Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon on the Greatest Commandment - Matthew 22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God…

Some years ago when I was graduating from high school a man I looked up to told me that if I learned to love my neighbor as myself, then that’s all Christianity was really about. However much I did and do look up to this person as a mentor, I am actually going to disagree with what he said.

Today’s reading is arguably the most commonly quoted verse in the Scriptures. Even most non-Christians can cite some version of it. I think it’s even fair to say that it has become so common that perhaps we do not listen to it as carefully as we should. So let’s hear it again…

The Pharisees have come out to meet Jesus after they found out that he silenced their rivals the Sadducees. One of the Pharisees tests Jesus by asking him a legal question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He answers them by quoting two of the Mosaic laws: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here’s where we need to be careful in our reading…

Again: The first and greatest commandment is to love God with everything we’ve got… Loving the neighbor comes second. We love God first, and by extension we love the neighbor. Much like we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe “in one God, the Father the almighty”, and it is only by extension that we can say Jesus is also God. We say it all the time – God from God, Light From light, True God From true God. So we then that we are not commanded in the first place to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are commanded to love our neighbors because of our love for God.

Now I realize that some of you may be muttering under your breath “wow, that’s nitpicky.” But it’s no small matter. What makes our Christian faith distinctive is not the saying ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarians and Bahais can all say this without hesitation. What makes our faith distinctive is which God we are told to love, and what that God’s love looks like.

Let me give a brief explanation of why this matters, both to the Pharisees and to us.

First of all, notice that the Pharisees do not have any particular reaction to Jesus’ proclamation of the greatest commandment. His opinion that these two laws are the heart of the Mosaic law was absolutely normal for the Pharisees. Historically, it was the Rabbi Hillel, the greatest sage among the Pharisees, who is credited with founding this interpretation of the law a century before Christ. Any reader in the first century would have been aware of this, and would have expected the Pharisees to nod their heads.

If we can compare this story in Matthew with the same story in the Gospel of Mark, the Scribe who asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest receives his answer and says to him “You are right teacher, you have spoken truly.” Clearly what Jesus has said was not, in and of itself, terribly disagreeable to the Pharisees. It is a bad misreading to think that what was scandalous to people about Jesus Christ was his radical understanding of loving each other. That not only distorts the gospel, but paints a picture of the Jews as unloving neighbor haters.

Yet something does go wrong. By the end of today’s reading the Pharisees refuse to ask him any more questions, and a chapter later these are the same Pharisees who are leading the charge to kill him… What happened?

What puts Jesus on the wrong side of the Pharisees is that he destroys their idea of which God they think the commandment is talking about. The Pharisees are scandalized not by the morality that Jesus preaches, but by his claim to be the Messiah, and that God is only fully known through him!

In older times theologians have called this “the scandal of Christian particularity”, and it has always been the major source of hostility towards Christians from outsiders. And it still is.

Think about it this way: If someone asked any of us “what is the basis of Christianity?” and we said “to love our neighbor as ourselves”, they would not be terribly offended. In fact, everyone tends to like that part of our religion. But if we said “the basis of Christianity is to love God as he is known specifically in Jesus Christ”, well… the list of our opponents grows immensely.

Case-in-point: I ran across this little snippet in an Anglican blog out of London. The author is a member of All Souls Anglican Church, and he was talking about the visit of Mr. Julian Baggini, an atheist who covers religion for The Guardian newspaper. Mr. Baggini writes:

“Although an atheist, I can see that in its more thoughtful corners, religion has worthwhile things to say, and even good ways to live. That's why I went to All Souls, and it's also why on Saturday I debated secularism in east London in front of a Muslim audience. But at All Souls, I saw a side of Christianity that I don't like. They all seemed obsessed by salvation and glorifying Jesus.”

The blogger from All Souls, using that British flare for dry humor, heard this and remarked “Now there is an atheist money quote if I ever heard one!”

