When some of the religious leaders questioned Jesus, it was anything but a friendly debate. It was religious combat. In Matthew 22 “Which commandment is the greatest?” is a trick question designed to discredit Jesus. This kind of religious combat is so common these days, and that disheartens me. Here is a sermon I recently preached when that passage came up in the lectionary.
Love Comes First
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1 and Matthew 22:34-40
The Bible that Jesus knew was what we call the Old Testament. It had three parts: the law also called Torah—what we know as the first five books of the Bible—the prophets, such as Isaiah, and the writings, such as the Psalms. When they spoke of the Bible, they often called it the law and the prophets. Nobody knew the Bible better than the scribes and Pharisees. They liked nothing better than a vigorous discussion of the scriptures and especially of the sacred law. They loved to pose questions and debate interpretations.
But when some of the Pharisees questioned Jesus, it was anything but a friendly debate. It was not a search for greater light. It was religious combat. They were convinced that Jesus was wrong, and they were out to prove it. Jesus was leading people astray, and he needed to be stopped. They tried to discredit him in the eyes of the people. And soon they would use a cross to stop him.
These Bible experts watched Jesus carefully, trying to catch him making a mistake. They set traps for him, like the one in our gospel lesson today. One with special expertise in the law asked Jesus a question to test him. Note that the Greek word there for test is the same word used when the devil tested Jesus in the wilderness. No, this wasn’t a friendly inquiry.
“Teacher,” the expert asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It was a trick question. Whatever Jesus answered, the legal expert could pounce. There were 613 commandments in the Torah, and whichever one Jesus cited this man could shoot back, “But what about this other commandment? Or, aren’t you forgetting something? Or, how can you call yourself a man of God if you don’t take this commandment seriously?”
Jesus gave one answer in two parts. “’You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” This came from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, something every Jewish person recited every day. “This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus continued. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This came from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Incidentally, in Luke’s telling of this story, this is where the questioner tries to limit who is included in that love by asking, “And just who is my neighbor?” which launches Jesus into the story of the Good Samaritan who rescues a wounded man on the road.
But here in Matthew, the two greatest commandments simply hang in the air. They ring like a bell. Love is the point of all the law and all the prophets. Love God, and love neighbor. These two are inseparable. They are a single idea in two directions. We can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. This is the heart of Christian faith. Love. This is the heart of religion. Love. This is the point. Love.
Being right is not the point. Being beyond criticism and perfectly pure is not the point. Having our heads on straight and believing the correct beliefs is not the point. Love is the point. Love comes first.
But for many of these biblical legalists, love did not come first. Being right and being pure came first. Pointing out other people’s sins and shortcomings was a favorite pastime. There was the time, for example, when Jesus’ disciples were hungry one Sabbath day, the day when it was unlawful to work, and they plucked grain in a field and ate it. Some Pharisees were watching and complained, “They broke the law! They worked on the Sabbath.” Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. Don’t condemn the guiltless.”
Then there was that time when Jesus healed the woman with the crooked spine in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue shamed the woman in front of everybody. “There are six days when work can be done,” he insisted . “Come on one of those days for healing. Don’t break the Sabbath.” Jesus replied, “Every one of you unties your animals on the Sabbath and lead them to get something to drink. Shouldn’t this woman, this daughter of Abraham, also be set free on the Sabbath?”
These experts also didn’t like how freely Jesus gave the gift of forgiveness. “How can he claim to forgive sins?” they complained. They didn’t like the way he touched unclean people and outcasts, and even shared meals with them. Jesus scandalized them. They called him a sinner because he was friendly and accepting of sinners. Love came first for Jesus, but love did not come first for those who criticized him.
Love often doesn’t come first for Christians now. With judgmental, combative spirits, they are determined to be right and to prove others wrong. They are quick to complain, poised to correct, or ready to attack when they think someone’s beliefs aren’t correct, and especially when they think someone is being soft on sin. They enjoy railing against other people’s sins. They point the finger and pronounce: “The Bible says.” It’s clear to them who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out, who is going to heaven, and who isn’t. Love doesn’t come first. For them, being right comes first.
Church historian Diana Butler Bass used to be a member of that group. In her book Strength for the Journey, she describes her pilgrimage from focusing on being right to focusing on loving God and neighbor. God transformed her spirit from a combative one into a humble one.
Diana shares some of the experiences that God used to get her attention. Here’s an example. Diana is Episcopalian, and back in the mid 1980s, the Episcopal Church was still deeply divided over whether women could be ordained. Some, like Diana and especially her then husband, thought the Bible was crystal clear on the subject: No, the Bible does not permit women to be ordained and lead the church, and they had the scripture verses to prove it. Others weren’t so sure, and they pointed to other scriptures. Diana’s husband was so adamant that women should not be in ministry that when they moved to another state and were looking for another church, he refused to go to any church that had a woman pastor.
