamic conquest of Persia (633-654); Christians fought against Muslims during the Byzantine-Arab Wars (7th to 11th centuries), the Crusades (1095 onward), the Reconquista (718-1492), the Ottoman wars in Europe (13th century onwards) and the Inquisition; Shamanism was in conflict with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Christians during the Mongol invasions (1206-1337); and Muslims clashed with Hindus and Sikhs during the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent (8th to 16th centuries). And all of these acts of religious violence are defended as faithful to a God who, though called by different names, loves the elect and hates the rest. And as a result I would say that there are a lot of people, a lot of people, who today have had just about enough of religion. So again, I would ask, how are we as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ responding to the events unfolding in our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our states, our nation? How are we responding to those who have not only had their fill of religious hypocrisy but can no longer even tolerate a difference of opinion with their own neighbor?
Are you surprised either from a historical perspective, or what you may have witnessed recently, at the capacity to hate, the capacity to seek retribution that is demonstrated by followers of Christ even though we profess to worship a God of unconditional love and grace? I am.
Please turn in your Scripture to the 22nd chapter of Matthew beginning with the 34th verse. Before we share in that reading allow me to provide a brief historical perspective so that perhaps you can appreciate just how relevant this passage is for us today. In our Gospel Lesson for this morning, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are becoming desperate. And who are those leaders? They are Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were both religious sects within Judaism during the time of Christ. Both groups honored Moses and the Law, and they both had a measure of political power. The Sanhedrin, the 70-member supreme court of ancient Israel, had members from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
The differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees are known to us through passages of Scripture and through the extant writings of the Pharisees. Religiously, the Sadducees were more conservative in one doctrinal area: they insisted on a literal interpretation of the text of Scripture; the Pharisees, on the other hand, gave oral tradition equal authority to the written Word of God. If the Sadducees couldn’t find a command in the canon of Hebrew Scripture, they dismissed it as manmade. Given the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ differing view of Scripture, it’s no surprise that they argued over certain doctrines. One might even say that the Pharisees and Sadducees represent rival parties in first century Jerusalem. I will leave it to you to draw any historical parallels.
Let’s read together Matthew 22:34-40
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
After Jesus’ messianic entry into Jerusalem, followed by His prophetic attack upon the Temple administration, the Pharisees are publicly confronting Jesus in order to try and discredit Him. They are, like the failed Sadducees trying to outwit Jesus by posing a supposedly unanswerable question. They may also have been playing to the crowd in an attempt to demonstrate to all overhearing the conversations, that they, the Pharisees, are smarter than the Sadducees. Unfortunately for them, as in other discussions, Jesus confounds the Pharisees with His superior biblical knowledge and irrefutable logic. When He is asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus honors the question with two grand texts from the law – first from Deuteronomy 6:5 which is the great “Hear, O Israel” text that begins worship in the synagogue. Judaism’s most fundamental, ancient and most widely read biblical passage, the Shema: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.”
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He then quotes another scripture. This one is a little known Scripture verse from Leviticus 19:18: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” And finally, Jesus puts his own imprint upon his answer. He says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In this final sentence Jesus asserts his own authority as the one who is privileged to unite these two commandments together as one. It’s as if they are two sides of the same coin. What is the greatest commandment? “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind; You must love your neighbor as yourself.” All the law hang on that one!!! How many of you took trigonometry in high school or college? Show of hands please. I see a few. And would you have mastered trigonometry had you not FIRST taken Geometry and Algebra? I should think not. Geometry and Algebra are foundational to your success in mastering trigonometry.
And here Jesus is shaking the foundation of the religious institutions of his day and declaring that there is no way to love God without loving our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor we are loving God–whether we know it or not. It is foundational. We are required to master this lesson if we are to effectively declare the gospel to a world in need. This presented a problem for the Sadducees and the Pharisees and it also presents a problem for us. For many of the Pharisees, if the God of Israel loves all nations and people as much as God loves Israel, everything about their identity is threatened.
If all people are God’s chosen people, are they called to love the unclean and rejected, the lepers and the non-Jews as much as this Jesus loves them? By saying what Jesus says in this passage, Jesus is calling into question the very foundation of their religious identity and practice. While the scribes and Pharisees used the law to put major limits on those whom they had to recognize as their neighbors, Jesus puts these two passages of Scripture together and smashes all the limits and boundaries of who our neighbor is!!!
