Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 22: 34-46
Sermon: "Love is the Key"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “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.” No while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Love is the Key
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost - October 23, 2005
The young man was very excited. He was going to take his first flight in an airplane with his hands and feet on the controls. He was so filled with anticipation that his hands were sweating. He was nervous as he waited for the instructor. When the instructor arrived the two of them walked through the pre-flight check together. Then they got in the plane and the instructor took them into the air. Shortly after they got into the air, the instructor turned to the young man and said, "Alright, it's your turn. Place your feet on the pedals and your hands on the wheel. Keep your eyes on the horizon. We are going to stay on this heading so look at your compass and get the bearing. Are you ready?" The young man did exactly what the instructor said and he nodded his head.
The instructor said, "Ok, you are now flying the plane." The young man was ecstatic. He could feel the vibration of the motor through his hands. He could sense the wind rushing by as his feet touched the pedals. He flew straight on course and perfectly flat for about three seconds. Then, he noticed he was drifting to the right. He gave it some pedal to correct and he over corrected. He tried to come back when he heard the pilot mention that the nose was drifting down. He lifted up as he shot too far to the right again. Now, he was climbing. His exhilaration of the first few seconds was replaced with a feeling of helplessness. He couldn't keep the vertical and horizontal aspects of the plane going together at the same time. The instructor was very patient. He let him struggle for a little while longer and then offered some advice. He simply told him to not worry about this time. He suggested that the young man relax a little bit and practice some more. With time, patience and commitment it would all come together. The young man took a deep breath and continued with the rest of his lesson. Next week, he was there waiting to go again.
Today's story from the Gospel of Matthew is about living in the vertical and the horizontal. Instead of being about a plane, it is about relationships. The story is a teaching about our relationship with God and our relationship with others. We arrive at the teaching in a convoluted way. The Pharisees have come to test Jesus yet again. They are asking Jesus which one of the commandments is the greatest in the Law. Now, here is where the test lies. Many years before this event, Jewish scholars had arrived at the conclusion that all of the commandments were equal. They were all from God and one could not be greater than the other. If a commandment was deemed to be more important than another it was because of a person or persons choosing. In other words, the person was placing a structure on the Law that God did not. The person or persons would be interpreting the Law incorrectly. So, if the Pharisees could get Jesus to claim one of the commandments as greater than the others they could accuse him of false teaching. I tell you, the Pharisees were pretty sneaky.
Yet, Jesus sidesteps their little game and does a little teaching instead. For when Jesus answers he gives them what we now call the summary of the Law. He begins with the closest statement the Hebrew people have to a creed. It is called the Shema. It comes from Deut 6:4 &5. Jesus replies, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment." This statement has been part of the Hebrew understanding of their relationship to God for a long time. It is central to their theology. This statement describes the vertical relationship of love that is to exist between God and the people. However, he doesn't stop there. He continues with these words, "And a second like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' These words describe the context of the horizontal relationship. However, there is more to these words than just a command to love.
Jesus is not proclaiming that one commandment is over another. That concept is exactly what the Pharisees want. Jesus is not saying that all of the other commandments come from these two phrases. Jesus is saying that all of God's revelation through the Law and the Prophets can be better understood by loving God and loving one's neighbor.
We often believe that one commandment is greater than another.
We also often believe that we don't have to love all people. We read the scriptures or we read the prophets and we say to ourselves those don't apply because it was about something that happened so long ago. Yes, there are some things that are time specific. There is also the message of God's love for God's people throughout the scripture. Also, throughout the scripture there are teachings of how God wanted us to live in relationship to one another. Jesus proclaims that by loving God and loving others we will understand what God has asked of us from the beginning. For the love Jesus describes here is not superficial. It is the type of love God offers to us, unconditional, unmotivated, unmanipulated, and unlimited.
Think about this for one second. Suppose God only loved us when we did what was right. Suppose God only loved us when God could get us to do what God wanted. Suppose God only had enough love for those who loved God back. In other words, suppose God loved us like we love others around us sometimes. How would we like God to love us like that? Thankfully, we don't see God loving in this way. Instead, we see God as one who wants us to love freely. We see God as one who offers God's own self through Jesus Christ for our salvation. We see God as one who loves us no matter what we do and will never give up on us. All we are asked to do is love in return.
Who are we to love? We are to love God and love our neighbor. For one other point is made by Jesus in this story. Jesus says the second commandment is like the first. Jesus places them on equal footing. The commandment to love God and neighbor is on equal footing. In addition, Jesus teaches us that all are our neighbors. Jesus' teaching is not simply to the disciples here. He is teaching the crowds and his enemies. The commandment to love our neighbor includes even those we don't like, those who hurt us, those we can't stand. If we are harboring hurts from events in our lives from yesterday or long ago, we are not following the commandment to love. If there is still ill feeling about past events in this church or this community towards others, then we are not following the commandment to love. Furthermore, we are not only having trouble loving our neighbor, we are also having trouble loving God. Since these commandments are on equal footing, to love God is to love one's neighbor. To love one's neighbor is to love God. It is not possible to say that we love God and, at the same time, despise or even hate our neighbor.
The teaching of Jesus is clear. Loving is central to our faith in God. It requires commitment and it requires action. Jesus exhibited both to us when he went to the cross. He loved God and loved us so much that he willing to face whatever it took. He was committed to loving God the Father and he committed to teaching us about love. He was willing to take the steps towards Jerusalem even though he knew what awaited him. Through his commitment to love his actions followed. He gave us the example. Loving is both vertical and horizontal. It takes effort and it takes commitment. The rewards however, are fantastic.
The young man who wanted to fly became a pilot and soared with the eagles. We have the opportunity to fly too. We have the opportunity to be raised up on eagle's wings as we learn to receive and give love like God loves us.