Sermon: "All We Really Need..."
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings, SD
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46
All We Really Need …
Today’s gospel lesson concerning the first and greatest commandment, and the second like unto it reminds me of a Frank and Ernest cartoon I saw some years ago. Moses is standing on Mt. Sinai, God has just handed him two tablets across which is written, “Thank you for not sinning!” Moses looks up and says, “Look, I know these people. You are going to have to be tougher than that!” Yet when we consider the commandments to love God and our neighbor, I do not think it can get any tougher! When I was teaching ethics, I would frequently tell my students, “If you are looking for an ethical challenge, try to live consistently in accord with the commandments to love God and your neighbor.”
As Jesus indicated, these two commandments are inextricably bound together. If I love God, I must also love my neighbor, for my neighbor is also created in the image of God. And we can take it a step further, in that all of creation bears God’s image, we are also called to love creation – to love the environment. It does not get any simpler, or any more complex – therein lies the paradox! Some might argue this position is akin to pantheism which holds that God is everything and everything is God. We need not resort to pantheism; if we hold that God is in all things as opposed to being all things, we embrace the doctrine of panentheism.
Let’s turn to the gospel lesson. Over the past few weeks, we have noted how the Pharisees, Chief Priests, and the elders have been testing Jesus. Since Jesus has threatened their cushy status quo, they are seeking some way to arrest him. After the pharisees and the Herodians had questioned Jesus concerning whether it was lawful to pay taxes, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, asked Jesus a question concerning the nature of the afterlife. Suppose that a man marries and dies childless, and in accordance with custom, his brother marries his wife but also dies childless. So it is with seven brothers. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus responded by saying in the resurrection “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22.30; NRSV). Then Jesus pointed to their lack of belief in the resurrection: “As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22.31-32; NRSV). Matthew tells us the crowds were astounded at Jesus’ teaching. The Sadducees failed; now what?
The Pharisees reenter, stage left, and one of them, an expert in the law, asks Jesus which of God’s laws is the greatest. I think most of us are quite familiar with Jesus’ reply: “‘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” (Matthew 22.37-40; NRSV). Jesus was quoting Old Testament passages, specifically Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19.18. Both passages bear consideration.
Deuteronomy 6 is part of Moses farewell speech delivered just prior to the Israelites entry into the land of Canaan. Moses is reiterating the commandments which God has charged him with passing on to the Israelites – if they abide by these commandments, they shall prosper just as God has promised. Moses then says,
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 might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6.4-9; NRSV).
As John Kavanaugh, SJ, points out, these words are none other than the great Shema (pronounced sh’ma), “a prayer that devout Jews recite every morning and night. … This command to love God absolutely was to be ‘written on the heart’ and drilled into the memory of every child” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/30OrdA102520/theword_kavanaugh.html ). This commandment also recognized and testified to the covenantal relationship the Jews enjoyed with God. Citing this commandment would not have raised any concerns, although Jesus did change “might” in the original to “mind” in his reply. That would bear further investigation!
But as Kavanaugh notes, the second part of Jesus’ answer might have raised some concerns for he placed the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor on an equal footing – “And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Ibid).
The fuller context of the second commandment is also worth noting: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18,17-18). Did you catch that part about reproving your neighbor? We need to remember that this was delivered to a covenant community – if one observed one’s neighbor violating one of the commandments, one was to admonish her, to encourage him to walk in the ways of the covenant community. Here we see the role and the action of the prophets who pled with the people to get right with God.
Well, that provides some interesting background and context. What is the nature of this love that we are talking about? How do we go about living this out?
First, let’s clear up what love means. We tend to think of love as something sentimental; the poets dwell on this aspect of love; they remind us how sweet it is to fall in love. This is passionate love – it is something that happens to us, something that acts upon us. This warm and sweet sentimentality is part of love, but it is not the love required by commandment! But wait a minute, can love be commanded? Apparently so for the two great commandments require love. Jesus showed us what the commandment required when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here a Samaritan, one despised by the Jewish people, encounters a Jew who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. He dressed his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his care. There was no Affordable Care Act in place and no one arguing we should do away with it! To the contrary, the Good Samaritan showed compassion; he treated his neighbor as he would like to have been treated were the circumstances reversed: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It does not say, “If you would like to …,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if …?” Nor did Jesus say, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” or “Get a life, freeloader!” Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”
Second, how would we define such a concept of love? I must admit that I have wrestled with this question for many years and I have come up with a working definition – that means it is still in process. Here is what I have thus far: Love is acting for or on behalf of another in ways which are, for the most part, mutually life affirming. By that, I mean that love typically fosters mutual healing and wholeness, whether it be physical, psychological, spiritual, or environmental. As we act in love, we not only heal but we are also healed. Behind the lawyer’s question looms an even greater question: What must one do to if one is to live life at its fullest, if one is to live life at the level God intends for us? I have become convinced that purpose and meaning come through love.
Third, when love is so understood, is it any wonder that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the Great Commandment and the one like unto it? One who acts for or on behalf of another in ways which are life affirming will not rob, murder, bear false witness, or covet his neighbor’s possessions, etc. He or she will also see that his neighbor does not suffer from the lack of food, housing, medical care, or clothing. If you want a real challenge in life, try to live this life of love. One can only make progress as one is transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us how to live such a life. And it is worth noting that Jesus did not hesitate to reprove his neighbor – consider how he challenged the Pharisees and the Elders. Love has its tender moments, but also its tough moments.
In closing, I invite you to explore a question with me: How is St. Paul’s, our faith community, living into this concept of love? Last Tuesday we delivered a $1,000 check to the Salvation Army to assist with the purchase of coats. It snowed Monday night. When Erika Klein delivered our check, the representative said, “Oh my gosh! If ever there was a day that we needed donations immediately, it’s today! Thank you SO much!” Hearing this report cheered me! We do a number of such things, but I invite you to join me in wrestling with how we might act for or on behalf of others in our community in ways which are life affirming, in ways which promote healing and wholeness whether it be physical, psychological, spiritual, or environmental. How might we invite others to join our loving faith community that we might multiply our efforts? Where do you see our ministry growing? Please give these questions some thought and share your ideas.
The Beatles had it right, “All we really need is love!’ but it must be the right kind of love – the kind Jesus modeled for us.