by Joan L. Beck
Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community
God of life, you command us to “live lives of neighborliness rooted in holiness”! Help us. Amen.
It is the last week of Jesus’ life. Time after time, Matthew shows us the powers-that-be coming to Jesus not to try to understand him, but to defeat him. Each time, Jesus shows himself to be bigger, better and more than their politicking.
This time, “an expert in the law” tests him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” This is like asking someone in the United States which part of the Constitution is most important. The correct answer has to be, “All of it.” You can’t start picking it apart.
The rabbis who loved the law of God had carefully counted all the laws from God in their scripture. They counted 613 commands. Some had even divided them into 365 prohibitions or things they weren’t supposed to do—365, one for each day of the year. And 268 positive commands, one for each bone in the body. They said this was to remind them that all the time (365), and in every move we make (268), people are to honor and obey God. The correct answer has to be, “Keep all the Law. Don’t start picking it apart.”
But Jesus doesn’t get bogged down in information overload. He can see the forest as well as the trees. He lifts out the essentials, and they are two:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”
and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy, and he is quoting Leviticus, but when he puts the two together, he says, all the rest of the scripture can be understood as speaking about these two primary loyalties.
Like two poles that hold up a clothesline, these two commandments help us arrange all the Law and the Prophets. Or like a hub, into which every other commandment, every spoke fits and finds its place.
Like the hinges of a door, these two commandments open the way into life.
Like the basic directions on a compass, these two commandments could help us find our way through all our years without getting lost.
Later in this last week of his life, Jesus will disclose (in Matthew chapter 25) that the two great commandments converge into one intention and action, as two sides of one coin: Both commandments converge into acts of mercy for the most vulnerable neighbors. How do we love God with all we are and all we have? By loving our neighbors! What happens when we love our neighbors? We love and honor God! In feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting those sick and in prison, Jesus says, “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
Only we don’t. We haven’t provided these basics to these, the least of our neighbors, and so we have left the love of God unfinished as well.
Love your neighbors as yourself. Here’s how we love ourself: We guard our integrity, reputation and future. If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would not resent what others have or steal from them or tear them down by how we talk about them. But we do.
Here’s how we love ourself: We have homes, we have food. If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, we wouldn’t leave people hungry or homeless. But we do.
Here’s how we love ourself: When we need clothes, we go shopping. When we’re sick we go to the doctor. If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would make sure that the manufacture of our clothes gave living wages to the workers and we would provide health care to everyone. But we don’t.
Loving ourselves, we enjoy our privileges, but we don’t work to dismantle the racism that hinders our neighbors. Loving ourselves, we use resources, without sufficient regard for the neighbors around the world or coming after us. Loving ourselves, we live in peace, but we wage wars on our neighbors.
We do not remember to consult these greatest commandments “day and night” as the psalmist says, and when we do consult them, we still have not organized our lives or our churches or our society around them.
And so: Nobody gets to God through the Commandments. Jesus tells us about these two commandments because they ARE the true orientation of a life lived as God intends life to be lived, but that doesn’t mean that they have the power to make us live that way.
A few years ago, I was fascinated by the story of a 27-year old man from Oregon who had been lost on a mountain for five nights and days. He was climbing Mt. Adams, a 12,000 foot peak in the Cascade range, when, hiking by himself, he broke through some snow on the trail that had ice beneath, and fell down the steep mountainside and broke his right ankle. Resolutely he started to head down the mountain. He crawled down the slope on his hands and knees and slid over volcanic stones on his rump. When he ran out of energy bars, he ate centipedes and ants. He drank creek water. He made sure he kept moving in the cold and dark and napped only in the sunshine. Although relatively well-equipped, prepared and determined, he could not get down off that mountain by himself. A rescue team had to come and find him.
God has to send a rescue team for us. Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the church are the rescue team. Jesus finds us, heals us, and raises us up. The Holy Spirit keeps the power of Jesus coming to us day in and day out, all the days of our lives.
The two greatest commandments are the greatest commandments, but they are not a complete picture of our salvation. Our rescue is not made up of two strokes, but of three strokes. It is a “three stroke engine.” Before we can find a thankful love to go up to God and out to our neighbors, God’s love has to come down to us. That is the first stroke. That is where it all starts.
Leviticus said it already. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Our neighborliness is rooted in God’s holiness, in the awesome, transcendent, sovereign uniqueness of the God who heard the cries of slaves in Egypt, brought them out with a mighty arm, and made a people of them. This is the dynamic that Jesus lives and extends to us.
For God’s love comes down to us in Jesus: Jesus born to be “God with us.” Jesus tempted and resisting the devil, for us and for our salvation. Jesus forgiving us. Jesus healing us. Jesus washing us in baptism. Jesus feeding us at his table. Jesus dying for us and rising to give us new life. Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to us so that we have the faith and gifts and power to join him in his ministry until his kingdom comes. Jesus loving the Lord our God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind; Jesus loving us and everyone--his neighbors--as himself.
We think that a cross is a symbol that has two strokes, one vertical and one horizontal. But really it has three strokes. The first one is down, from God’s love to us. At the end of the week that Matthew is talking about, Jesus will end up on the cross. The cross is the deepest, greatest place of God’s solidarity with the human family in Jesus Christ. Here God is emptied out, all the way to death, even death on a cross.
From there, from this death, from this depth of love for us, God’s love in us bounces back the other two directions: Back up, in love for God, and out and around, in love for neighbor, neighbor, neighbor.
Try it yourself. Make the sign of the cross on yourself. Down, then up and out. Because God loves me, therefore I love God and my neighbors—365 and 268-thousand different ways..
The compass is in our hands. The doors to life swing open.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts, souls, and minds in Christ Jesus. This has been half the sermon. The other half is to determine with the Holy Spirit’s help what your response will be.