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. (more…)