For as long as I can remember, I've always loved God. I can’t say when or where this actually began, but I do know that as a young child, God was always in my heart. I guess it first started with the bedtime prayers that my parents taught me when I was very young. It grew as the years went by and was confirmed to me by great Sunday school teachers in my childhood. They exemplified a real, loving Christianity to me and, because of their witness, I still love God today. I may not be the best Christian that I could be; I may often be subject to sins like everyone else, but that love of God, which was shaped and molded in my heart as a child, is still with me today. I hope and pray that when it becomes my turn to leave the surly bonds of Earth, my love of God will sustain me during that mysterious and unknown journey that is yet to come.
I’m not alone in this. I am certain that many of you here today have loved God since childhood and continue to do so even in the midst of trying times and serious circumstances. To me, loving God is what makes us distinct in the animal kingdom. We have a greater awareness of the universe around us; we have a better understanding of how life evolves and works; we have a greater knowledge of history and geography, astronomy, and science than any other living creatures on Earth. Ultimately, I believe that this knowledge leads us towards God and because we experience life on a greater scale than any other life form, we are drawn closer to Him, to worship Him, to revere Him, and, of course, to love Him.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is challenged once again about His beliefs. This time, a religious lawyer asks Him to state what He considers to be the greatest commandment in the Jewish Scriptures. Everybody knew that there were Ten Supreme Commandments, so Jesus was being asked to pick one. As usual, He was being tested. Whichever commandment He chose, His theological opponents would choose one of the remaining nine, in order to argue with Him. It was just like being on Facebook – you know the experience. You state something on Facebook like “Chocolate mint ice cream is the best ice cream in the world” and within a short time you get people you get people stating: “Vanilla peppermint is better than that” or “You haven’t tasted Mayfield’s Neapolitan” or “Ben and Jerry’s Triple chocolate is way better” or the inevitable “You do know that ice cream isn't good for you? Too much sugar and fat. You should be eating frozen broccoli spears!”
People never change, do they? No matter which commandment Jesus chose, the Pharisees were ready to pounce on Him and ridicule His choice. As usual, however, Jesus took the higher ground. He wasn't about to get involved with foolish and stupid arguments, because He knew that they only led to quarrels. Instead, He spoke the truth from His heart, not to silence His critics, but to enlighten them – to open up their hearts, souls, and minds to a greater understanding and a better way of following God’s commands.
So Jesus told them, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus was actually re-framing all of the commandments in a simpler fashion. To love God with all of your heart meant to love God in the exact way that we were created. God created human beings in His likeness for this very purpose: to love Him and enjoy His creation forever. He didn't make us love Him; He didn't force us to love Him; He simply created us to love Him, freely and sincerely, of our own volition and free will. Loving God is not compulsory; it is meant to be experienced directly from the heart. Just as in the mysterious way that we love or fall in love with someone else, we are meant to love God. I think this is why we cannot say when or where we first started to love God – the love is either there or it isn't.
Jesus also stated that we are meant to love God with all our soul; this means that our spiritual nature is meant to be connected to God. Again, it’s a free-spirited connection – it either exists within us or not – and only we and God know this. However, through the work of the church, our spirits can be nurtured and nourished so that our spiritual side is drawn closer to God through the teachings of Christ. If our pulpit preachers and Sunday school teachers, our guiding elders and team leaders are doing the work of Christ sincerely, then everything we do in church has a deep spiritual connection to God.
In a world which has mistakenly broken its soul-connection to God in order to have a religious connection to its navel, the spiritual work of the Church is very important. This is why I keep trying to emphasize and reinforce in your hearts, souls, and minds that regular worship, prayer, and Bible study are immensely important in all of our lives, as well as the souls of our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. In my experience, there is nothing so empty as a soulless person; there is nothing so sorrowful as a spiritually stunted child.
Jesus then emphasizes the need to love God with all of our minds. He was saying this specifically to the Pharisee lawyers because they had used their minds to focus upon the laws of God. They had memorized each and every one of them. They had even broken down the original Ten Commandments into 317 amendments, which meant that they had 317 by-laws to keep. Their minds were fully focused on not breaking any commandment or amendment. They upheld God’s Word as an everlasting Constitution which should never be re-interpreted, reformed, or revised unless it was considered to be a holy amendment.
The trouble with these amendments was that they became idolatrous and broke their connection to God. The amendments were a means to keep God at a distance and became a wall of separation between themselves and God, as well as God’s people. In fact, the word ‘Pharisees’ means ‘The Separated Ones.’ Initially, it was meant to be a religious process where people separated themselves from the ways of the world to grow closer and become more spiritual – much like the cloistered monks and nuns in the European Middle Ages. Instead, it became a way of becoming religiously elite – separated from both God and man, in order to pursue a religious idealism which piously glorified the devoted individual Pharisee in the eyes of God and man.
There’s a saying that we all know: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is exactly what Jesus was expressing to the Pharisees with His answer to their question. He was telling them that their minds were created to love God, not rules and regulations, or by-laws and precepts. Their minds were meant to contemplate the works of God, not man’s way. Their minds were supposed to meditate on God’s mercy and grace, justice and love, not sentences and phrases, interpretations and amendments. They were wasting their minds by focusing on trivial religious pursuits; they were wasting their lives on fruitless thoughts and mindless meanderings.
So Jesus told them to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds, for to Him, this was the greatest commandment of all. But then, Jesus being Jesus, added something new, something unexpected, and something to challenge them. He said to them, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now Jesus knew that the Pharisees absolutely loved themselves – most conceited people are – you only have to look at the Kardashians on television or magazines to understand that. The Pharisees had a deep pride in themselves and sought each day to add to their esteem. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican – The Pharisee tells God how good he is at keeping all of the laws and then brazenly thanks God that he is not like the publican. That’s what conceit does – it makes us love ourselves more than other people – it makes us thankful that we don’t live in a Third World country, or have grown up in a ghetto, or that we don’t have an addiction, or that we don’t watch seedy programs or read dirty books. It’s called ‘self-righteousness’ and we all suffer from it. Thank God, we’re all saying right now, that we’re not anything like those conceited Pharisees – if we had been there, we would have shown them how to follow Jesus, right?
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Wow. It’s a simple statement which, if fully acted upon, would end all wars, violence, poverty, and disease all over this paltry planet. If we could all love one another as neighbors in the same way that we love and take care of ourselves, we wouldn't need welfare, or Food stamps, or homeless shelters because we would all be taking care of one another.
You see Jesus was not only challenging the Pharisees, He was challenging the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, just as He is presently challenging us today! If we, as Erin Presbyterian Church loved the community where are located in, as much as we love ourselves, we could make an immense impact on this part of Knoxville, but only if we are willing to do so. Next Sunday, we get that opportunity by donating blood to Medic before and after the church service. We get a further opportunity to join our Outreach team on Saturday 22nd November to distribute food to those in need over at the Fish Pantry on Weisgarber. If we love only ourselves, we’ll probably avoid participating; if we honestly love our neighbors, then we’ll give blood to save other lives; and we’ll give out food to feed families.
So, to sum things up, Jesus said it best: