Matthew 22:34-40 “When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked hi a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
The Ten Commandments were vitally important to Israel. They formed the basis of the Covenant and became the foundation of Israel’s first legal code. At Sinai a bunch of ragtag runaway slaves became…if you’ll forgive the phrase…One nation, under God.
As we have looked at each of those ten commandments, we’ve seen a progression. The beginning commandments taught us about our relationship with God. To put God first, not to limit God by carving God’s image into stone—either literal stone or ideological stone—and to be careful how we use God’s name. From there we began to move from the relationship with God to the relationship we have with others.
First is the relationship we have with ourselves. We are to rest—to remember the Sabbath and show that we recognize that we are not the ones in charge of the world. That rest is for us and all the extensions of us…family, employees, even animals.
With our relationship with God and ourselves stable, we move on to our relationships with others and concrete actions concerning them. We are not to kill them or to steal their spouse or property. And then the last two commandments turn our attention inward, to watch the attitudes of our hearts that can lead to destructive action. We’re not to lie or slander others and we are to work to be content with what we have, rather than coveting the possessions, family, or success of others.
And so it sits for about 1500 years. The law gets more elaborate as people naturally start to ask…well, when is it we can’t kill, exactly? Just what constitutes the work we can’t do on the Sabbath—it can be pretty exhausting to walk to the next town for a visit—and so forth. By the time Jesus comes along, there are entire career paths devoted to the ins and outs of keeping the law of Moses. The Pharisees and the Scribes are two of them.
And the Pharisees and Scribes are beginning to get a bit worried that Jesus may be undermining their careers by teaching that the legal code has developed some flaws and therefore refusing to obey some of it. So they come to Jesus with a very pointed legal question. Which commandment is the greatest?
They ask for one, and Jesus gives them two—neither of which comes from the Ten Commandments. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:4…to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is from Leviticus 19:18…to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says that all of the law and the prophets can be summed up in those two commands.
They don’t come directly from the Ten Commandments, but…as Jesus said…they do provide a nice summary of them. As we’ve just seen, the love of God, self, and neighbor is exactly what the Ten Commandments are trying to illustrate.
The problem that Jesus was having with the Law as it was lived in the first century was that the Law itself had become the occasion of breaking the first of the Ten Commandments. You shall have no other gods before me. No idols. Well, the law and all its myriad details had become more important than God. It was an idol carved in stone. Jesus kept trying to point that out—trying to say that the law was merely meant to represent what the underlying attitudes of justice, mercy, and love looked like in a given instance. But each case has to be judged on its merits. It’s about the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.
So…yes, if you’re really hungry and have no food, you can pick corn on the Sabbath. Yes, if a person is suffering, you can help them on the Sabbath. No, you are not relieved of the responsibility of supporting your elderly parents by giving your money to the church instead. If a woman is caught in the act of adultery, you can show mercy instead of automatically stoning her as the law requires. (I still want to know, if she was caught in the act of adultery, why they only brought her and not the man!)
So Jesus’ answer to the Scribes and the Pharisees is meant to bring them back from a focus on the letter of the law to the spirit that created it in the first place. Love God with all you’ve got, and keep the love of self and the love of neighbor in balance. It is the power of that love that should guide our decisions. And if we did that, there would be no need for mountains of laws to define what is allowed for in every possible circumstance. The law of love allows law to live and breathe like the God it is supposed to represent.
The law of Moses, which primarily spelled out what people shouldn’t do, and the words of the prophets, which on page after page of the Bible call out for pro-active works of justice and mercy are summed up, Jesus says in the commands to love God and your neighbor as yourself.
In the Gospel of John, as Jesus is instructing his disciples at the last supper, he gives the great commandment a bit of a different twist. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, just after Judas has left the room to betray him, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Technically it’s not really a new commandment. Love one another and love your neighbor as yourself are pretty similar. What Jesus adds here is the answer to an obvious question. Remember when the Great Commandment about loving the neighbor is quoted to one of the Scribes, he famously asks for clarification. Well, who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan follows. So when Jesus gives a command to love one another, it’s natural that somebody is going to ask…well, how do you do that exactly? What does love entail?
That, I think, is exactly the question that God was trying to answer by living a human life in Jesus. And Jesus confirms that. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Loving one another doesn’t mean running barefoot through flowers into each others arms. It means living life the way Jesus did, expressing love in ways that were obvious and subtle.
The love of Jesus for his disciples included compassionate healing and patient teaching—even when the disciples were so being so dense that Jesus would cry out in frustration. It included letting the disciples struggle and even fail as they learned to be faithful. Jesus took them into uncomfortable situations—even into Samaria, the heartland of their greatest enemy—to show how to love those they were taught to hate. Jesus provided food when they had none, courage when theirs failed, and forgiveness even when they denied him in his hour of greatest need. And he tied a towel around his waist and washed their feet like a servant.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That, of course, was also the purpose of the Ten Commandments. Keeping God’s law was not just a way to keep order in society. It was a form of witness—a way to proclaim to the world the nature of the God who held their ultimate allegiance.
That has not changed, as Jesus shows… “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Being a disciple of Jesus is not proven in the voting booth. It is not proven by the number of Sundays we show up at church or the dollar amount of our offerings. It is not proven when we recite the creed or profess that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. The way that the world will know that it is Jesus whom we follow is by our love. Love for God, love for ourselves, love for our neighbor, and even love for our enemies.
When we fail in love, we have taken God’s name in vain, because as 1 John 4:8 tells us quite simply, “God is love.” For us to take God’s name on ourselves as Christians and identify God’s behavior with things that are not loving is blasphemy. We are called to show in our lives the love of God. That is our witness. We are not called to corner people and make them profess a certain doctrine of the atonement. We are not called to have God all figured out and be able to predict who goes to heaven and who doesn’t.
We are called to tie a towel around our waists and serve. We are called to walk together into the heartland of the enemy and show compassion. We are called to heal and teach and sometimes to let a loved one struggle to find their own strength. We are called to forgive and to share a meal even with the one who betrays us. That’s what love does, and we know that because that’s what Jesus did. He says that if we do that, we are keeping all of the commandments of the law and all the dictates of the prophets. That’s why he said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Moses wrote it, Jesus lived it. And, if we want to be His disciples, we are called to live it, too. Amen.
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