Which Commandment is the Greatest?

25 Oct
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT - Uchenna C. Okpalaunegbu Reflection

Homily delivered on October 25, 2020 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Princess Anne, Maryland

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Psalm 1; Matthew 22:34-36

This morning we join Jesus at the end of a long series of debates and challenges he was subjected to by a variety of groups.  I do not want to diminish the importance and seriousness of the moment, especially since not soon afterwards, some within these groups actively plan to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him (Matthew 26: 3-4).  But I have to admit; I had a bit of a chuckle when I, a former lawyer recently ordained deacon beginning a new ministry, first reviewed this morning’s readings: and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Bishop San with the deacons

…. Oh, we lawyers just can’t seem to get a break. Though, to be fair, while we refer to lawyers as someone trained to represent people before a secular court, in the Bible, and with today’s selection, ‘lawyer’ had what we today would call a religious connotation.  This person was undoubtedly an expert and scholar of Mosaic law or the codified system of rules and regulations meant to govern Israel in God’s ways as the nation lived in the Promised Land.

And it was these rules and regulations that Jesus routinely had to address during his ministry.  While the bulletin indicates the Gospel reading is from Luke, it’s actually from Matthew 22:34-46 and I’d like to note that Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the gospels.  What I mean by that is Matthew was written when there was still a living relationship between Jesus’ followers and the Jewish community.  There is considerable concern for the observance of the commandments and Mosaic law.  Indeed, a famous, uniquely Matthean sentence even says that none of the law will pass away until all is accomplished (5:18).  In short, this Gospel seems to be written by and for a community of Jesus’ followers who were overwhelmingly Jewish, not only in terms of ethnicity but also in orientation and patterns of daily living.  And that way of living emphasized wisdom for believing and living a godly life.  The Evangelist has skillfully woven together his source material to produce a compelling portrait of Jesus as both sage and Wisdom itself, as both the revealer of God and Immanuel (“God with us”).

Message: "Immanuel - God With Us" from Phil Helfer — Los Altos Grace

And in Matthew’s rendition, we see this, with Jesus demonstrating he’s cleverer than his adversaries.  And with today’s selection, Jesus ‘gives it right back’ to the Pharisees when he questions them about the messiah and his relationship to David, by quoting Psalm 110.  They are stumped and finally silenced.

But, before the silencing, we have that dreaded lawyer: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  Jesus’ answer fits well with his teaching on the Law or Torah across Matthew. Jesus has already demonstrated that right interpretation of the Torah must view all God’s commands through the lens of the weightier matters of the Torah consisting of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). Jesus previously cited Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7), emphasizing mercy as central to reading and obeying the Torah. And he has highlighted love of neighbor as the pinnacle command of the Torah (5:43-48). So, keeping in mind the background of Matthew with it being ‘the most Jewish’ of the Gospels, we should not be surprised by Jesus’ quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (love God with all of your heart) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself) as the greatest of commands upon which “all the law and the prophets” hang (22:37-40).

The ancient rabbis put it in similar terms: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law.”  Too many times I hear broad brush descriptions of Jesus as a rule breaker or that he wouldn’t agree with organized religion today.  Matthew would push back. 

The Greatest Commandment

The Evangelist bends over backwards to demonstrate Jesus is the one who not only rightly interprets the Torah but as one who commands adherence to even its finest points (see Matthew 5:17-20; I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill; he encourages people to go further than say the Pharisees and Mosaic law by extending ‘thou shall not murder’ to include an injunction against being angry with fellow believers in Matthew 5:21-26). Jesus’ greatest critique of the Pharisees is not their desire to keep the Torah in its smallest detail but their tendency to fall short on obedience to central values of the Torah (See Matthew 23:23).

The message today then emphasizes that the Torah is rightly understood when it is read through the central lens of love for God and love for neighbor (with even enemies considered neighbors; Matthew 5:43-44). While this truth is not difficult to understand or to preach on its face, embodying love for God and love for others is the greatest of challenges. The sheer breadth of these two commands makes obedience to them a lifelong effort. The all-inclusive reach of these two commandments might be best coupled with some very practical examples of love.  Since Jesus quoted Leviticus 19 with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” let’s go back to Leviticus 19 to see just exactly how someone loves their neighbor.  A person who loves his or her neighbor:

• Will not reap the fields bare, but will leave some for the poor (vv. 9-10).
• Will not steal (v. 11).
• Will not deal falsely (v. 11).
• Will not lie (v. 11).
• Will not swear falsely by God’s name (v. 12).
• Will not defraud a neighbor (v. 13).
• Will not keep a laborer’s wages overnight (v. 13).
• Will not “revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (v. 14).
• Will not render an unjust judgment (v. 15).
• Will not be partial to the poor or defer to the great (v. 15).
• Will judge the neighbor with justice (v. 15).
• Will not engage in slander (v. 16).
• Will not profit by the blood of the neighbor (v. 16).
• Will not hate your neighbor (v. 17).
• Will not take vengeance or bear a grudge (v. 18).

• Will rise before the aged, and defer to the old (v. 32)

.• Will not oppress an alien for the alien is to be as a citizen, loving the alien as yourself (33-34).

