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Sermon for Pentecost 21, October 25, 2020: The rest is commentary (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

“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.'”

Scripture tells us that Jesus was fully human, so I think it’s fair to say that at this point in Matthew’s gospel narrative he was probably getting worn out with people asking him insincere questions to goad and trick him. He was also pretty tired of folks who were only interested in using his ministry to promote their views and grow their own power. We know this because in the very next chapter of Matthew Jesus really lets loose on the leaders of his local church, calling them hypocrites and accusing them of being obsessed with earthly things.

Today’s gospel starts with an acknowledgment that Jesus has been sparring with these leaders a lot. Matthew’s gospel contains three stories in a row which start with Jesus being asked a question designed to trap him into saying something heretical or dangerous. In each case, Jesus avoids the snare that has been set for him and uses his inquisitor’s question as an opportunity to teach his disciples about the nature of God.

He is never clearer than in this passage. Jesus knows that his questioners think they are asking him an impossible question. There are, after all, six hundred and thirteen commandments in Jewish law - and in Jesus’s day, as in ours, religious folks liked to cherry pick their favorites to justify their existing beliefs and condemn the behavior of others. Jesus knew that the Pharisees cited certain laws to build barriers between people – “to place severe limits on those whom they were obliged to recognize as their neighbors”[1] – and avoid the ones that demonstrated their hypocrisy. He also understood that the Pharisees were expecting him to do what they did- what politicians still do. They thought he would only talk about the parts of the law that supported his ideas rather than attempting to speak to the complexity of the issue they raised. Instead, Jesus started by reminding them of the most basic and revered prayer of their religion, the Shema: “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” – and then he added something – a summary of the rest of the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was pointing out that the specific culture-dependent details of laws have no value unless we understand and focus on the overall purpose of them- which is being in fruitful relationship with God and one another. He was calling them out on their practice of fulfilling the letter of the law without obeying its spirit. After all, we know who’s in the details. It is not enough to robotically carry out the mandatory minimum good deeds required by some of those 613 laws. You have to start with love, obeying the law with as much care as you would if you were doing it for yourself. That means not saying empty prayers without actively helping your neighbor. It means that loving your neighbor isn’t just avoiding people who make you uncomfortable; it’s trying to find common ground with them. True love doesn’t judge your neighbor for who they are or what they have done, so you can’t drop off that casserole and then go back to whispering about the life circumstances of the recipient. Jesus says to treat people the way we want to be treated – or, in its less subtle inverse: don’t do things you wouldn’t want done to you.

Jesus’s statement shouldn’t have been a shock to his questioners – because if you think about it almost all of Jesus’s parables boil down to the same basic moral. Don’t hog all the resources for yourself. Treat the most humble among you with as much care as the most important. When you say you believe things, act like you mean it. Do not put your faith in earthly things. Put your faith in God. Over and over and over again Jesus reminds us that it’s not okay to protect what is ours at the expense of others, to accept privileges we didn’t earn, or to be mean, insulting, and vindictive. And over and over again he shows his disciples what that means -by talking to people everyone else ignores, ignoring his own discomfort to heal others with mental and physical illnesses, and breaking bread with “enemies” and strangers. Jesus’s entire life is a demonstration of what love is.

These days, it’s easy to find stories about people who care more for themselves than others – but the truth is that we are also surrounded by stories of individuals and groups who are trying to put Jesus’s words into action. We can find them right here at Grace – like the woman who has chosen to dedicate herself to finding housing for as many people as she can. She started small and built an amazing coalition of city officials, police officers, churches, community groups- folks of different races, creeds, cultures, and political flavors – but her approach remains hands-on. She uses her own house as a drop-off point for everything from paint to plywood. Most importantly, she spends time with her unhoused neighbors. She doesn’t make assumptions about who they are and how they got where they are. Instead, she talks to them. She asks them what they need. She encourages them to take responsibility not just for themselves, but for others – to do for others what has been done for them.

There are people at Grace who have given up the financial security and peaceful retirement plans they worked for all of their lives so that they can instead care for others. We have folks who have taken jobs they don’t enjoy, moved to spaces they don’t like, and given up hobbies, friends, and peace of mind because someone needs them. There are individuals who regularly and anonymously provide funds to pay rent, buy food, and obtain needed medications for people who can’t afford them. And there is the parishioner who quite literally gave the jacket off his back to someone who promptly lost it. “It was my favorite jacket,” he told me, “but what are you going to do”?

Jesus knows these stories. He sees the hearts of all of his disciples- good, bad, and struggling – and he loves them. “I saw you,” he told Nathaniel. “I knew you before you ever thought of me – and I loved you.” Jesus loved the Roman centurion and the woman at the well. He loved the tax collector hiding in the tree and the woman who had committed adultery. He loved the Samaritan who acted as a neighbor to his enemy and he loved the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what it means to love our neighbor. We can’t “love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies … to love God is to love in the way that God loves – indiscriminately. To love God is to love what God loves –everything.”[2] Love is the only thing that can repair the deep wounds in our society. It is the only way to stop ourselves from committing the same atrocities that God has watched human beings repeatedly perpetrate from age to age and from one generation to another. Love is not something we should seek to receive, but something we must do. Loving in this way is frightening. It is a risk – but, as St. Paul tells us, to have everything without love is to have nothing. To risk loving in Jesus’s name? That is to have everything. AMEN.

[1]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

[2]Tim Beach-Verhey, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 214.

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