The Greatest Gift
We do not know the specific reason why a person who was a Pharisee, a lawyer, who supposedly knew all the laws asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” All we know about the lawyer’s agenda was he wanted to test Jesus. One could assume from previous questions it was a test meant to trap Jesus into a wrong answer, no matter what he said. We also could give the person the benefit of the doubt, and maybe they just wanted to see how well a fellow peer was versed in the law.
The other Pharisees in the crowd would know there were 613 laws to choose from to answer this question. Was there a greatest law that trumped all the other 612 laws? Jesus simply answered the lawyer’s query with a response we quote often as Christians, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…a second is like it “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus continued his response, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus is making it known that love is the foundation of all things. Love is the foundation of our our relationship with God. Love is the foundation of the law. Love is the foundation of our purpose in this world. Love is the foundation of our faithfulness towards God. While Jesus’ might have been asked to rank the #1 law in all the land, his response makes it known that loving God and neighbor are not just the greatest laws but they are a mindset or guide in how to navigate ALL things in the world. Love is the greatest gift given to us by God. A gift that is the foundation of our being.
Jesus is quoting two well known laws that were practiced in Jewish tradition. Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind were words spoken to the Israelites right after receiving the 10 commandments or 10 laws of faithful living.
In Deuteronomy chapter 6 the Israelites hear this commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
These words are not as much about being law, but about being a way of life. A way of life that is to be remembered and recited and written down for generations. Love God with all your heart, soul, and might. These words are the basis for the Shema which is a daily prayer recited by observant Jews. A prayer that reminds believers of God that love is the central tenet of their faith, and love is the way they live their life in the world. God claims us with love, and love is what orients our life of faithfulness towards God. When we orient ourselves towards God we let love be the foundation of our emotions, our thoughts, our choices, and our actions.
“A second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is quoting another one of those 613 laws in the Torah. Jesus proclaims and connects the commandment of loving God and the commandment of loving neighbor as being the same thing. You are not able to love God with your heart, soul, and mind if you can not love your neighbor as yourself. A more positive way to express this connection would be to say, when we love our neighbor with all our emotions, our thoughts, our choices, our actions, we are faithfully loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
Growing up in the church, I heard this commandment found in Leviticus a lot. I was taught to love anyone you encountered. When this text is picked out by itself we might generalize the idea of who is our neighbor, and generalize what it means to love them. Yet these words in Leviticus are very specific about who you should consider your neighbor and how you should love them. It is important to note that this law is proclaimed in Leviticus after a long list of ways of how the community is called and directed to always care for the vulnerable and the isolated. Instructions to leave food in the harvest for the poor and the hungry. Instructions for how you should make sure everyone has fair wages for their labor. Instructions for how you should not discriminate against those with disabilities. Instructions for how you should seek justice for those neighbors who have experienced injustice. After all these instructions and directions for caring for all of God’s creation comes the words, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To love your neighbor means to go above and beyond in the ways you care for anyone you may encounter, but it specifically proclaims that we are to intentionally seek out the vulnerable and those who have been oppressed and excluded and offer them compassion, justice, and love.
Like it is today, one of the greatest threats to community in the days of ancient Israel were when individuals or groups put their self interest first and sought their own scheme or agenda or system of society that would exclude others so they could gain power and status. For this reason, the levitical understanding of community was set as the standard to stand in contrast to those who sought to take advantage of the vulnerable and the marginalized. The gift of love towards our neighbor leads us to being rooted in one body that cares and lifts up all in the community.
After being tested on his knowledge of the law by the lawyer, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to recognize him as the Messiah with his question to them,“what do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” The leaders try to give their own answers, saying the Messiah will be David’s son, but Jesus again quotes scripture and the words of Psalm 110 suggesting to them that the Messiah must be someone greater than David’s son.
Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the gospel finds itself expanding the expectations of the Messiah. Faithful people for generations had certain expectations or even their own agendas in their minds about God, yet Jesus is proclaiming to them then and to us now that God’s love is greater and can not be confined by human agendas or even human expectations.
Today is Reformation Sunday. A Sunday where we remember our calling as a church to let the Gospel of Christ transcend any human scheme or worldly system and put love before all things. Throughout history the church has had moments where it could choose love or choose other. Even the most faithful Christians at times struggled with placing love before their own self interest. Human nature can be easily swayed to put self before others. Christians throughout history have had moments when they were on the wrong side of justice, the wrong side of oppression, the wrong side of greed and power.
Which is why I appreciate that as a reformed church we hold dear the ideas that it is scripture alone, our faith alone, and God’s grace alone that guides us in our faithfulness towards God. It is scripture alone where we hear the Good News of God’s love for the world through Jesus Christ, it is in our faith alone that we trust that nothing, not human schemes and agendas, life or death can separate us from the love of God through Christ, it is in Grace alone that we are claimed and loved by God through Christ and we know that the old life is gone and a new life has begun.
It is in a place of standing in God’s grace that I want to revisit the lawyer’s question to Jesus. Even if the question was asked with maybe a particular human agenda or scheme, let us not lose sight that it is still a powerful and meaningful question to ask Jesus, especially if you find yourself in need of spiritual direction and and guidance when the world is overwhelming and confusing. Imagine the question like this “Teacher, the news tells me this about the world, or this political candidate tells me I should do this, or this friend on social media tells me I should do that, teacher I am confused what is the greatest commandment to follow?”
I appreciated the way Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary President, Dr. Ted Wardlaw rephrases the lawyer’s question from the point of view of pain, isolation, brokenness and oppression. For someone in the midst of pain and looking for answers they might not ask what is the greatest commandment but as Dr. Wardlaw points out they are more likely to ask Jesus in their moment of brokenness, teacher, “when everything in our lives is falling from its foundation, what will endure?”
Jesus is proclaiming today the good news that love endures all things. Our love of God and love of neighbor will tear down the barriers of human brokenness and schemes that make some powerful and others weak. Love stands in contrast to the brokenness and pain of the world and is the balm that brings healing and wholeness to a broken world. The good news of the cross and the empty tomb proclaim to the world that God’s love endures all things.
It is with this good news in mind that we find ourselves in a place of glorifying God with our own expression of the great gift of love. With gratitude in our hearts for God’s gift of love revealed to us through Christ, we find ourselves in a place where we are standing in God’s grace and offering to God our own gifts of our time and talents to serve God and God’s creation. In all that we do may we choose love. May our love lift up the vulnerable and isolated neighbor. May we go out into the world knowing that love is the foundation of our faithfulness towards God, and may we glorify God knowing that love is the foundation of our being. Let us go out into the world and proclaim the good news that love endures all things. Alleluia Amen!