Preached by Rev. George Yando on October 29, 2017.
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22: 34-46
A friend of mine who is an Anglican priest once shared with me a story of an incident which happened some years ago when a parishioner gently offered him a bit of criticism. It had to do with the way one of the rubrics printed in the Sunday bulletin has been phrased. Rubrics incidentally are those instructions in an order of service that give directions for certain actions to take place during the liturgy or service of worship. The subject of this rebuke was the asterisk or little star in the margin which indicated the times and places when “the congregation reverently kneels.” The rubric prompted my friend’s objector to suggest, “You can command people to kneel, but you can’t command them to be reverent about it.”
An interesting observation. On the one hand, he had a point: some people kneel humbly and reverently; others kneel conceitedly or self-importantly because kneeling is the “right” thing to do in some worship services; some kneel tentatively and others unthinkingly; some reflectively and others reflexively. Directing them all to be reverent in their kneeling in no way assures that they will or are even capable of doing so. Reverence is not something you can simply conjure up at will, your will or that of another.
It all has to do with legislating attitudes. As anyone who has ever parented a child knows, you can make and enforce rules about behaviour and actions; attitude is another matter entirely.
Nevertheless, doesn’t Jesus himself go beyond the matter of behaviour and actions and into the realm of motives and attitudes when he suggests in the Sermon on the Mount that anger receives the same judgment as killing or when he says that lust is a form of adultery? Even the commandment against coveting is a matter of the heart and soul and not yet outward action.
So, what does it mean when he tells those testy Pharisees that the greatest and heaviest commandment is the one repeated daily, morning and night, by all the devout people of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind?” Heart and soul and mind: do these dimensions of the human being not refer to the inward centre of the person? Are they not the seat and residence of emotion, motive and attitude? If so, then does God’s greatest and heaviest expectation of us people have to do with the way we feel rather than the way we act?
There was no time to ask much less ponder those kinds of questions, because Jesus immediately proceeded to Part Two of his answer: to love God with heart and soul and mind is the first of the commandments – and the greatest. But there is a second like it, equal to it and inseparable from it: love your neighbour as yourself. These two commandments are the hinges on which hang the door of the law and the prophets.
To use a word that is much in vogue these days, Jesus’ answer is “wholistic:” it embraces all of life, attitude and actions. The Reformed biblical scholar and theologian Eduard Schweizer has this to say: “One can love God only by loving one’s neighbour.” Further, he says, “only through a sense of love for one’s neighbour, experienced in concrete actions and embracing all of life, is the Law fulfilled.”
The Law’s concern for justice; the prophet’s passionate pleas for loyalty to God and righteous behaviour – all of this is summed up in the bi-focal command: love God, love your neighbour. And this, according to Jesus, is the path to righteousness which “exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes.”
Jesus’ response takes aim at a danger which lurks at the heart of legalistic religion, that being a lack of love. Those who hold to or lean toward a strictly legal and literal interpretation of Scripture don’t seem to grasp one of its more direct and uncomplicated injunctions: this one to love. And what they hold in their vision of moral rightness and strict Biblical standards, they lose in love, tenderness, mercy, kindness and gentleness.
Where a soft word of healing is called for, too often instead will be spoken a shrill word of condemnation. Where a work of mercy is needed, pious – or sometimes impious – platitudes are offered. And in response to each and every such wrong-headed word and deed, the heart of God is grieved, for the scribes and Pharisees are with us still, and the love command is honoured more in the breaking than in the keeping.
There remains another problem. Love God and love your neighbour may be great commands, but they are still and precisely that: commands. And if it is doubtful that one can command people to kneel reverently, how much more in doubt is it that one can command them to live lovingly, either in their attitudes or in their actions?
A rule is a rule. A law is a law. The Golden Rule may be golden but it is still a rule. The Gospel on the other hand brings this alternate insight, a perspective both refreshing and hopeful: true freedom proceeds not from rules and laws but from faith and the liberating good news which engenders faith.
Where is such good news to be found if not in rules and commands, even Golden Rules and greatest commands? The good news of freedom is found not in the rules and commands themselves, but in the one who alone issues the commands, the one who alone is able to fulfil them.
Remember Jesus’ own self-description, according to Matthew: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” Jesus came not simply to issue orders, but to model how one was to live in obedience to them.
The twin commands to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbours as ourselves forever and relentlessly convict us of faithlessness and disobedience, both in attitude and action. They remind us who we are: those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But they also point us to the one who has in the first place, issued those commands, for he is the one who alone fulfils them. He alone among God’s people steadfastly and relentlessly loved God with his whole being and his neighbour as – no! more than! – Himself. For such was the love that carried Him to the cross.
Where our disobedience, faithlessness and lovelessness are bad news, his obedience, steadfast love and faith have become for us good news, good news so well expressed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “One man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all … by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (5:18-19) The greatest commands, those spelled out by Jesus as love of God and love of neighbour, have at last been fulfilled — by Jesus himself, by his self-giving love and that love’s perfect deed: his innocent suffering and death.
How is this good news for us? By our baptism into Christ, we are joined to that death and raised up as new beings. By the grace of God and despite our faithlessness, disobedience and lovelessness, we share in the resurrected life of our crucified and risen Lord. His unbounded love for us has worked in us a change of heart, a change in the way we view our lives and live them.
To the new creature who lives by faith, no longer are the words “love God, love your neighbour” only demands or commands. No longer are they merely prescriptions; they have become descriptions, portraits of our new life in Christ. No longer are they just rules and laws stated in the imperative: you shall, you must. They are also narratives stated in the indicative: you will, you are. Who are we? We are, by the grace of God, the people of God, new beings in Christ. And how might the life of that community of new beings be described? We are those who live out our love of God by loving our neighbours as ourselves.
And how does that play itself out? In many and various ways: we give food for the hungry at home and funds for the hungry abroad. A visit to an elderly or shut in neighbour, to someone in hospital or home recuperating. A helping hand with domestic chores or household maintenance when time is at a premium or the task beyond the physical capability of the one in need. A casserole and a word of comfort to those in mourning. We tutor and transport; take time to listen to a troubled neighbour or co-worker, set aside the personal tasks and private concerns that fill our days in order to talk and play and simply be with our families. In short, we take advantage of those opportunities to love as we have been loved.
Now of course we fail. Everyday we fall short, in attitude and in action. Every day and every week our confession of sin accumulates new dimensions of truth, that is, new ways we’ve found to be disobedient and faithless. And the Great Commands continue to do their job of convicting us and directing us. Yet again and again we are both pointed and drawn to the one who has commanded us, for he alone is the one who fulfils. He is the one who has taken up residence within us, in our hearts and souls and minds. He dwells with us. His unconditional love for us makes of us new creatures, new beings in him; beings who live by faith and just and only so in love; love of God with all our being and love of neighbours as ourselves. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. Thanks be to God. Amen.