Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: October 25, 2020
Year A, Proper 25: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Today’s Gospel is part of the series of debates that Jesus engages in with religious opponents in the Jerusalem temple during the last week of his life. For the last several weeks we have heard Jesus’ authority questioned, the Pharisees have tried to entrap him with a question about taxes and the Sadducees tried to confound him with a question about resurrection.
And in this morning’s gospel, we hear from a lawyer. Now before we start with lawyer jokes – when I worked in government, a lot of people assumed I was a lawyer. In fact, I often think like a lawyer or at least so I’m told. Once, a lawyer was arguing with me and didn’t like the answer I was giving him, so he threatened to report me to the bar association. I laughed. “Report me”, I said. He’d find out fast enough I wasn’t a lawyer, unlike the person we hear in this morning’s gospel.
We’re told Jesus was questioned by a lawyer, an expert in the scriptures. He asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Though the question is presented as a test, it is not clear what the test is. At least, it is not as clear as the Pharisees’ earlier question about the legality of paying taxes or tribute to the emperor. Their either a “yes” or “no” answer had profound implications. This, however, was a more open-ended question.
You can be sure that this was not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn.
They were probably hoping to entrap Jesus, though that word isn’t used in this gospel. They were hoping, I’m sure, that Jesus would say something incriminating or even blasphemous.
I suppose we all get some satisfaction out of the stories where Jesus outwits those who set out to trick him, but this isn’t just about Jesus’ cleverness.
The stakes are high. The Pharisees in Jerusalem see Jesus’ growing influence on the crowds, and they seem to want to shut down this movement before it goes any further. The question then comes from a place not of wanting to learn but desiring to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus immediately answers with what is the most succinct statement of everything he taught and his every action:
“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.”
Jesus’ response invites us to see the truth. The law and prophets are to be understood in the light of love. Jesus’s response is not an act of one-upmanship. It is an invitation to a new way of seeing things. It is an invitation to learning and growth. It is the wonderful revelation that loving God is inextricably linked with loving our neighbor. We are not just to love God, but our neighbor, and not just God and our neighbor, but we are to love ourselves, as only then can we love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything hangs on love.
The love Jesus is talking about here cost him his life, so this is love beyond mere sentimentality or emotion. Jesus teaches about the form of love that in Greek is called agape. This is a self-giving love, which is more concerned about the other person than oneself. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. I can even begin to see myself as God sees me. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.
The love that is within God is not merely a feeling or emotion. And so, God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your brother or sister does not depend on whether he or she just got on your nerves. God’s love for your co-workers does not depend on their lovability.
God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than you or I, even on our best days.
The love that acts to make changes to end needless suffering is part of the love God has for all creation. This is the love Jesus had, so that as he died on the cross he could look out at those who killed him, as they mocked him, and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. And in these words of forgiveness from the cross, we see that God’s love is more concerned about the other than your own self.
Agape love is a decision, an act of the will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love. Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.
Jesus offers us a new way of seeing things – a way to navigate the journey of life and love. Jesus reminds us that clarity in this life comes not from our skill as a lawyer, a Pharisee, or even through priesthood, but through God’s mercy and grace.
As Christians, our clarity comes in our regular encounters with the risen Christ – in scripture, and prayer, and in other times, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The summary of the law, our baptismal promises, and our covenant with one another as members of a community of faith call us to take on the challenge of expressing our gratitude for God’s love for us.
Every day God gives us many opportunities to “get right with God.” Every day when the sun rises, we can either take it for granted or thank God for another day, acknowledging the miracle of each new day. Every day of our life we are interacting with the world around us.
Do we come to Christ willing to listen and learn, ready to be challenged by the encounter and, in the end, ready to love all our world with all that we are, “our hearts, our minds, and our souls”?
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.