March 23rd, 2014

Is it really possible to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind?

Matthew 22:34-40

March 23, 2014

What do you expect?

As most of you know, I was traveling last week, which altered my sermon preparation routine a bit.  I knew I would be on the highway all day Monday, which is usually my first day of intensive study on the text.  So I started the previous Thursday.

It seemed to me at first that this was a rather straightforward passage.  A Pharisee wants to “trap” Jesus and asks him what the greatest commandment is.  Jesus answers to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Then he says a second commandment is just as important – love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything in what we call the Old Testament, he says, “hangs” on those two commandments.

For ten days now, I have been asking myself and others three questions about Matthew 22:34-40. 

1)     Why is the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” a test?  It doesn’t seem to me like such a difficult question to answer.

2)     What does “love” mean?  Is it possible to give a synonym or definition that covers loving God, loving others, and loving self?

3)     Is it really possible to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself?


During the last week, the Lord gave three different experiences to help me wrestle with these three questions.

Why is this question a trap?

The first question, “Why is this question a trap?” was clarified for me when Linda and I finally had the opportunity to see the film, “Son of God,” this past Thursday evening.  I was a little distracted during the film because I was doing a very un-date-night-like thing and checking the score of the N. C. State basketball game on the side.   Parts of the film were done well.  My favorite line was on Easter morning when Peter looked inside the empty tomb and said, “He’s gone!”  John answered, “He’s not gone…he’s back!”

But some of the very obvious chronology in the Gospels is mixed up in the film, especially on Holy Week.  There are parts of Jesus’ life where the chronology is a little difficult to determine from the Gospels, but this conversation with the scribe isn’t one of them.  It takes place on Tuesday of what we call Holy Week – after Palm Sunday and before Good Friday.  Jesus spends a very full day on the temple mount in Jerusalem giving the religious leaders exactly what they had craved for about two years – face-to-face, public dialogue.  They have had enough, and it’s time for him to die.

They don’t know it, but Jesus has the same agenda and timeline as they do.  He’s ready to die.  It’s why he’s come to earth and why he made his way to Jerusalem.  They have wanted to kill him for some time, but he did not allow himself to be trapped – physically or figuratively.  Not until now.  He is ready to let them corner him.

On their part, however, there is a problem.  Jesus is wildly popular.  He’s an icon, a rock star, a legend in his own time. His teaching mesmerizes audiences.  He feeds multitudes, cleanses lepers, and raises the dead.  On Sunday he was lauded by an adoring crowd with palms and praises. They all believe he’s a prophet.

This is what’s going on up on the massive stone platform in the courts surrounding the magnificent temple Herod built for the Jews.  The strange bedfellows who are usually squabbling amongst themselves are cooperating to embarrass Jesus in front of the tens of thousands (or more) crowding the temple mount as Passover nears.  This is John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi united to destroy a common enemy.

Earlier in this chapter Matthew says, “The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words” (v. 15).  Matthew records three consecutive attempts.

Attempt #1.  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  (v. 17)  This was an internal debate among them.  It didn’t matter to them whether he said yes or no.  Whichever way he answered, he would make some people mad.  That’s the point.  I’m sure you recall his answer:  “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what is his.”

Attempt #2 (v. 23ff.) is an attempt to make the idea of resurrection from the dead silly.  Here again, this was an internal debate.  They wanted him to take sides so that they could divide the crowd.  He does take sides – he believes in the resurrection – but he does so in a way that trumps all of them.

Attempt #3 is our text.  The question is, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Why is this a test or a trap?  For the same reason the other questions were.  This was a hotly debated subject.  Some of them had ranked the 613 commands in the Old Testament (248 positive, corresponding to the parts of the body and 365 negative, corresponding to the number of days in a year) from the most important to the least.  But not everyone agreed.  Some of them said “Honor your father and mother” was most important.  Some of them, like some today, prioritized horizontal commands.  Some commands related to God.  Some of them said you can’t rank them – they’re all important.  It didn’t matter how Jesus answered; he was going to turn off some in the crowd.  That is why this was a test.

What is love?