But here is the most interesting part. Mr. Baggini, an atheist, does not think that he can eliminate belief. So, he has decided to limit the effects of belief by supporting pluralism. Later in his essay he laments:

“Belief is not going to go away, and if we want those churches that thrive to be inclusive and, yes, pluralist in their approaches, we have to give support to those resisting the fundamentalist urge.”

Ah yes, the F word – fundamentalist. Funny, when I was a boy ‘fundamentalist’ meant someone who insisted on the literal, historical interpretation of the Bible. Now the word seems to describe anyone who is more religious than the person using it – in Mr. Baggini’s case, this means any Christian who spends their time glorifying Jesus.

So we see that to outsiders the priority of The Greatest Commandment is a big deal. If Christians speak primarily of social justice and loving their neighbors, the Julian Baggini’s of the world see us as a harmless bunch of superstitious morons, who can even be a good tool if led by more enlightened, secular minds. But those of us who, quote, “are obsessed by salvation and glorifying Jesus” – well we’re dangerous, and in desperate need of secular control!

It’s funny, Mr. Baggini’s comments are an almost perfect replica of the Pharisees in today’s gospel – as long as Jesus was content to just be a nice person, then he was a harmless fool. But once he claimed to be God, he needed killing.

Now I guess the question this raises is clear: If our specific commitment to Jesus Christ is so terrible to the outside world, why don’t we just give in? Why not just erase the whole Jesus part of this religion and stick with humanitarian efforts?

Although the theological answers to this question are many, I prefer to cite two things:

First, our faith simply will not allow this kind of convenient surrender. Think of the Nicene Creed that we say every Sunday. It does not balk on the matter of God’s specific identity: we believe in One God, One Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It is this God that early Christians died confessing. Historically, most of the martyrs of the church have not died because they were engaged in acts of social justice, but because they refused to worship the gods of Rome. They refused to bow down before the well-thought gods of Plato and the Stoics, and the Unitarians, and the Communists, and yes, even our current secularists.

Brothers and sisters, we are not the first age of Christians to be surrounded by religious alternatives. It has been a reality from the beginning, and previous generations did not see it as a reason to make our beliefs more socially acceptable.

Secondly, it is only when we accept and love God’s scandalous Otherness that we begin to understand that he loves differently than we do. Only when we first accept that God’s ways are not our ways can we begin to be instructed in how to grow in godliness.

Too often when we read the Great Commandment in reverse, we come away thinking that because I love myself, then I must love my neighbor, and then if I have a little bit left over, I can love God. The temptation is especially strong for the younger generations, of which I am a part. We are so strongly by Romanticism, we tend to think that “love” just means “to like a whole lot”. We read the Great Commandment as Jesus telling us to like each other and share happy feelings. Then we project that idea of love onto God.

But Scripturally, God’s love doesn’t look like that. In the Bible God is frequently angry with his people. There are many times in the Scriptures where God chooses to love us without liking us one little bit. God’s love is not the love of a friend, a colleague, or a social worker.

God’s love is the love of a Hebrew Father: It’s a love that sets boundaries, and is clear when we have stepped outside of them. It is a love that wants us to be holy and good more than materially successful. It is a love that tells us to tame our passions, not fulfill them. It is the love that bears with us even when we throw temper tantrums as children tend to do. It is a love that says “I know that you can never repay me for all I have done in raising you, but you can accept it with a glad heart.” It is a love that wants us to gradually mature into a child that will be worthy of its family inheritance – which in this case is the heavenly kingdom!

So we should not go forth after today’s reading thinking that our first job is to love our neighbors because we want them to love us back. That’s just human ethics. Instead, why not go forth and strive for a Godly love? Let us state with clarity to those who offend us “I may never like you, but because I am the servant of God and my savior Jesus Christ, I will still love you. I will still do right by you and wish you well.”

But if you take this challenge, beware. God’s love for people like us ultimately lands you on some crosses. And if they hated our master before us, do not think that you can take on his way of life without some acute pains. As the writer G.K. Chesterton reminds us:

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”



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