The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
26 October 2008
A Sermon Preached by Ms Anne Lane Witt, Seminarian
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Today’s reading from Matthew reminded me of my seventh grade confirmation exam. I was eager to take the test to cross one more hurdle towards making my adult declaration of my faith. Confirmation was not something to do because it was what my friends were doing or because it was expected by my parents; no, I wanted very much to have my bishop confirm me. Now, I can’t even begin to tell you what we talked about during our classes or what was on the exam with the exception of one question, in two parts:
What is the Great Commandment?
OK, no problem. Our Eucharist services were Rite I, and these words from Matthew’s gospel were spoken at the beginning of each Eucharist. But then there was part two…
Does this sum up the Ten Commandments, yes or no? If no, then list the Ten Commandments.
Uh oh. I knew that if I said no, I would have to write the Ten Commandments—something I wasn’t sure I could do from memory! Saying yes seemed right and yet, waaaaaaayyyyyyy too easy.
So I thought.
And thought some more.
Finally, I came back to the words I had learned in the service:
On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
That seemed pretty clear-cut to me, so I said a quick prayer and answered YES.
When I met with my confirmation teacher, I asked if I had answered correctly, and he said, “Yes.” I exhaled and have remembered since that love of God and love of neighbor as ourselves sum up the Torah and prophets.
So it all boils down to love.
Is this truly consistent with the God we know in the Old Testament?
Would the prophets approve of Jesus’ simplification of all the commandments in the Torah?
Or is Jesus showing God’s love and compassion for us by giving us the meaning behind all the commandments we have been given?
Do these commandments even appear in the Old Testament?
Did Jesus just make this up?
He did not. The two parts of the Great Commandment come from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus but had never appeared together in scripture. Deuteronomy provides the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. This, along with the commandments to keep the Law and teach it to children, became part of the Shema, a prayer that is a central part of morning and evening worship in Judaism. It serves as a daily reminder to keep the Law out of a love that is for God and neighbor—a relational love. The second part of the Great Commandment comes from Leviticus, dealing with relationships with family and neighbors, loving neighbor as ourselves. The prophets continually reminded God’s people that love, mercy, justice, and care of the oppressed, orphaned, and widowed showed more devotion to God than did sacrifices. Outward signs of faithfulness in worship did not compensate for lack of devotion to the parts of the Law regarding care for others.
In this chapter from Matthew, Jesus has been confronted by the local Jewish leaders, who want “to entrap him” in his sayings. The Pharisees have sent their followers and some supporters of Herod to ask Jesus a series of questions regarding the Law. Jesus rises to each question, answering in such a manner that goes against neither Jewish nor Roman law, foiling the plans of the Pharisees and subsequent Sadducees. When the Pharisees hear that he has quieted the Sadducees, they return to inquire which commandment is the greatest, expecting to trip Jesus up in a manner which will hopefully rid them of him for good, namely treason or heresy.
Jesus was once again too smart for their game.
He provides them with the two-part commandment seen here. It is neither a major nor a minor commandment; it is a commandment summarizing all of the Law and the messages of the prophets.
Jesus was thoroughly steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, the better to be able to address the Jewish authorities who were questioning him. The Gospel according to Matthew was also written for a Jewish audience, written in terms that the Jewish people will be able to grasp.
Jesus was well within the interpretive traditions of Judaism in providing a summary of the Law and Prophets. This was not done to negate other commandments but rather to provide clarification.
The great Jewish scholar Hillel summarized the Torah in the Golden Rule. According to him, the rest of the Law “is commentary.” By the time of Jesus, the meaning behind the covenant of Mount Sinai had been lost. Its meaning had been replaced instead by ceremony, written laws, and debates about orthodoxy.
Jesus provided us with a summary based on loving God and loving our neighbors. This is fitting as Jesus was sent to us out of God’s love for us, which wants a free response of our love for God.
In other words, God wants a personal relationship with us, and Jesus shows us the way to this. This new relationship is the new covenant, and Jesus serves as its mediator.
This love is the reason that Jesus became incarnate and was crucified for us, being raised from the dead in order to show that God’s love can overpower the most horrible things we can ever experience.
The intention behind the Law had been forgotten. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God does not want their sacrifices; God wants mercy-- mercy like God has shown to them over and over again out of the love that God has for us.
If we love God and are in relationship with him, we hold ourselves accountable to that relationship out of concern for the other.
And if we remember our creation in the image of God, we pay ourselves and others a higher respect—one that bases itself in the Golden Rule. Seeing God in ourselves and in others erases the distinctions between us and them, rich and poor, and racial and ethnic lines.
As Episcopalians, much of our baptismal covenant is based in the commandments Jesus gives us here: seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of all human beings. In my view, these are not possible if we do not first see each and every one of us as a child of God, and these actions are witness to God’s love for us.
Loving deeply in God’s direction helps us to love more deeply in both our own direction and that of our neighbors. It helps us to remember that our actions should be reflections of this love.
Now, loving ourselves does not mean a self-love that is at the expense of others. No, it is caring for ourselves as a part of caring for God’s creation.
Thus caring for one another—including self-care--is also caring for creation.
The new covenant is based on God’s mercy and forgiveness towards us, loving us so much as to let the bygones be bygones. Love of God and neighbor teaches us how to act, and it reminds us that we are living in community and in relationship with God and our neighbors. It is a transformative love that greets us warmly as we are and changes us through God’s grace.
©2008 Anne Lane Witt