Jesus answers the scribe’s question with the same combination of familiar Scriptures and original thinking that had already characterized his teaching from his earliest recorded sermons.   Jesus teaches the Jews the meaning of their own Scripture, but usually with a new twist.  The way he integrates and applies the Bible constantly amazes the crowd and baffles his detractors.

Jesus begins his answer with Deuteronomy 6:4, the best-known verse in the Bible for a Jew – then and now.  It’s their creed, commonly called the Shema, the first Hebrew word, “Hear.”  Shema, yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai echad.  “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.”  But that’s not what Jesus quotes, because he wasn’t asked what’s the most important belief, but what’s the most important commandment.  So instead he quotes the next line in Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Jesus says, “This is the first and greatest commandment.”

Then Jesus adds another quote from Leviticus 19:18 – “And the second is like it (on a par with it, equal to it), ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  What was original to Jesus, as far as we know, is that no one else had put those two commands back to back like this.  In other words, you can’t separate your love for God and your love for others.  You can’t prioritize one over the other.  Don’t say you love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and don’t try to make everyone think you’re kind to your neighbors if God isn’t first.  It isn’t either-or, it’s both-and.

So my question is, “What do we mean by love?”  Or better, “What does Jesus mean by love?”  Or Moses?  As I discovered with my Bible study groups this week, it’s not easy to answer that question.  You may respond as Justice Potter Stewart famously did in a Supreme Court opinion that pornography is not free speech.  He declined to offer a definition or pornography, but said, “I know it when I see it.”  Maybe you can’t define love, but you know it when you see it.

I saw it last weekend.  I was in Vermont to preach the installation sermon for a young pastor I have mentored, Josh Moore, at United Church of South Royalton.  When I left there Monday morning, it was -9 degrees, and they had had 28 inches of snow in the previous 3-4 days.

Following the installation service, in the fellowship hall downstairs during the dinner, a woman came up to me and said, “I was on the search committee for a pastor, but I didn’t vote for Josh.”  My first thought was that it was an interesting comment to make to the installation service preacher.

She went on.  “I just didn’t think it was right to bring a young Mom up here who had three children and one on the way.  I know what Vermont winters are like, and she would be spending 4-5 months indoors.  She didn’t know what it would be like.  But when the committee voted her husband in as pastor, I said to them, ‘OK, we are going to have to take care of this family.’”

And they have.  A young woman babysits for Josh and Megan every Friday or Saturday night so they can have a date.  Two teenagers come every Sunday morning to help get the kids ready for church.  The congregation bought them a set of snow tires.  I heard so many stories from Josh and Megan in the two days I was there about how the church has supported and surrounded them.  It’s as if they have turned their whole attention to how they can make life bearable and even enjoyable for Josh and Megan.

That encounter, and, indeed, the whole weekend, reminded me what love is.  I came up with some synonym possibilities that work for loving God, neighbor, and self:  cherish, treasure, prioritize, value, prize, embrace.  If I can use a verb phrase, I can substitute: cling to, be consumed with, be committed to, be attached to, yearn for, delight in, be obsessed with.

What all these synonyms have in common is their comprehensiveness.  Jesus said to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Love has to be holistic.  It’s all-in or it isn’t love.  It’s what you feel and what you think and what you do about it.  Like that crazy-in-love couple John and Lisa who got married yesterday here in our sanctuary, love consumes you – you think about it all the time, you do things to please the other person and nurture the relationship.

As far as neighbor-love goes, Jesus expresses the obsession a little differently.  He doesn’t command self-love; he assumes it.  You do think all the time about how to take care of yourself.  Jesus simply points that out and says think about others the same way.  So to love is to cherish, treasure, be consumed with, be committed to.

Then Jesus adds a further commentary, “All the Law and the Prophets hang (are suspended from) these two commandments.”  That’s an interesting word picture.  It’s not like those two commandments are the foundation on which the others are built.  They are the pegs on which they hang.  There is a sense in which the greatest commandments are all you need.  But Jesus will not give his detractors a false pretense against him by hearing him say the rest of the Bible doesn’t matter.  It all matters because it all hangs together on the commands to love God and love neighbor.

Is it possible?

