An Enduring Question | 25 October 2020 | Dan McCoig
Matthew 22:34-40 [Common English Bible]
34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
When I was a boy I spent nearly every cent I made on my paper route on baseball cards. I would deliver the local paper every weekday. On Saturdays, I would go house to house to collect from the subscribers. I would set aside the money due the newspaper and gather up the money due me for delivering the newspaper.
I would then set out for the corner store in my neighborhood that had a display of baseball cards and comic books. I recall buying no less than at least 10 packs of cards each week and sometimes more, which costs about a dollar. Each pack cost ten cents and had between eight and 14 cards in it. You can well imagine that it didn’t take long for me to amass shoeboxes and cigar boxes full of baseball cards.
My friends and I would read and nearly memorize ever statistic on the back of each player’s card. We would debate endlessly on who the greatest player was as well as the criteria that made our choice for the greatest indeed being the greatest. By the way, the twelve year old me made a pretty good case that Brooks Robinson, the Orioles’ third baseman was the greatest.
I remembered this about my boyhood as I read today’s lesson. We remain in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel has many conflict and controversy stories. Today’s lesson is such a story.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day would debate often and endlessly regarding the 613 commands in the book of Leviticus. Which was the most important command? Which one was the least important? Which was the greatest and perhaps even encompassed all the others?
Such debate was not unusual. No one felt threatened by it. If anything, it was seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. This is why the rabbis debated – to learn, to grow, to deepen their understanding.
These religious leaders decide to pose one of their questions to Jesus. But here’s the thing, the question doesn’t come across as an invitation to a conversation where everyone can learn something. The narrator tells us as much. Rather, the question comes across as a test. It has a “gotcha” feel to it.
Let’s stop here and think about questions. Questions get asked for many reasons. We ask them when we don’t know something and someone else does. That is, we ask questions to learn. This is the best use of a question, in my opinion.
But questions also get asked to put people on the spot, to give the asker a sense of superiority, perhaps even to humiliate the person to whom the question is posed. That is, the question really isn’t a question at all because the asker already knows the answer he or she is looking for. This is perhaps the worst use of a question.
So, what kind of question is the religious leadership’s question in today’s lesson? Were they indeed interested in what Jesus might teach them regarding the greatest commandment? Or, did they have an answer in mind, and assumed others in on the conversation had an answer in mind as well, and sought to humiliate Jesus, assuming he was going get the answer wrong? After all, he was a nobody from nowhere, at least from where they stood.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus’ answer would not have been all that different from the answer the religious leaders had in mind. It’s Judaism at its best. It becomes Christianity at its best. I would go so far as to say it’s religion at its best regardless of the name of the religion.
Every religious tradition addresses in some way what it means for persons to give themselves completely to God. Jesus, as a devout Jew, would have been instructed in this matter. The key word is love. Love of God with heart, soul, and mind. And, love of neighbor as oneself. Christianity inherited many things from Judaism. This is perhaps our greatest inheritance.
For Jesus and his contemporaries, love of God with the heart involved our emotions, our thoughts, the choices we make. Love of God with the soul involved our body, our feelings, our consciousness. Love of God with the mind involved our understanding. The founder of Presbyterian Christianity, the 16th century French Reformer John Calvin, emphasized love of God with the mind, which helps explain our pursuit of education and the founding of many Presbyterian institutions of higher learning. By the way, Reformation Day is October 31. This year marks the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Since trick or treating may too high risk of an activity, maybe we can stay home and read our John Calvin.
Love of God. That’s the first part of Jesus’ answer. The second part is love of neighbor. Loving God, some would argue, is the easy part. What’s not to love about love itself – which is who and what God is? But, loving neighbor is a bit more challenging. Humans, we can be prickly at times – us humans can say and do things others may not understand and may even take issue with. Others can hurt us and those we love. They may require help from us that we may not want to give.
In Jesus’ answer, love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand. If we can’t love our neighbor, any declaration of our love for God will ring hollow, empty. If we love God, we can’t help but loving our neighbor.
As students of the Bible, we know that context is everything. Jesus’ answer, in part, quotes the book of Leviticus [chapter 19] from the Hebrew Bible, our Christian Old Testament. Leviticus commands the Israelites to love their neighbors only after a series of directives that guide behavior toward the community’s weakest members. For example, the book commands that farmers not harvest the edges of their fields so that the poor may glean from them; that they leave stray ears of corn on the ground so that the poor may pick them up and feed their families; the same goes for fallen grapes in the vineyard. Leave them for others. Don’t harvest more than you need and make sure there is always something for others in the community.
Leviticus also lays out commandments for paying laborers their due and not discriminating against persons with disabilities. Additionally, Leviticus implores the Israelites to treat everyone equally by showing no partiality, to speak and act honestly toward all, and to not stand idly by when another’s life may be at stake.
The religious leadership we meet in Matthew’s gospel knew and studied the Book of Leviticus. When the religious leadership talked about loving one’s neighbor they knew what it meant. It meant those things I just spelled out from Leviticus 19. When Jesus talked about loving one’s neighbor he knew what it meant as well. It meant those things I just spelled out from Leviticus 19.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, neighbor love is bias toward persons on the margins. Those least likely to be seen. Those least likely to be heard. Those most likely to be looked over or through. Those most likely to be silenced or talked over or shouted down. These are our neighbors. These are the ones we are to love.
Studying and discussing scripture and formulating our theology is important work. But it is incomplete work if it doesn’t result in changed lives and ethical behavior. It’s good to be informed; it’s better to be transformed.
As I read Matthew’s Gospel, what I come away with is that Jesus has had it with the religious leadership. They have become stuck. They have fallen too much in love with the words on their scrolls and the sound of their own voices as they debate endlessly the meaning of this or that command of God. And they have done so so often and for so long that they have lost sight of what matters most. There are neighbors at their door to be loved.
In today’s passage I see Jesus taking issue with religion as little more than a series of rules. If we say the right things and do the right things, God and I are good. If we fail to say and do the right things, God and I are on the outs. That’s not a transformational faith. That’s a transactional faith.
I have had a love-hate relationship with the Christian faith, but not with Jesus, most of my life, mostly a love relationship, thankfully. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I do. I’m most disheartened by the Christian faith when it has been reduced to a small set of do’s or don’ts. Please don’t misunderstand me. Christianity is an ethical religion and has its do’s – like love God and neighbor – and its don’ts – like don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.
I become most disheartened by the faith when it has put God in a box as it were, when it has drawn boundaries beyond which God cannot be or go. In today’s lesson, I hear Jesus saying to his detractors as well as to us, that God is more expansive than we can imagine. God is more expansive than the 613 commands in Leviticus. God is more expansive than love itself. But if we want to begin to get a glimpse of the God Jesus reveals start with love – love of God, love of neighbor – and stay with love. One simple act of love of neighbor during this pandemic is abiding by the basic public health measures that reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus – wearing a mask, watching our distance, washing our hands, and avoiding indoor crowds for any length of time more than 15 minutes, if possible. These are short term sacrifices we can make as we enter the eighth month of the pandemic. A friend put it in perspective for me when he pointed out that his and my grandparents made sacrifices for 10 years during the Great Depression of 1929-1939. Ten years!
If we think we can reduce God to one of our agendas, we need to think again. If we think we can reduce God to words on a page regardless of how sacred the book containing those pages might be, we need to think again. If we think we can reduce God to a place regardless of how sublime that place might be, we need to think again. God breaks loose of every boundary we build for God. And this is a good thing because I know my horizons are never expansive enough and this may be true for you as well. This is good news, friends. This is good news. Amen.