The Greatest Commandment

October 25, 2020

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18, Psalm 1, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1–8, Matthew 22: 34-40 A week ago, a man in Cleveland Ohio was walking in his community when he saw what appeared to be a homeless person sleeping on a bench. The man called 911, and police arrived to find not a man on man on a bench but rather a statue of a man on a bench. The statue was designed by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz and entitled “Homeless Jesus”; and indeed it depicts just that: a man lying on a bench, wrapped in a blanket in such a way that only his two feet are visible, two feet with nail holes through them. Like all art, the statue is open to interpretation and reaction, but this is not the first time someone has called the police on it, nor likely the last. When I was visiting Toronto for a church conference two years ago, “Homeless Jesus” was displayed outside of the church where the conference was held, St. Paul’s Bloor Street, and I was myself initially fooled into thinking it was a real person sleeping on the busy Toronto sidewalk as people walked by on their way to work. Rather than judge the man in Cleveland who called the police or the people in Toronto who seemed not to notice the same “Homeless Jesus,” can we agree that it is (at the very least) interesting that people can have such different reactions to the same image, the image of a neighbour struggling with poverty and quiet survival. This week, in our Scripture from Matthew, the real-life Jesus gives us what is perhaps the simplest command in all the Gospel: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and love your neighbour as yourself. Matthew tells us this morning, that in the middle of Jesus’ public teaching, during which he has been silencing the Sadducees and condemning the Herodians; the Pharisees (the great temple authorities) came at last to Jesus to test Him, asking, ‘What is the greatest commandment?’ Love God and Love Neighbour, on these two hang all the law and the prophets. Friends, this morning let us approach Christ’s simple words together and to trust in Him when He tells us that they are (in-fact) the Greatest Commandments. First, there is something we need to recognize in there being two commandments, and not one. As the Pharisees approached him that day, they asked “which commandment in the Law is the greatest”? This word Law or Torah in the context of the Pharisees referred to not to Judean laws, or Roman laws, but to Mosaic Laws, the Laws handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai and recorded in the first five books of the bible. To their own community, the Pharisees’ question sounded like this: Tell us Jesus, which single law in the Torah (in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is the greatest of all the laws? In trying to law a trap for Jesus, in trying to trip Jesus up in his words, the Pharisees were asking Him to choose just one commandment to be the greatest of all the others. When we today think of the Old Testament Commandments, we think usually of the original Ten Commandments given to Moses: Have no other Gods before God Do not make or worship idols Do not take the Lord’s name in vain Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy Honour Father and Mother Do not murder Do not commit adultery Do not steal Do not bear false witness against your neighbour Do not covet your neighbour’s house or your neighbour’s wife However, in Jesus’ community, in the community that read and followed the five books of the law, there were in-fact 613 commandments. Tell us Jesus, which single law in the Torah is the greatest of all the commandments? If Jesus had fallen for the Pharisees’ trap - if He had simply given an answer as to the greatest law in the Torah the Pharisees would have had plenty of room to debate Him, to catch Him in his words and to try to discredit him, but that is not what happened. Rather than pick one and risk denying the others, here is what Jesus says: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In essence, what Jesus says to the Pharisees is this: you have asked me what the greatest law in all the law is; I’ll do you one better, I’ll tell you not just the key to the Torah but the key to the prophets as well. Love God, and Love Neighbour “Love God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, that is the greatest. The second is similar: “Love your neighbour as yourself” Friends, there is a reason I am repeating these commandments more-or-less verbatim, I cannot make them any simpler than that! Jesus, the Son of God, has given to Pharisees and to us the keys to the kingdom, the keys to not just the Torah but to Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all of the other prophets: Love God, and Love Neighbour. If you want to find out exactly what that looks like, read the books of the Bible; find out what it means to love God in the midst of suffering, find out what it means to love the neighbour that is persecuting you, find out what it means to love God and honour him when the empire has taken away your right to worship; it’s all in there and it’s all still true. All true, except for the most important thing. The thing, the key, that the Pharisees were missing was in-fact standing right in-front of them, teaching them on the Law and the Prophets. The key, to the Torah to the prophecies, to all of God’s word as it existed at that time is this: The Word of God is not fulfilled in a Word, it is fulfilled in a man. The Word is not fulfilled in a Word If you are looking, as the Pharisees were (at least as they appeared to be) for Jesus to tell you God’s most important word. You have got it wrong. The thing you should be looking for is not the man telling you, it is the man Himself. The man was, as we know and proclaim, the Son of Man foretold by the prophets, the Son of David, God’s only Son, the Messiah, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Jesus’ greatness was not in being a great interpreter of the Word, it was in being the subject of that very word - in whose life, death, and resurrection the law and the prophets would soon be fulfilled. With our post-Pentecost, post-Easter understanding of who Jesus is, we should hear His answer differently than did the Pharisees. Love God and Love Neighbour - on these hang the Law and the Prophets. But not only that, Jesus says. As the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, on these two hang - me. I, Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, come to show the way to eternal life, on these two (Love God and Love Neighbour) hang me. Taking these commandments as seriously as we ought to has serious and life-changing consequences; not only for our faith but for our very lives. Why was the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Why did the Prophets come in God’s name, directing us back to Him over and over? