What Is Most Important (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 22:34-46


From the time that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey during that final week of his life, with the crowd cheering him on and offering him their praises: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”—from that time on Sunday until at least Monday, the religious leaders in the temple at Jerusalem have been putting Jesus through the ringer, asking him all sorts of hard to answer questions guaranteed to either turn his cheering entourage against him or to get him into trouble with the authorities. But Jesus is wise and knowledgeable, especially when it comes to scripture, and so he holds his own very well. We remember his response last Sunday to the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And, after asking his questioners to produce a coin required for the payment of the tax with the emperor’s image on it, Jesus responded, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And we are told that when they heard this, his questioners “were amazed, and they left him and went away” (Matt. 22:22).

But soon we learn that Jesus is not through the ringer yet. There is a question from the Sadducees, who were sort of the upper crust of Judean society and were a religious sect (even though, unlike the Pharisees and Jesus, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead). It was another trick question which Jesus handled with aplomb, accusing the Sadducees of knowing “neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32), Jesus said. And, with that, he left the crowd and the Sadducees astounded.

But still, there was one more question. This one from a lawyer, a religious scholar, from the party of the Pharisees. “Teacher,” he asked Jesus, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:36). Or perhaps a better translation might be, “What sort of commandment is of great import.” Alas, it was another trick question, asked to “test” Jesus, to get him to decide among all the words of the Lord, which word was most important.

Jesus responded with the Shema Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:5, the prayer that all practicing Jews recited daily and when they came to worship, and that many still do: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 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,” Jesus said. But he didn’t stop there. “There is a second commandment that is like it,” he continued. Then he quoted words from another passage in our Old Testament, this one from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words, “These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Jesus’ answer to that question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?,” may have been impressive to that religious scholar who asked it. But it was not exactly original. There had been others who had said the same thing, or close to the same thing. Some of you will remember the story of Rabbi Hillel who lived in Babylon (modern day Iraq) in the time just before the ministry of Jesus, who was challenged by a man to teach him the whole of the Torah, the whole of the law of God, while standing on one foot. His response? “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

But, original or not, Jesus caught what is at the heart of our faith. He caught what is at the heart of our religion. Brian Groppe designed a t-shirt for our church several years back with the words of the Beatles’ song on it: “Love. Love. Love. Love is all you need.” I liked that t-shirt, and still wear mine from time to time. But every now and again I have caught myself wondering: Is that so much sentimental fluff? Is love all I need? All you need? Was Jesus right? Is love for God and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, treating our neighbor as we want to be treated and, thinking of Rabbi Hillel’s words, not treating our neighbor the way we do not want to be treated, the heart of what our faith requires of us?/p>

I’ve been thinking about this lately. I thought about it this last week as I held our grandson Luke in my arms, watched him as he slept, stroked and kissed his baby-soft skin. What more does Luke need right now than love? It is the one thing that will enable him to grow into a healthy, mature human being who has the ability to love others as he has been loved. Love is the one thing that will enable him to grow up at all. Not love as an emotion or a sentimental feeling. But love as a commitment to him—to hold him, to feed him, to keep him clean, to stay with him when he is crying and not feeling well or is just plain fussy. The most important thing in the world right now and as Luke grows up is love.

I thought about it this last week while listening to Mary Gauthier sing her song, “Mercy Now,” in that folk style of hers with just a guitar and violin (or should I say fiddle?) accompaniment. “Every single one of us could use some mercy now,” she sang. And she mentioned her father, who seemed to have been a struggling farmer who lost everything. He could use some mercy now. And she also mentioned her brother, “shackled with fears and doubts,” who must be struggling with mental illness. He could use some mercy now too. And she even mentioned her church and country, with so much going wrong right now. They all could use some mercy now too, she sang. As a matter of fact, every living thing could use some mercy now, she sang on.

Mercy is unearned. It is love in action. And that song reminded me that everywhere we look, including in the mirror or at those selfies we sometimes take to impress those we want to impress, we see people who need some mercy now. It is what gives us life. It is what makes life worth living. It is what comforts us in the storms we face. We all need some mercy now. We all need some love now.

I thought about it last week while reading an “opinion” piece in the New York Times by David Brooks. It was about anger in our world, about what he called fanaticism and a lack of civility—people yelling at each other, not listening, cutting one another off, saying ugly things to each other or about each other over the internet. Then he quoted something Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter said in his book Civility. “The only way to confront fanaticism is with love,” he said. “Ask the fanatics genuine questions. Paraphrase what they say so they know they’ve been heard. Show some ultimate care for their destiny and soul even if you detest the words that come out of their mouths.

