Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon, Proper 25A, Matthew 22:34-46

The gospel story today is the last of the attempts to trap Jesus. Before this we've had the questions of paying taxes, of authority and, if you've been following along at home, of seven brothers and one wife. And now we get this last test, this last question.

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

This was no easy question. Have you ever noticed that the more you know about something, the less clear it becomes? Or maybe I should say the more nuanced our answers become. And that is because we understand circumstances, we understand how one thing affects something else, we understand that answers really do get more complicated.

Jewish scholars had figured out that there were 613 laws on the books. And, because there was no TV, they loved to sit around debating which was the greatest, which ones determined work, which ones regulated dress, and on and on. This would be a little like asking me what the most important rule in football is. Twenty years ago I probably would have said, "Defensive pass interference." But now, taking all 733 rules into consideration (give or take, and not allowing for notes and exceptions), I would say that it is rule 1.1.6 -- "The referee has authority to rule promptly, and in the spirit of good sportsmanship, on any situation not specifically covered in the rules. The referee's decisions are final in all matters pertaining to the game."

But I'm getting sidetracked. The point of this question was to determine whether or not Jesus knew his rules book, so to speak. And maybe it was to prove that he really was an unorthodox radical who was happily stirring up trouble by including outcasts and sinners in God's kingdom ahead of the righteous religious leaders. So once again, the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to commit to an answer that they could rebuke.

But Jesus doesn't give a single answer. Nor does he turn the tables as he did with the question of authority and taxes. Instead, he gives an answer well-known to the people of the day. If you remember, it was over in Luke where it was the lawyer who answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself."

If you think back to that passage for a moment, the lawyer asked a follow-up question: And who is my neighbor? That question prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question today, however, isn't, "Who is my neighbor?" The question today is, "What is love?"

Our language has changed the meaning of love over the years. For instance: I love my wife's meatloaf; I love fresh seafood at the beach; I love my daughter; I love my classmate, Tripp; I love our two congregations. Some people claim that we overuse and abuse the word love; but I think it has just changed over time.

This is imporant to know because biblical love isn't about affection or warm fuzzy feelings. Love, in the sense that the Lukan lawyer and Jesus in today's gospel use it, has to do with commitment. It has to do with a firm and steadfast commitment to the Other.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind." Are we really committed to God? Are we really giving him the best we have to offer? Do we commit ourselves to worshiping God on a regular and ongoing basis? Do we commit ourselves to daily prayer? And, yes, have we committed ourselves to the spreading of the gospel through our pledge of time, talent and treasure?

In that way we imitate God. God hates certain deeds, certainly. God hates that which turns people against him. God hates those actions that humans perpetrate against each other. But God does not hate people. God loves all people. God is committed to all people. And it is through this love, through this commitment, that God continually calls people back into relationship with him. Just as God is committed to us, so should we be committed to God. Just as God loves us, so should we love God.

And if God loves us, if God is committed to us, then it stands to reason that God also loves and is committed to THEM. God loves and is committed to those people we personally dislike for whatever reason. God loves our neighbors just as he loves us. And if God loves our neighbors, and we love and are committed to God, then we in turn should love our neighbors as ourselves.

We've had some discussions over the years about what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Does it mean you have to like the other person? Does it mean you have to buy him a drink at the bar? Does it mean you have to exchange recipes with her? No, it doesn't mean any of that. Loving our neighbor as our self means this: that we look out for the needs of the Other in the same way that we look out for our own needs.

But unless we love God with all our heart, mind and soul we won't know that. Unless we are committed to God, we will fail in our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Unless we spend time in prayer and study, we will miss the nuances and the subtleties which shape God's relationship with us as found in Scripture. How will we deepen our relationship with God and our neighbor unless we delve into those 613 laws and untold number of other passages unless we study them? How can I be an effective official unless I continually delve into and study those 733-some odd rules?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Jesus did just that. He loved God with everything he had. He loved his neighbor as himself by seeing to their needs and welcoming all with a radical inclusivity and hospitality. And because of those to commandments, he hung on a cross.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. On these two commandments hang Jesus. On these two commandments hang us. We can do no less.


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