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Why, when we could not fulfill the commandments ourselves, did Christ (the Son of God) come in swaddling clothes, born in a manger? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Why, when He healed on the Sabbath Day was this Son persecuted for his ministry? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Why, through our sinfulness was He made to suffer and put to death for our sake, on the cross? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Why did He rise from the grave on the third day, call together the disciples, and gift them with the Holy Spirit, promising to return? So that we would love God and Neighbour. Friends, it can not be put any simpler than that. The trouble in life comes not from these Commandments being too complicated for us to live by, but from us making them too complicated to fit our lives. How do we love God with all of our heart, and soul, and mind? We honour God. We serve only God. We have no other Gods before God. We pray, and praise, and worship; that’s what worship is! Coming intentionally and humbly before God to give thanks and to enjoy Him in the fellowship of our neighbours. Worshipping God is not “putting in time”, it’s not coming to church or (these days) watching online because it’s what we “have” to do or what our pastors or parents have told us to do. Christian worship is a response to knowing God in Jesus Christ and enjoying Him through all of life, the ups and the downs; even (and especially) in those times when God’s presence doesn’t come to us as easily as it once did. Love God, Worship God, Know God; in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Who has known and loved you, long before you started to know and love Him. Praying, thinking, praising, not just once in a while, but everyday, because you can’t go another moment without saying “thank you” to the author and perfector of life. That’s how we can love God with heart, and soul, and strength. How do we love our Neighbour as ourselves? The simple answer is this: if we already love God with heart, and soul, and strength, we will not have to think about loving Neighbour, because it will already be so. If we truly love God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if we already pray to Him and praise Him and give thanks for every good thing in life and abide in Him as He abides in us, we will already love our neighbour. You will love every annoying neighbour, every boring neighbour, every neighbour you just plain do not understand. You will already love our neighbour because it is impossible to love God and yet hate those whom he loves. One simply cannot see another human being the way God sees them, and come away with anything else but love. As the Living Word on this (and all other subjects) Jesus put it this way: love even your enemies. Some of your neighbours will persecute you, and slander you, and strike you, love them too. If you have truly been listening. If you have truly taken my commands within yourself, you will love even your enemies as yourself. That’s a tall order, but it is simple enough: you cannot love your God and hate your neighbour at the same time. That’s not an option. Christ went to the cross praying for His enemies. Not that we can expect to do this on our own, but we must believe Christ is with us, and gives us the ability to do so out of His strength. If these commandments are so simple, why do we see so much evidence our failure to follow them? Why, even in the simplest tests of neighbourly love do we so often fail? Why, when seeing a man sleeping, cold and uncomfortable, on a bench do we call the police? Do we step around and pretend not to see? Why, at home in Saskatoon, when faced with same problem of homelessness and people freezing in the streets, do we spend our energy arguing about where to move the shelter, rather than tend to those who need help, as Jesus surely would have. When the Pharisees went to Jesus that day, they went with an incomplete understanding of God’s Word. Seeing the Law as literal Law and the Commandments as literal commandments, they missed the living, breathing, fulfillment of the Law who was standing right in-front of them. To this man, this neighbour, this “Jesus” whom they did not understand, they acted cruelly and with hidden intentions. Rather than listen to his teachings, rather than accept the love of God for themselves and celebrate it with their neighbour, they chose to persecute the messenger, the one who was calling them to Trust in a living God who was about to die for His enemies. Friends, we can expect to do no better than these Pharisees if we do not trust in what they could not: God’s Living Word, Made Flesh in Jesus Christ. His Commandments are simple: Love God, and Love Neighbour What is more complicated is our task to let Him live in us so that these may be fulfilled in all we say and do. But let us try. Remembering our own Salvation in Christ, let us re-commit ourselves in this task. That in our worship we would demonstrate our boundless Love for God. And that in our neighboring, we would love all whom we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.