“You engage fanaticism with love, first, for your own sake,” Brooks wrote. “If you succumb to the natural temptation to greet this anger with your own anger, you’ll just spend your days consumed by bitterness and revenge. You’ll be a worse person in all ways.

“If, on the other hand, you fight your natural fight instinct, your natural tendency to use the rhetoric of silencing, and instead regard this person as one who is, in his twisted way, bringing you gifts, then you’ll defeat a dark passion and replace it with a better passion. You’ll teach the world something about you by the way you listen. You may even learn something; a person doesn’t have to be right to teach you some of the ways you are wrong.”

And, reading this, what I picked up is that love is the answer. Of all the important things in this world, it is what is most important. Of all the teachings we find in scripture, it is the one that is at the heart of them all.

I thought about this last week while at a meeting of clergy in our community—a Catholic priest, an Islamic imam, leaders of Hindu communities, and Protestants of various types. Our speaker at this meeting was a representative from the Memphis Crisis Center, sharing the ministry of that organization and asking us for help from our congregations. It seems that the number of hurting people looking to the crisis center for help in the Memphis community is going up as well as the need for volunteers who are willing to be trained and put in the hours. What struck me about what the speaker said is something that I have experienced many times. What hurting people need to know is that someone cares for them. What someone on the edge of suicide or of doing damage to others needs to know is that there is someone who cares enough to listen to him or her without judgment and to help him or her find the resources needed to get ongoing help. At least initially, what is needed is not a trained therapist or Ph.D. in counseling, our speaker said. But just someone there who cares enough to listen, just someone there who is willing to put love into action.

And I was reminded that Brian and the Beatles were right: “Love. Love. Love. All you need is love.” And of course Jesus was right as well: our faith hangs on love. It is at the heart of who we are and what we are about.

Which is why we come here, I believe. It’s not primarily for religious knowledge. It’s not primarily to be reconnected to rituals that have been important to us since childhood or our youth. We come here to see people and to be seen by people who care for us, who are glad that we are alive and here, who when we are sick or down will pray for us, who when we are in the hospital will stand with us and hold our hands, who when we are going through grief will go through it with us, who when we are seeking the love of God in our lives will join us in the search.

What is most important is love. It is what is most important about our faith. It is what is most important about our lives. But, then again, we know this. This is nothing new. We’ve all experienced moments in our lives when love goes out, when love is absent. We have all experienced moments in our lives when anger and bitterness take control and make us into beings that we don’t like very much and make us into beings that can say and do ugly things to the people we love the most, and whose love we need the most. We’ve all experienced moments in our lives when love seems absent, and we feel ourselves lonely and afraid and missing what makes life worth living.

This may be when we people of faith experience the deep connection between what Jesus called “the greatest and first commandment” and the the commandment that is like it, calling upon us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This may be when we people of faith experience that our struggle to love others is related to our failure to be open to the love of God in our own lives. So we pray. We come here to worship. We seek to be open to the love that embraces each of us as it embraces the entire world, in spite of everything (in spite of our failures, our ugly words and actions, everything). And, in being open to the love of God, we are given the love that we need to share with a world where that love is so desperately needed. And, in being open to the love of God, which embraces us all, we find what makes us most alive (both as individuals and as a community of faith).

Now, after Jesus had answered the religious scholar’s question about what the most important commandment in the law is, Matthew tells us that he turned to the Pharisees who were gathered together in the temple and Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” Which, by the way, was what Jesus is often called in the New Testament, even by those crowds who welcomed him in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).

Then, making use of a quote of Psalm 110:1 (which was attributed to David, who was thought to be the writer of the psalms), Jesus said to the Pharisees, “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?”

Then Matthew tells us that “no one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” Like the Pharisees, we may be confused too. What in the world is Jesus talking about here? And what does it have to do with what he just said about love?

Perhaps it is that as the Messiah he does not see himself as the Son of David, as the one who walks in King David’s footsteps. David was a warrior. He was a fighter. He ruled by military power. Jesus, on the other hand, is a different kind of Messiah, a different sort of Christ. In the coming days he will die on a cross, “stretching out his loving arms,” as a prayer in the Book of Common Worship that I (and many others) regularly pray on Fridays puts it. He is the One who calls upon his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him.

In other words, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, whose ministry is defined by love instead of violent power. His way is love. His power is love. His transformation of the world and of each of our lives will be by love. And it is in his love that we are invited to live, and give ourselves to a world of people and living creatures whose greatest need is to know that they are loved.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, October 29, 2017

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