Scripture: Matthew 22:34-46
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36
If you were to think about the most important part of Christianity what would it be?
Maybe you’d say God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit – perfectly, true and acceptable answers for sure.
Or maybe you’d pick an event, like the Crucifixion or Resurrection – after all, some Christian scholars have called these events the hinge of history or Pentecost since that’s why we’re here.
Or if you were more theologically inclined perhaps you pick a doctrine as the most important – like the justification by faith, or prevenient grace, or some other wonderfully complex but endearing doctrine that makes up our understanding of salvation.
All good answers, but all wrong. You see it’s a trap. Just like asking a parent to pick which of their children they love the most, any answer puts you in the unenviable position of hurting someone’s feelings, or in this case of leaving important or vital parts of the Christian faith as less than anything else.
It’s the same trap that the Pharisees and their lawyers were setting for Jesus in the reading we heard from Matthew this morning.
At this point in our Gospel story, Jesus was in the midst of a series of confrontation and challenges with the various leading groups in Jerusalem. All of these confrontations were merely the opening acts that set the scene for the plot to arrest and kill Jesus, resulting in his brutal death on the cross at the hands of the Romans.
At every turn Jesus had thwarted the challenges and the questions of the religious leaders – he had turned their vision of the kingdom of Israel on its head with his proclamation and teaching about the Kingdom of God, he had undermined their authority by always point to the authority of God above all else.
Now as this section closes out, they are trying to hit him where it mattered most so to speak – they were trying to trip him up and trap him when it came to the core of the Jewish faith.
The Pharisees knew that he had just silenced the Sadducees, leaders in the Temple government, and so they sent a canon lawyer, someone who knew the law in and out to ask Jesus to tell what the most important commandment was.
The Pharisees were hoping to make Jesus look like a fool because by choosing one law above all others he would be blaspheming against God’s word, he would be ranking something that should never be ranked. The Pharisees were hoping Jesus would reveal radical thinking about God and proper worship that he would destroy his credibility with the crowds who still considered him a prophet or even the Messiah.
Just as Jesus had silenced the Sadducees with ease, he was able to turn the whole situation on its head revealing their hypocrisy and ultimately their ignorance concerning God and God’s law.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is simple yet effective – it is the equivalent of a parent answering the question “Who is your favourite child?” by saying I love them all equally – Jesus tells the lawyer that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And then to top it off Jesus says the next greatest commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself.
All of the laws of Israel, all of the laws of God, could be summed up in these two laws. Each law was designed to help Israel to love God to the best of their ability and to love and serve their neighbour.
In the process of answering their question, Jesus had also made the Pharisees look like fools because you see the piece of Scripture that Jesus quoted was the Shema, and it was the memory verse which Israelite children learned from their earliest years.
Jesus was pointing out the ignorance of the Pharisees and their lawyer for not understanding something so simple that any Israelite child could have given the answer.
Perhaps the same is true when we think about our own faith. Perhaps the simplest answers help us to better understand the deeper truths of the Christian faith.
Theologian Karl Barth, who was known for his deeply complex and long-winded systematic theology, once responded to a question concerning the most profound theological truths by saying “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. Barth continued by saying “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year-old can sing about.”
All of our religious life, all of our worship, all of the Christian tradition flows from the truth that Jesus loves us, that God loves us, that God loves the world. And so our life, and our worship, and our whole tradition needs to reflect the love we have experienced in Jesus, the life we have received at God’s hands.
Practically this means a number of things both here in our own context but also in the wider Christian world.
Our life needs to be full of love for one another and for our neighbour, we need to be able to make choices that are for the good of all and not just ourselves, we need to sacrifice our desires, our time, our treasure for the sake of others in this community, for the sake of others outside of the community.
This means that even when we have disagreements about theology, practice, worship styles – everything we do needs to be governed by love. Far too often in the church, we get defensive when people disagree with us, whether that is in our local congregation or in wider matters. While it is perfectly acceptable to disagree with others, we need to do so in love.
Recent examples such as the way the Anglican Church has been tearing itself apart over the issue of same-sex marriage – something which was certainly important to discern but which belied a lack of love on all sides of the argument. To reflect the love of God and neighbour to the world we must be able to disagree, even vehemently, with love for those who differ from us.
This means giving time and space to hear opinions that are different from our own, it means not resorting to gossip and unkind words, it means speaking well of those who disagree with us and even making sacrifices to ensure that they can continue in their disagreement.
Loving God and Neighbour means that everything we do is governed by the principles we see in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. It means that we do not judge people when they do not think, act or believe the same way that we do. It means we love people who do not look like we do or are culturally different than we are.
Secondly loving God and neighbour provides us with a framework for how we should live our lives as Christians – We need to ask ourselves, do our actions fall in line with Jesus? Are they in line with the love of God we have come to know through the power of the Holy Spirit? Do our daily habits honour and glorify God? And the same questions can and should be asked whether they focus on loving our neighbour as well.
Just as it was for Jesus, so too it is for us, Loving God and Neighbour is the essence of Christianity, because it flows from the love that God has for us and the world. May we always know this love in our hearts and may we always live that love in our lives.
Video of the service including sermon available here