Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 25, 2020 – Matthew 22:34-46 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom
Last week, Liz preached on the first of three difficult questions that Jesus gets in this section of Matthew from the religious leaders of the day. It was a question of taxes, answered famously with, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.”
The lectionary people skip the second question, which is one from the Sadducees about resurrection. We hear it instead during the Year C cycle.
Today we encounter the third and final question of the sequence, “Which commandment in the law is greatest?”
There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. That’s the genius of the Pharisee’s question. If Jesus singles one out, then he leaves himself open to criticism. What about the 612 others? Aren’t they important, too?
As we have grown to expect, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Not only does he answer smartly, but swiftly and succinctly.
The greatest and first, he says, is what we know today as Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second comes from what we would cite as Leviticus 19:18, which we heard this morning: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s important for us to realize that Jesus isn’t just making this stuff up. He’s quoting scripture, proving to his listeners that he does indeed know his Bible. Even more than that, by bringing these two particular commandments to the forefront, Jesus makes a definitive statement about his philosophy of legal interpretation.
Every time a Supreme Court nominee goes before the Senate, we hear an awful lot in the media about different philosophies of legal interpretation. To what degree should the Constitution be interpreted through the lens of the intent of the original framers, versus the moral standards of the present age?
Today, Jesus gives us his legal philosophy, not concerning the U.S. Constitution (to even attempt to guess what Jesus would say about that specific document would be silly), but of God’s law as it is found in the Torah.
Love God; love your neighbor. By these twin measures do we interpret all of God’s law. Or, as Jesus put it, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Keeping the law is not about memorizing exactly which rules say what. It’s not about ranking them in order of importance. It’s not about identifying who follows them the best. Above all, keeping the law is about loving God and loving your neighbor. All 613 laws speak to at least one of these two core principles.
For instance, I once heard a sermon that categorized the 10 Commandments. According to the preacher, the first five—the thou shalts—are about loving God, while the second five—the thou shalt nots—are about loving your neighbor.
Our Book of Common Prayer divides them differently. It puts the first four (having no other Gods, the making of idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, keeping the sabbath) in a group relating to loving God, and the remaining six (honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying, not coveting) in the category of loving your neighbor.
If you ask me, both groupings are acceptable (as long as you have a proper theological rationale, of course). Therein lies the point. What matters most is not how you categorize the laws, but why they are there in the first place: to teach us how to love God and one another.
Laws, rules, ordinances, statutes, commandments—whatever you want to call them—provide a necessary foundation for living in civil society and religious community. They can keep us safe, promote respectful boundaries, and encourage mutual thriving. But if we get too bogged down in the individual rules, then we may lose sight of their overarching purpose. So Jesus is abundantly clear: the point is love.
Again, Jesus doesn’t pull this out of thin air. Listen to what we heard this morning from Leviticus.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” In other words, if you’re going to make a judgement, you must do so fairly, not based on your preconceived notions.
“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” And by the way, if your neighbor does something they shouldn’t be doing, then help them correct their behavior.
It boils down to this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is not prophesying some new truth. He is merely clarifying why the laws say what they say. Unless you get really clear about the fact that they are all about love, then knowing 613 different laws isn’t going to do you much good anyway. It doesn’t matter how many laws you know by heart if you don’t have the love of God written on your heart.
The Pharisee’s question in today’s passage is a great example of just how tough a job it is for all of us to stay focused on God’s love.
It’s no wonder that, after God gave us the law, he sent judges, kings, and prophets to point us back toward it; that is, to point us back toward his boundless love. Alas, we still get stuck in the nitty gritty of it all. After all, it’s far easier to argue about specific points of the law than it is to admit that everyone is worthy of love. And unless you are willing to do just that, then your relationship with God and our neighbors—the two most important things in all creation—will suffer.
Lucky for us, our faith comes with a built-in reminder that, above all, “love is the way.” No, it’s not the Presiding Bishop. I bet you probably have a pretty good idea who it is, though: the one through whom all things were made.
If we were in the church as usual, this is point in the sermon at which I would draw your attention to the altar, the table where we would soon gather to experience the grace of Jesus in the flesh. We may not be able to do that today, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have access to that same grace.
So, for now, instead of pointing over my shoulder, I’ll ask each of you to look into your hearts. For that is where you feed on him by faith with thanksgiving. Now. And forever.