Monday, October 17, 2005

The Great and First Commandment

Matthew tells us that the Pharisees "came together". Presumably, they came together to try to find a question that would trip Jesus up, that would expose him for the charlatan they believed him to be.

What were the Pharisees trying to do? Were they trying to expose Jesus' lack of knowledge or trying to trap him into uttering some blasphemy or heresy which would reveal once and for all what a bad Jew he was and alienate his followers?

Why, then, did they give Jesus such an easy question? "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

I know a lot of questions harder than that one, don't you? Those of you with children know that a five year old can ask harder questions than a Pharisee any day. Where did God come from? Is God married? How old is God?

Why didn't they ask something difficult, such as, What was God doing before God created the heavens and the earth?

But they asked Jesus, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Jesus' answer was remarkably conventional. "’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets".

Note that Jesus did more than they asked him to do. The question was "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” But Jesus cited two commandments in reply, "’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets".

There was nothing in Jesus' reply to which the Pharisees could have taken exception. In fact, one of their own, Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, gave a similar answer to a similar question.

The story is told that a pagan came to Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest of the Pharisees, and said, "Rabbi, I will become a Jew if you can recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg." Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do it not to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah; everything else is commentary. Now, go and learn it."

The rabbis taught that there were 613 commandments in the Old Testament. In terms of order "Love God with all your heart" is certainly not the first commandment. The first actual commandment in the Old Testament is "Be fruitful and multiply".

However, the Hebrew word that we translate "first" means not just numerically first but also first in importance. Jesus clarified his answer by saying that to love God with all your heart is not only the first but also the "greatest" commandment.

William Muehl, who taught me preaching at Yale Divinity School, assigned his upper level preaching students the task of preaching a sermon on the most difficult in the Bible. Students commonly chose "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" or "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect". But I'm inclined to think that the hardest text in the New Testament is "Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Anyone who preaches on this text (and this preacher, especially) should begin by admitting that he or she is a hypocrite. More often than not, I do not love my neighbor, and I am bad about holding grudges. I agree with Frederick Buechner: "Of all the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.” But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so here goes.

Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees begs two questions: First, what did he mean by “love”? And secondly, what did he mean by “neighbor”? If you remember nothing else from this sermon, if you remember nothing else from any of the sermons I’ve preached, remember these two points.

First, today’s gospel employs perhaps the most dangerous four letter word in the English language. The word is “love”.

What makes the word “love” so dangerous is the fact that it’s repeated a thousand times a day on radio and television, and yet most of the time, those who use it don’t really mean love at all. Usually when television programs, movies, and popular music use the word love they mean infatuation or sexual attraction. But when Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, he used the word agape. Agape is the sort of love with which God loves us. Feelings are secondary; behavior is everything. We could paraphrase Jesus’ commandment in this way: You shall act in a loving way toward your neighbor. You shall behave toward your neighbor in the way that you want her to behave toward you.

But notice that love of God precedes love of neighbor. Isn't loving our fellow men and women the only way to love God?

There was a time when I would have said that it was redundant to say "Love God and love your neighbor", but I'm no longer sure about that.

I think that Jesus identified the "great and first commandment" as "love God" and then followed quickly with "and love your neighbor as yourself" because it is possible to love others or at least be concerned with the needs of others without taking into account the spiritual, the transcendent, dimension of human life.

There are those who are passionately concerned with the care of the hungry and the homeless who nevertheless have no awareness of the spiritual nature and spiritual needs of human beings. I honor them for their actions and fierce commitment to justice. However, I think that they are making an error which will prove very costly in the long run.

Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that "the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help... is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering.

"But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry." (Who Needs God? quoted in The Reader's Digest, Nov. '96, p. 90)

Finally, note what Jesus did not say. He did not say "serve God" or "obey God"; he said "love God".

From first to last the Bible is a love story. It is first the story of God's love for Israel and then of God's love for the church. First, God's covenant people are wooed and then they are invited into relationship.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind" is less commandment and more invitation. It is an invitation to love One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more human. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others -- that we might love God and others as God loves us.

The second main point I want you to remember is this: who are these neighbors that Jesus wants us to love?

Another biblical story supplies us with the answer to that question. Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan? On some other occasion a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told the tale of a man beaten by thieves and left for dead who was assisted by a Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asked his questioner, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The Pharisee replied, “The one who showed him mercy”, in other words, the Samaritan.

The conclusion I draw is that our neighbor is any person who has needs that we are aware of and whom we can help.

I don't know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uncomfortable. My reaction to Jesus' radical challenge to love our neighbors is to feel discouraged and even a little depressed. I am tempted to say that Jesus sets before us an impossible ideal, but that would be too easy. It would let us off the hook. The trick is to aim at loving our neighbors, really try to do that, and at the same time to know that we will fail. And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust, gives life and health to those we love and those we despise, that you and I and all of us need God's mercy as much as anyone in the whole creation.

Perhaps W.H. Auden said it best,

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

God does not ask us to love our neighbors with the perfect love of perfect hearts because God knows (how well God knows!) that we do not have perfect hearts. It is the crooked love of crooked hearts that God asks us to share with our neighbors.

But we might find in trying to love that we succeed in loving. And we will find, in the end, that loving our neighbors is not an accomplishment, it is God's gift, for only by the grace of God are we able to love at all.