Good morning. A while back, I was asked to help speak at a week long camp for high- schoolers – and the Scripture that the camp asked me to use was this very text in Matthew 22 (Matt. 22:34-40). And so I busily began to prepare each day’s message by reading this passage until it was seared in my memory and digging deep into the context and words and meanings. But the further I got into this preparation, the slower I worked, because I found myself convicted — almost paralyzingly convicted. Scribbling down thoughts that made me pause in prayer and silence for long stretches of time. God was speaking to me. And so I wrote these thoughts down – and they may be a little personal to be sharing with you all, as I don’t know all of you that well. But we are the Church together, and so perhaps we can lean into the ways we are meant to help each other grow with courage and humility. And perhaps you might also hear what God is saying in this passage as convicting to you as well.
So to begin, I want to share a bit about my own life… I grew up as a kid with a passionate love for God. I was baptized when I was seven years old, gave my testimony in front of the whole church. I went on to memorize Bible verses, attend Bible studies, I prayed diligently. I went ot church on Sundays and Wednesdays and retreats on weekends. I loved God as well as I could. But when I was in high school, I stumbled upon a documentary about the AIDS crisis in Africa for the first time – and I was broken hearted. I realized that I had spent so much time and so much of my life loving God and cultivating my own faith life – and I began to question – what does that have to say to these people who were dying of a disease on the other side of the world? How did my faith and love of God help me love the world?
So at that point, in high school, I started a journey of looking outward and not just inward– learning about people. It started by learning about the AIDs crisis and other diseases wreaking havoc on the world’s poor, which led to learning about cities in the US, in our own country, which led to learning about race and racism and how that plays out in our schools, neighborhoods, and our government. And I continue to follow my curiosity on these things today…
I have found, in all of this learning and looking outward, that my soul stirred by these stories. And I live and work and breath in the ministry world—I’ve had this refrain from the Lord’s Prayer beating in my chest, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth, this earth, as it is in heaven,” –I preach and I teach again and again and again that we are called to love our neighbor! To know those whose life is different than ours. To know those for whom life is harder. To love the orphan and the widow and the fatherless and motherless. To walk alongside of and learn from those who have less. To welcome the stranger. To understand our privilege. To listen the race conversation in America and learn how to be part of it. To know the Church in the Global South is an important voice! A leading voice. Love others! I say, Love them well! Stop thinking so individually! See yourself as part of a community! Look outward!
And I believe this is important! In a lot of ways, this is the fuel my ministry mind and heart run on. All I have to do is look at Jesus for half a second in the gospel, and it becomes crystal clear that if we are to follow his example, our life has to be marked by this type of listening and seeing and radically loving others.
But in all of this thinking and teaching and preaching and listening and learning and loving, I fear… I confess to you… that I’ve neglected my own love for God. The pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction since the days of my youth. And so Jesus convicts me in this passage.
Now, I don’t know if you were able to follow the gospel story we just read– it’s pretty straight forward.
A man, a lawyer, a Pharisee, one of those churchy-leader-types, comes up to Jesus with a question. A question to test Jesus, Scripture says. He asks him – Jesus: what is the greatest commandment? What is the one thing we must to do follow God?
Now, every good Jew would know the answer to this question: to love God. So it’s sort of a soft-ball question that the lawyer is using here. The text tells us that he’s trying to test Jesus, right? So why would this soft-ball question be testing Jesus here??
In the background, if I were to read between the lines – and use my sanctified imagination to fill in the gaps of this story – to read this story through the lens of today… I might hear in this question, the lawyer saying something like this — “You’ve spent all your time, Jesus, with these certain types of people. People with diseases–people with sin – people without money – people in trouble. You’ve spent all your time talking with them. Healing them. Helping them. You’ve spent all your time with the poor, the marginalized, the minorities, the outcasts… Your radical social life, this lawyer may have said between the lines, has made me uneasy. Your disregard for all the rules that I follow so carefully has made me uneasy. So let me hear you just say it out loud – what’s the most important commandment? Because by looking at your life, I could guess you think it has to do with these people you spend so much of your time with…
And so, in this climactic moment in which the lawyer tests Jesus – when these two men are nose to nose, the lawyer’s chest puffed out, Jesus brow furrowed, and there’s a drawn out awkward silence between them– Jesus looks at this skeptical lawyer in the eyes. Jesus life is oozing all around them this uncontainable compassion for others. And so with his love for others exuding out of his every pore—that marks his every day—the fuel for his ministry, and the reason for his fame – with this love covering every square inch of Jesus — Jesus looks at the lawyer and says this: The first and most important commandment is this – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
And this is what cuts me to the heart. Jesus, whose every move seems to seek justice and love mercy for the sake of others – this same Jesus calls us to remember that we must first walk humbly with our God.