In Chapter 5 Jesus already radically reshaped the definition of “neighbor.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In the same chapter He said this: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
What is He saying? I believe that He is literally saying that the entirety of the Gospel, the depth and breadth and fullness of the Gospel are contained in these two commandments now merged as one…Love the Lord your God, love you neighbor. Much like the Sadducees and Pharisees who dictated major limits on whom they had to recognize as neighbors, and thus love, generations of religious theologians and church leaders have done the same thing misconstruing the gospel so that those whose lives, whose gender or age, whose shortcomings or failures, whose orientation or race, aren’t acceptable to them, and thus are not defined as our neighbors or worthy of our love.
God calls us in the midst of the world’s chaos to reach out. To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. To recognize each individual as a beloved child of God. To be a person who truly loves. To be a person that loves God in the same way God loves–without conditions. When we easily cast out judgments about the behaviors of others, is this really love? Some people become very surprised when they learn that Jesus taught His followers over and over again not to judge!!! And there can be no doubt that it is hard not to judge. I’m really good at judging others. The loving all people unconditionally part–that doesn’t come so naturally. What about you?
Our journey as Christians in this life is to seek to learn how to love the way God loves us. And there is nothing harder, but there is nothing more exciting, nothing more freeing, nothing more life-giving!!! One person has written, “As long as I allow hate, pain, fear or pride to keep others at a distance, they remain strangers–different, and therefore a threat. Only by befriending neighbors, strangers, and enemies do we begin to understand them and love them.” Think about it. How can God love every person? God loves every person because God knows every person.
The divisiveness of our current environment provides a seemingly endless supply of individuals in need of our judgment. The person who casually waltzes into Fred Meyer without a mask on. The neighbor displaying the political sign that makes our blood boil. The driver on the freeway evidently unaware that traffic volumes have greatly increased since the beginning of the pandemic but still insists on driving like they are the only sole on the road. The neighbors who, in the middle of a pandemic, decide it is okay to hold a two day family reunion on their property. The family member whose views, opposite of your own, breaks your heart. It can be easy to judge and hate if we don’t make the effort to know and understand. Many of our judgments of others aren’t based on knowledge, but rather on ignorance and prejudice. The more we know someone, the more difficult it is for us to judge them.
This doesn’t mean I know what causes some people to do what they do, but knowing people means knowing that we are all fighting our hidden demons. And knowing God means we know that God loves us and others despite ourselves. 1st John: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” It couldn’t be clearer, could it? And yet, it couldn’t be harder… could it? It is that simple and that difficult. It means sacrificing. It means being vulnerable to the needs of those around us. All of this can be scary, which is why Jesus does not just come teaching and preaching God’s law; he also embodies it. Just a few days after this encounter, Jesus will gather with his disciples, take some bread and wine, and invite them by eating and drinking to share his very life. After that meal, he will go out from that place of safety to embrace his destiny, going to the cross not to make God loving but to show us how much God loves us already, because ultimately the only way we can love each other is first to recognize just how much God loves us.
Do you know how much God loves you? I believe it takes a lifetime of experiences, of journeying with Jesus to even get to the tip of the iceberg. Do you know how much God loves everyone gathered together this morning? Do you know how much God loves your grumpy neighbor next door? The one we spoke about earlier. You know, the one with the political sign in his yard that drives you so crazy you want to sneak over in the middle of the night and burn it? Yeah, that one. When asked what it’s all about–what all the law and the prophet’s words hang on, Jesus said: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind…” and “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
This doesn’t mean Jesus was naive. Jesus knew evil was real and He knew what evil could do. Rome would often line the roads of Palestine with crosses. Jesus must have walked between those crosses many times on His way to Jerusalem. The anger and hatred of our world wouldn’t have surprised Jesus. He knew these things well. Yet Jesus commanded His disciples to carry crosses rather than swords. And Jesus not only taught this; He lived it. In those hours before His death, He was spit on, slapped, whipped, mocked, and suffered intense physical pain. Yet Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those people who did these things. And when He rose from the dead, He didn’t go seeking revenge. No, He commanded us to spread the Kingdom of God–the Kingdom of Love–throughout the world. When people see me or you, do they see faulty folks who are seeking to love, forgive and help make this world a better, more peaceful, more fair place for all? If so, Jesus might just say, “Keep going. You are not far from the Kingdom.”
Rabbi Hillel, a prominent 1st century Jewish religious leader once faced a question quite similar to the one Jesus faced from the Pharisees. When a man challenged Hillel to teach him the whole of Torah while standing on one foot, the Babylonian Talmud reports Hillel’s response as follows: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”