Lectionary reading: Matthew 22:34-46
35,36 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
When I was a boy, our family lived a hundred yards away from some amazing tennis courts and soccer fields. They belonged to the local elementary school and after 4pm, the iron gates at the entrance to them were locked. A bold sign next to the gate solemnly declared in frightening capital letters: “TRESPASSING PROHIBITED.” Beneath those fierce words, another terrifying phrase was written: “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.” The notice was dutifully signed: H. Bain, Director of Education.
To a young boy like me, those words acted as a prohibition and a great temptation at the same time. I didn’t know then what “prosecuted” meant, but I had seen enough war movies to know that it probably involved a wall, a blindfold, and a firing squad. I was terrified of the consequences and yet those pristine soccer fields were so appealing. Every day, after 4pm as I walked alongside the tall iron fence, the soccer fields called me be name. I was itching to do what I shouldn’t do, just like my heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. There had to be some way of getting to play soccer, or as we called it in Scotland, football.
I couldn’t break the law, and if I did, I imagined that I would become a fugitive running away from home, carrying my ball, and shouting in my defense, “It was the Devil that made me do it!” The Law was not to be made fun of either, and for an eight year old soccer loving boy, it was agony. I didn’t know what to do, so day after day, I was despondent.
Salvation came from unexpected quarters. My elementary school teacher was giving my class a history lesson on Mary, Queen of Scots and someone asked her why Mary wasn’t given the title “Queen of Scotland.” Our teacher then told us that the Scottish Kings and Queens were rulers of the people, not the land. Scotland belonged to the people and there was no law of trespass, unlike the English.
The effect that history lesson had on me was as liberating as the American Constitution. At 4pm, the great iron gates to the soccer pitches were locked as usual. Five minutes later, after the gatekeeper had gone, a street-load of historically-educated schoolboys climbed the gates and played soccer until the sun went down. We were not trespassers because no such law existed in Scotland. And the bold sign no longer terrified us – in fact, we used it as a goal post next to the iron gates.
When Jesus was interrogated by the Pharisees, they were trying to get Him to highlight their own attitude towards religion. They were tyrannical purists and self-righteous hypocrites who gleefully enjoyed other people failing. And whenever anyone failed, the Pharisees would be amongst the first to pick up stones to slaughter the offenders. Whether it was for picking up a woman on a Friday night, or picking up sticks on a Saturday morning, the consequences were the same: death by stoning.
Jesus knew this and understood that these unforgiving religious devotees were just waiting for Him to fall. If he said the wrong thing or made the wrong move, they would annihilate Him on the very first chance that he gave them. So when the religious lawyers demanded of Him an answer to their very slick questions, Jesus had to be careful, or at least if it was anyone else other than Jesus, they would need to be.
As usual, Jesus used the moment to drive a home lesson to both the Pharisees and His followers.
Without hesitation -37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
This would have sounded like music to everyone’s ears. Jesus was repeating the Great Shema, which every Jewish person knew since childhood. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad – it’s part of a prayer that is usually spoken first thing in the morning and said last thing at night by every Jew, even to this very day.
Thus by answering the question this way, Jesus was connecting to everyone around Him. It was a satisfying answer for His critics and followers alike. If there was anything that united Jewish factions and itinerant Galilean preachers like Jesus, it was this saying. His audience was very receptive to His words. But were they prepared for what happened next?
You see Jesus was not just a teacher of religious commandments; He called upon His listeners to practice them. It was very easy to focus faithfully upon God and feel smug about it. But how do people practically express their love of God; how do they show the world that they truly love God with all of their heart, soul, and mind?
Is it just a simple question of emotionally loving God from the inside? Does it only involve an inward spiritual connection of the soul to the Great Heavenly Spirit? Is it just an intellectual pursuit of only meditating on the scriptures of the past and memorizing them? To the Pharisees of His day, it meant precisely those things – as long as they were recognized as being divinely separated by God, revered for their long public prayers, and admired for their ability to quote the scriptures, then everything was alright in their legalistic, holier-than-thou, elitist existence. But woe betide the religious Teacher who came along to upset their divine Disneyland of a dream. And that’s precisely what Jesus did with His following remarks.
You know I love being a Presbyterian preacher in the Bible Belt. It’s full of some wonderful Christians and people who are truly in love with God. I have never seen so many people eager to do good works, to feed the poor, to help the homeless, to support the needy, and offer Christ’s love to the lonely and the outcast.
But I have also seen the dark side of our faith here, too. I’ve seen and heard Bible bashing Christians taunt our teenagers and harassing them about hell. I’ve listened to callous, insensitive and heartless people use the scriptures as a weapon to bludgeon other people and condemn them as reprobates. And before I get too smug, too self-righteous, too holy for my own good, I’ve been just as guilty at times.
Jesus never meant us to become 21st century Pharisees; He wanted His own people, as well as us, to become every century servants of God. That’s why He added this extra bit to the question He was asked. That’s why He didn’t stop with only one command about loving God.
39 And the second is like the first: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
To Jesus, you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. You cannot be an isolated Jew or an alienated Christian. Christ and community go hand in hand. We cannot just joyfully worship Jesus in here and let the world outside go to hell. If we’re involved with God, we need to be involved in the world. After all, Jesus showed us how much He loved God by dying for the world.
Jesus fully practiced what He preached – He loved God completely by completely giving His life for us. And God loved us so completely that He allowed Jesus to complete the plan of redemption and salvation for us.
There are no high school antics, or religious entrapment, or philosophical disagreements here. Jesus was telling His followers and the Pharisees that to totally love God, we have to love the folks beside us. And if the Church hadn’t screwed up that simple message over two thousand years, there would have been no Crusades, no religious wars, no bigotry, no schisms, no slavery, no segregation, and no self-righteousness that has unfortunately cursed, tainted, and damaged the witness of Christ in and to the world.
Until we learn to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, we will always be Pharisees and not followers. Until we practice Christ’s words, instead of just memorizing them, we will be a divided church in the world. And until we use our hearts, souls, and minds in the service of God for our community, like an almighty spiritual Manhattan project, we will fail to convince our neighbors at home and abroad that Christ is the Prince of Peace, the Healer of the Nations, and the Savior of the World.
Sadly, if we fail to love God and our neighbors, all that the Church will accomplish is the setting up of signs that will say to the entire planet: Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. We will have forgotten that Christ is the King of all the people – as Psalm 24 initially states: the earth belongs to the Lord and all of its people – there is no law of trespass where Christians truly love God and all of their neighbors.
Let us pray:
O Lord, You words challenge our cozy theologies and comfortable beliefs. You confront our rigid religiosity and concrete Christianity. Help us to learn how to truly love God by loving our neighbors. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.