Love Your Neighbor | Local News | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

These verses make it clear that the love of which Leviticus and Jesus speak is different from the warm emotion that we think of as love. Another example to look at is Matthew 25: 31-46 which also demonstrates Biblical love is instead, a way of acting in relationship to our neighbor.  But our culture has equated love with intense emotion. To love is a stronger response than to like. We like chocolate: you can unlock my heart with chocolate peanut butter. We just cannot help ourselves. We love a movie: it entertains or moves us. We love a boy or girlfriend: they make us happy. We love a spouse: they complete us. All are measures of a passive response to something outside us.

Biblical love, however, is not passive and it is not strictly emotional. However, we should not forget the times Jesus is moved with compassion. But the love referred to today by Jesus is the active response of the faithful person to the love of God.  In turn, God’s love is also active. God chooses to love Israel above all nations and to bring his love through this chosen people. To love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, is to choose to respond to God even as God chooses to love us. Feelings and emotions do not enter into the equation.

It refers to what can be called loving-kindness. It is not reactive emotion, but active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity.  In short, Biblical love is a choice, not a feeling. 

Honest Student Cliparts - Cliparts Zone

Which is helpful because to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.  But we are commanded to love an intangible God. Perhaps you may feel like a failure in feeling a deep, abiding affection for a God who is often distant and unknown. I’ve certainly have had my moments of well, being angry at and with God.  Nonetheless, to love God is our duty as Christians.

Love Sums it All - eCommunicator

Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more indifferent than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.

Love your neighbor as yourself.” | Dr Ken Baker

Biblical love is something we do. It is merciful action that is both generous and continuous. And that is truly the good news for us as Christian people! A martyred Catholic Sister once said: “Believing in Jesus is believing in humanity, and that is, I believe, the great challenge of our time.” To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

Love your neighbor as yourself; but don't take down the fence.' Carl  Sandburg. | Sally says . . . eat, sleep, work, read, play, draw, bark . . .

Interestingly Leviticus 19 also says “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor” (v. 17), suggesting that love is tough where toughness is needed—or, at times love is to be confrontational so that wrongs might be righted and obstacles to relationships can be removed.  And while not readily apparent, this is partly Paul’s message in this morning’s lesson. 

Although Paul is writing as the founder of the community, the characteristics he upholds are to be reflected in each and every one of the members of the community, not just their leaders. These perhaps can be described as “characteristics of community builders,” and each one of us is such a community builder by our very participation in the Christian community.

Christian Community

As Episcopalians our language is different, but the concept is the same. I encourage you to scroll through our Catechism which begins on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, paying particular attention to page 855 with the label The Ministry and its first question: Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons. 

Keeping that in mind (did you catch that lay people are referenced first?) the first characteristic Paul describes is speaking boldly.  Unfortunately, we have lost this with the translation to English.  He traces some history for the Thessalonians, reminding them that when he and his companions first arrived at Thessalonica they had recently spent a tumultuous time at Philippi (Acts 16). Nevertheless, while at Thessalonica, Paul and his companions “had courage … to declare to you the gospel of God” (v. 2). In writing this, Paul uses the Greco-Roman philosophical concept of “bold speech.” This expression was used in antiquity to indicate freedom of speech and courage to speak in the face of opposition.  Paul’s expression draws upon the tradition of a type of speech which is characteristic of ancient philosophers. 

When we are community builders, or ministers, we need to speak boldly and “tell it like it is.” Often the easier route is to avoid conflict and allow things to carry on as always. Yet, to truly build community, the gospel message−the love of God and the love of neighbor−must be proclaimed boldly. To be fearless in speaking out, when one notes moral laxity or the abuse of power taking place within the Christian community, will lead to true community.

We have entered into a covenant to do this.  I encourage you to spend time with the Baptismal Covenant, which we affirm from to time to time, mostly at baptisms. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? – I will, with God’s help. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will with God’s help.”

Baptismal Covenant – Amy and Joe in Pasadena + Cormack

The second characteristic Paul highlights is personal integrity when he talks about God’s testing.  In Jewish scriptures, God’s testing is a frequent theme and we see that with Jesus’s sojourn into the wilderness before he begins his public ministry.  But I want to move on and conclude with Paul’s third characteristic of community: being a soul sharer.  True community is built upon openness and sharing. We need to open up, to be vulnerable, and to share with those around us.  

Proclaiming the Gospel of loving God and neighbor- requires us to not only share what we know, but how we strive to live what we know and the failings and doubts we have encountered along the way. The images that Paul uses are of a nurse tending to young children (2:7) and later, just beyond today’s selection, a parent, who pleads with them to live a life worthy of God (2:12).

10 Signs Your Partner Is the World's Best Spouse - Signs of a Healthy  Relationship

What have we learned on our own journeys of faith that would make us trustworthy guides to others? To what degree do we need to let others discover their own paths? As they do so, what gifts of knowledge, faith, and insight might they return to us if we are willing to receive them?

Let us pray:

God of Light, shine on us; 

God of Peace, dwell in us; 

God of Might, protect us;

God of Love, enfold us;

God of Wisdom, enlighten us. 

Let us go out as your witnesses

to share the good news of your love

Amen.

Wherever You Go, You Will Always Leave a Footprint: Footprints In The Sand  Journal - Motivational & Inspirational Quotes - Caribbean Tropical Beach:  Journals, Wild: 9781074952754: Amazon.com: Books

One Response to “Which Commandment is the Greatest?”

  1. Annie October 26, 2020 at 2:08 am #

    Love this❤️ Thank you

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