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Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the great commandments’

Be brave, little one from Flickr via Wylio

© 2009 Lisa, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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…)

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'IMG_1419' photo (c) 2010, Steve Rainwater - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Here is a sermon on Mark 12:28-34, the gospel text for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost Year B (Proper 26 B, Ordinary 31B).  It includes an illustration from the movie Toy Story 2, showing how Woody the cowboy chose the way of love over the way of self-preservation.

The Heart of Life

A Sermon on Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; Romans 12: 1-2, 9-21; and Mark 12:28-34

It was almost a sport.  The legal experts of Jesus’ day hardly enjoyed anything more than debating the interpretation and application of God’s law.  For most of those who tried to draw Jesus into debate, it turned into a blood sport, for they were interested in getting the best of him.  Indeed, they ultimately wanted to knock him out.  “Let’s see how he handles this one,” first one group and then another would say as they attempted to trip Jesus up.  In chapter 12 of Mark, for instance, the Pharisees tried to trap him with a question about whether or not it was lawful for God’s people to pay taxes to the Roman emperor.  Jesus’ answer?  Pay to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and pay to God the things that belong to God.  They were amazed.  Chalk one up for Jesus.

Then some Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, hoped to make Jesus stumble with a question about the law of levirate marriage.  This law said that if a man died and left a wife but no children, his brother must marry the widow. Then they could have children that would be considered the dead man’s children.  Now if there were seven brothers, proposed the Sadducees, and this happened again and again down through all seven brothers with no resulting children, whose wife would the woman be in the resurrection?  Jesus replied that there is no marriage in heaven.  He then cited one of the Sadducees own favorite scriptures to show that there is a resurrection.  Chalk another one up for Jesus!

One scribe, a legal specialist, listened to all this debating with great interest.  In contrast to most, this one was rather sympathetic with Jesus.  He especially enjoyed it when Jesus got the best of the Sadducees.  There was no love lost between scribes and Sadducees.  Now this scribe zeroed in on the heart of the matter.  Which commandment is the most important, he wanted to know.  To live a faithful life, what was the most important thing?  An answer to this question would show what Jesus was really about.

We don’t know for sure what this scribe’s motive was.  He didn’t seem hostile.  Maybe he was genuinely interested in Jesus’ response.  Maybe he posed the question just for fun.

But the question of what’s most important is not just for fun when you have big decisions to make, when you’re asking questions like: What are my life’s goals going to be?  What job or career should I pursue? Who and when should I marry?

The question of what’s most important is not just for fun when you’re at midlife and reassessing the track you are on.  It’s not even a question you ask for fun at the end of life when you look back.  With all seriousness you ponder whether you have done what is most important, and are you doing what’s most important now.  The question of what’s most important is critical wherever you are on the journey of life.

That question was raised in a touching way in the movie Toy Story 2.  Woody, a toy cowboy belonging to a little boy named Andy was kidnapped by a greedy toy collector.  Woody had just rescued another toy from being sold at Andy’s mom’s yard sale, and before Woody could get back in the house, this man pounced on him.  When Andy’s mom refused to sell Woody, the man stole him.

The thief’s goal was to collect a complete set of all the toys and memorabilia from an old TV series called Woody’s Roundup.  Woody, of course, had been the star character.  Now that he had Woody, the man planned to sell his collection at a fantastic profit to a toy museum in Japan.

A toy doctor refurbished Woody and made him look brand new.  The other toys from the TV show attempted to convince him that it would be a wonderful thing to be together in the toy museum.  They would look good forever and live forever—no more wear and tear from children’s play.  No more disappointment when the children grew up and forgot you.

When Buzz Lightyear and several of Andy’s other toys arrived to rescue Woody, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go home with them.  Buzz and the others exclaimed, “You’re a toy!  You are supposed to be loved and enjoyed by children.  Sure you’ll be handled roughly and wear out.  Sure Andy is going to grow up.  But he loves you.”

Now what was most important?  Looking good, safe forever in a museum case?  Or serving a child who loved him?

Which commandment is most important of all? (more…)

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