Diana’s local church in Massachusetts was mostly against ordaining women, although there were a few people, including the current pastor, who supported it. Many people in that church thought the Bible was absolutely clear on that and on a lot of issues. They were adamant about it, and they were suspicious of anyone who didn’t share their certainty. When the diocese elected a new bishop, many in Diana’s church were suspicious of him. Was he really orthodox? Was he even a real Christian?
The Bishop was scheduled to make a visit to the parish, and as the visit drew near, Diana heard many people expressing these concerns. By this time, she was beginning to question whether everything was as black and white as she had once thought it was. And she knew that when the bishop came, people were going to be waiting and seeking to trip him up just as the Pharisees waited for Jesus, ready to ambush him. She feared it might get ugly, and it did.
After the bishop finished addressing the group, he opened the floor for questions. The members of Diana’s church were ready to pounce. They peppered him with questions about theology, and about women’s ordination and about other controversial issues. They clearly didn’t like the answers he was giving. One woman said, “The church must be clear on these issues. What about the Ten Commandments? Are we to teach our children that they are merely suggestions, guidelines? You can’t do that. You have to teach children the rules” (Strength for the Journey,p. 83). On and on it went like this. The ambush was painful to witness.
Then Diana’s husband asked a question. “Bishop, it says in the book of Timothy that the bishop is to guard the gospel. Sir, listening to you, I cannot discern what you are guarding. Can you tell us, please, exactly what you think the gospel is?” Sounds so much like the Pharisee’s question in today’s reading, “Tell us which commandment is the greatest.”
The bishop looked slowly around the room. He unfolded his arms from across his chest, and stretched them out so widely that to Diana he almost looked like Jesus on the cross. Slowly, deliberately, the bishop answered, “God. God loves everybody.”
Her husband started to protest, “Well, yes, but…”
“God loves everybody,” the bishop replied. “That’s it.”
“God loves everybody,” the bishop repeated.
It summed up Jesus’ message and the whole of scripture. All of scripture hangs on that, but it sounded too sentimental and liberal and mushy to that room full of people who wanted things to be black and white. God loves everybody. Did that really include everybody?
Diana writes, “Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I knew that that squishy liberal bishop was right and I was wrong. God really did love everybody—including all the people I thought were excluded from the reach of the gospel. I had limited the gospel…but the bishop said no. No limits. God loves everybody. God’s love is as vast as the universe and as difficult to comprehend as eternity itself. God’s only boundary is love” (Strength for the Journey, p. 85).
On another occasion the very scripture we read this morning hit Diana between the eyes. Love is the point! Writing about that, she said, “The point was not scaring someone into heaven or saving them from hellfire. The point was love. Loving God and loving my neighbor” (Strength for the Journey, pp. 136-137).
Love is the point. Not being right. Not winning some argument. Not being good. Not being pure. Love is the point. Love comes first.
Paul makes the same point in a powerful way in 1 Corinthians 13. In the church in Corinth there were certain people who prided themselves on knowing better than others in the church, understanding scripture better, and being more gifted spiritually than others. They thought, therefore, that they deserved more authority in the church. Paul’s whole letter is a reply to this.
In chapter 13 Paul wrote, “I can have all knowledge. I can know the Bible backwards and forwards. I can have spectacular gifts like speaking in tongues. I can be a wonderful speaker. I can have the ability to prophesy. I can be right. But without love, I am still dead wrong. Why? Because love comes first. These three abide: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.
What is the greatest commandment? What is the heart of the matter? What’s faith all about? Jesus didn’t say get your beliefs straight. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love comes first. The law, the prophets, and everything else hangs on this. Love comes first.
And love comes first here at Morton Church. Loving God and neighbor is our mission. Can we put it any more simply than that? Love is the centerpiece of our ministry. Love is why God has called us together here. Love is the whole point.
Daily we receive the wondrous, limitless, unconditional love of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Every single day God pours out God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance for us, freely, graciously. How can we keep that love to ourselves? How can we keep from living it out, from embodying it in our lives, and from passing it on to our neighbors? And so many of our neighbors are lying wounded on the road, wounded in body, mind, or spirit, needing us to go to them where they are and do something—not to point our fingers. Not to rail against sin, but to literally be Jesus’ loving eyes, heart, hands, feet, voice, and everything else. How else will people know that Jesus is real? How else? Jesus loves us, this we know. And he loves you, too. That’s the message we must take beyond these walls.
Love comes first. We will love God with all our heart and soul and mind. And to do that, we will love our neighbors—ALL our neighbors.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.