But is it possible to love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself?  The third experience I had this week was listening to a CD college course in my car between Vermont and Pennsylvania on Monday.  Professor Phillip Cary of Eastern University used a story to summarize the gospel of Martin Luther, the sixteenth century Protestant reformer, that I found compelling.  I have adapted and expanded his story.

Imagine you have been adopted from an orphanage.  Up until now, your own background has been undisciplined, and your behavior vacillates between unruly and disrespectful.  Mostly you are just a kid who has never known anything but poverty and rejection until now.

One early summer day a wealthy couple comes to the orphanage and takes you home.  You ask your father, “What do you expect of me?”  He sternly gives you a list of do’s and don’ts and says, “You must obey me.” It takes a while, and you get a few whippings, but you never doubt you have been chosen and loved.  Your mother helps and encourages you, and your father disciplines you.  All this takes some adjustment, but overall you are humbled by the family and the privilege you now have.

At the end of the summer, you find out your parents also have a biological son, whom your father adores.  Your brother has been gone all summer, but he’s coming back home.  That’s a surprise, and at first you are very jealous.   But your brother is kind and he welcomes you also into the family.  If you’re naughty, he scolds you – but he quickly forgives.  You still struggle with all those rules from your Dad, so you ask your brother, “What does father expect of us?”  Your older brother answers, “Really you can summarize all his rules two ways:  We must honor father and be kind to others.”

One day you and your brother are roughhousing as brothers do.  You accidentally push him down the stairs.  In a terrible fall, he breaks his neck, smashes his head, and dies.  Your mother tries to comfort you, but you are inconsolable.  You caused the death of your father’s only son.  Your father disappears from the home for a few days, and you assume he is dealing with his own grief and deciding what to do next.

A few days later, your mother comes to you and says that your father is back, and he wants to see you in his office.  As you approach the door to open it, you begin to imagine the possibilities of what will happen on the other side of that door.   What might your father say to you?

  • “I reject you as my son.  You were naughty from the beginning and now you have displayed your true nature with the worst of consequences.  You are returning to the orphanage.”
  • “You will continue to live here, but we will have no contact.  I cannot bear to see the boy who killed my son.”
  • “I am very sad and I am trying not to be angry.  But I keep remembering that I only wanted two things of you:  Obey me and be kind to your brother.  You will stay here and you will be my son, but let me tell you again.  You must learn to honor me and to others.  I will be watching to see if you will always love me and love others the way I have loved you.”

I could be wrong, but I think this is where many if not most Christians live.  We carry the great commandments as a great burden.  Even though we know we have been loved unconditionally by God and Christ died for us, that is still just another reason for guilt and shame.  We’re so aware that we can’t love God like we should or love others like we love ourselves and how on earth could we not when our sins killed God’s Son?

None of these scenarios is how our story ends.  You reach for that large brass handle on your father’s tall, heavy door, and you can hardly believe your eyes.

Your father is sitting at his desk with a broad smile and with tears simultaneously running down his cheeks.  But they are tears of joy and he says to you, “Come in, my beloved son.”  And there, sitting on his lap, is your brother.

You’re speechless at first and then you stammer, “I thththought he was gggone!”

“He’s not gone!” your father answers.  “He’s back!”

“But how?” you ask.

“Some things are not for you to understand.  But he’s fine and everything in the past is forgotten.  But here’s something you must never forget.  You are my child, and that will never change.  I love you, I chose you, and I want you in my family, always.  You two go play together.  Supper will be ready at 6:00.”

I noticed something this morning I’ve never noticed before in the Bible.  The command to love God with all your heart and soul and mind is never repeated in the Bible after the cross and the resurrection.  Not by Paul or James or Peter or John.  There are a few references to loving God, and quite a few more about loving your neighbor.

The overwhelming focus of those whose lives had been changed by the gospel is not about measuring your love for God.  It is about pondering God’s love for you.  Paul says things like, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39).  John writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1).

We hear from time to time that this gospel of grace will make us lazy, will diminish our motivation and capacity to love God and love others.  No, it won’t.  When you grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God in Christ (Ephesians 3:18), your life will never be the same. Amen.


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