Jesus here is quoting an important verse from the book of Deuteronomy, and these verses – this creed really – is so important in the Jewish faith, that it has its own name: the Shema. This is the pledge we’re called to make to God every day: Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. The verse is from Dt 6:4, but the following verses in Deuteronomy 6 help unpack what this means and what this looks like better. So in order to unpack what Jesus means with his answer, let’s look into this passage:
- Deuteronomy goes on to explain that a person who loves God in this way teaches the children about this love of God – raises up the next generation into this love.
- A person who loves God in this way, talks about it – out loud—talk about this love at home.
- Talks about this love while not at home – while out and about: at work, at the store, on vacation, in the city hall, with friends and with family with politicians.
- A person who loves God in this way prays into this love every single morning before their feet hit the floor and every single night before their head hits the pillow. Their life is marked by praying into this verse.
- A person who loves God in this way takes the time to intentionally remember where God’s love has shown up in the past – in their life, in their families life, in the history of the church and God’s people — and uses this memory of God’s love as a source of encouragement, as a source of identity, as a source of strength.
- A person who loves God in this way has woven this pledge of allegiance in their daily routine – has tattooed their life – their body, their house, their rhythms, their relationships, with this love so as to remember it, in all places and at all times.
“Love the Lord your God, Deuteronomy says, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 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. When the Lord your God brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the and of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Love the Lord your God… This is the first and greatest commandment.”
I can imagine the surprise on the lawyer’s face at this answer as he stared back at this outstandingly social, progressive, people-centered god-man who so often was critical of religious institutions and rules. I can imagine the surprise on the lawyer’s face when Jesus said the most important commandment, in all the Scriptures, is to love the Lord your God with everything you have, because this lawyer wasn’t expecting to have the same answer!
I think Jesus is teaching us here that the best place to begin loving others has to be by first loving God. Knowing this responsibility that we bear as believers should inspire us! Because it continually draws us back to the reason we live and love others in the first place. We love, because God first loved us.
Just when the lawyer beings to turn away from Jesus, perplexed by his answer… Jesus catches the man, I imagine maybe catches him by the arm, and continues … “And the second greatest commandment, Jesus says, is just like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
You see the lawyer asked for one answer – and Jesus gave him two answers. The lawyer asked for the one greatest commandment, and Jesus says: there are two. As if to say, one answer is too narrow. We need to love God, yes. That is the first and greatest, and the starting spot. But we also need to love our neighbors. By giving the man two answers, Jesus tells him you cannot have one without the other. The first is the first, and the second is the second, but they are equally important. Different – but inseparable.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
And here, Jesus is quoting again from the Old Testament – an important verse from Leviticus 19, where God’s people are being taught what it looks like to love others.
- Leviticus goes on to explain that the person who loves others works their land, but doesn’t take all the harvest. They leave some for the poor and the hungry, who come to glean the fields after the harvest for food.
- The person who loves others won’t lie or distort the truth to others, but rather their speech will be generous and engaging and uplifting and truth-telling even if it’s hard.
- A person who loves others in this way will demonstrate this love with their lives, but will also demonstrate this love where no one else will see it — within their own hearts. This love permeates their actions and their words, their hands and their heart.
- The person who loves others in this way, loves all people of all abilities – those for whom life is easy who don’t need much help, and those for whom life is difficult, who may need an extra leg up.
- A person who loves others in this way loves even the stranger who comes to live in our land – the refugee, the alien, the outsider. And they treat this outsider well, they don’t oppress the stranger, they don’t make life harder for them – but instead they treat the outsider like an insider. Because the person who loves others in this way remembers that we all were outsiders once, until God made us insiders.
“When you reap the harvest of your land,” Leviticus says, ”you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger… You shall not steal, you shall not lie, you shall defraud your neighbor…you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord… When a stranger resides in your land, Leviticus says, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Love God, love others. The whole faith hangs on these two commands.
So where do you feel the most comfortable? Is it talking and thinking and acting on your own interior faith life? Do you love God well? Do you pray often, set aside time carefully for your daily time in the Word? Then Jesus calls out to you, catches you by the arm and says – the second is just like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. Think about loving the world. Let that challenge you to move outside your comfort zone.
Or, like me, do you find yourself in these days most comfortable, as ironic as this sounds, talking about the uncomfortable ways we’re called to love others? Social Justice? Then Jesus calls out to you and says – the first and greatest commandment is to love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Let that challenge you to move outside your comfort zone.
In whatever wing we feel most comfortable, left to our own devices, we’d probably just stay there. But Christ calls us in this passage us to not stay there. To not let the pendulum swing too far one way or another. To realize that the one most important thing is actually two.
This message was given by Rev. Lauren Taylor to Spokane Friends Church on June 2, 2019