A sermon on Matthew 22:34-46 by Nathan Nettleton
Have you ever had the experience where you are with someone, and they find out that you’re a Christian, or maybe they already knew but the topic of religion comes into the conversation, and almost immediately they ask you the most curly unanswerable question about Christian doctrine that you can possibly imagine. There is a fairly standard range of these questions; “Who made God?”, “What was happening before the beginning of time?”, “Will there be sex in heaven?”, “Why did God create the devil?”, “Does my cat have a soul?” and of course, “If God is loving, how come there is evil in the world?” And then having asked the question, they treat you as though you couldn’t possibly choose to be a Christian without having first worked out the answers to these questions. Which is a bit like saying you couldn’t possibly choose to marry someone unless you could work out in advance whether your great- grandchildren would eat asparagus.
The thing is, with all those questions, that they are not usually asked because the person needs to know they answer before they can confidently take the next step in their life and growth. They are usually asked as a way of provoking an entertaining conversation while staying clear of the questions that Jesus would probably put to them. The majority of philosophical discussions are not intended to produce anything that will actually change what people do after they get up in the morning. It’s been often said that philosophy is the study of two types of questions; those to which everyone already knows the answers and those to which nobody knows the answers.
There is a joke told of the eminent philosopher Planck, that when he died he arrived at the cosmic crossroads and found a signpost. One sign pointed, “This way to the Kingdom of God,” and the other pointed in the opposite direction, “This way to a Discussion about the Kingdom of God.” Far too tempting for a philosopher!
Jesus copped a lot of those sort of questions, and the story in today’s gospel reading was yet another example. It wasn’t that there was necessarily anything wrong with the question, there often isn’t, it was what lay behind the question that was sus. The story tells us that the Sadducees, one of the ruling religious groups had been hitting Jesus with some fairly curly questions, including a standard one about sex in heaven, and that Jesus had seen off their questions so successfully that they’d pulled in their horns and gone home silent. When the Pharisees, the number one rivals of the Sadducees heard this, they were determined to do better. Jesus was not especially popular with either group, and the Pharisees found the idea of bringing him to heel all the more attractive if the Sadducees had just been publicly seen to fail.
So, as the reading said, they came together and one of them, a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him with a question. So as the hearers of the story, we know even before the question is asked that this is not a sincere question. This is not a question that is being asked by people who are eager to discover the truth and revise their lives in light of it. This is a question that is being asked by people who are sure that they know the answer in the hope that Jesus will give the wrong answer and they can publicly discredit him for holding unorthodox opinions and leading people astray.
“Teacher,” he asked, buttering Jesus up with a little compliment first. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Well they must have been horribly disappointed with Jesus’ answer. You could not imagine a more thoroughly orthodox and uncontroversial answer. “This is the greatest and most important commandment, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And the second most important commandment is like it, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Every Jew listening knew that that was the right answer. Every Jewish kid had been able to recite those two commandments since kindergarten. They still can, and usually in Hebrew too. Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the “Shema” from it’s first word in Hebrew, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every religious Jew repeats these words several times a day. At prayer they often wear a small box on their forehead containing an inscription of these words. On the door posts of Jewish houses to this day you will find a little capsule containing an inscription of these words. The rabbis all down through history had agreed that these two verses together were a near perfect summary of the whole law of Israel. It was probably the most non-controversial thing Jesus said in his entire life. Not even the smallest opening for an argument there. Nothing novel at all.
Nowadays, in such a rapidly changing world, we tend to be rather dismissive of anything that’s not new. One of the worst things a critic can say of a new book or film is “Well what’s in here may well be good but it’s nothing original.” We live in a time of such an explosion of knowledge and technology that there is always plenty that’s new, and we are conditioned to think that the “new improved model” always renders the old and familiar obsolete and irrelevant. A new computer can be obsolete by the time you finish getting out of the box.
But Jesus turns the whole thing around. He’s not too interested in whether you have an interesting new theory to discuss about life and God, he’s interested in how you’re actually living it. And so Jesus turns back to the Pharisee interrogators with a question of his own, “What do you think of the Messiah?”
Jesus will not stand for our game of questions and answers, of idle theorising about God and life and the meaning of everything. To Jesus the real question is not whereabouts in the hierarchy of importance do you categorise the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”? The real question is “how are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?” And how are you loving your neighbour? His answer to their question was so simple, familiar and orthodox, and yet the practicalities of living it out take us a life time of struggle to put in place.
The doing of it is difficult in itself, and made more difficult by its unusualness in the culture that surrounds us. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.” He’s right in a way. Most of us dabble in it rather than abandon ourselves to it. With some of the debates going on in Baptist circles at the moment, and in most other churches, there are so many people throwing Bible verses at each other, all confident that they know which ones matter most and that their Bible is decisive for whatever the argument is. In the midst of the fights I am often reminded of the agnostic who once said that the reason so many people believe the Bible is because so few of them have ever tried to live by it.”
I stand guilty as charged, Your Honour. I know that most of my life has been and is shaped by whatever theories and life styles are popular in the church group I happen to belong to at a particular time. Far far less has actually arisen from a genuine love relationship with the God who has become known to us in Christ. I’m a great one for theories and discussions and debates. I know there is a part of me that throws myself into the denominational debate about homosexuality out of a pharisee like desire to test my debating skills in the public arena rather than out of a heart felt gratitude for God’s gracious mercy and a compassion for those who suffer hatred and fear. Debating I’m good at. Giving my whole heart, soul and mind to God in love and worship; that’s another matter all together. That scares me. That takes me out of my areas of competence. It stands me on shaky ground where I look woefully inadequate, and I don’t like that.
Loving your neighbour I can cope with a bit better. Because I always tend to hear that as a much more practical thing. I can do things in order to love my neighbour, things I’m good at. Love your neighbour sounds so big and broad and general, that I can convince myself I’m doing it without ever getting too close to anyone, without exposing myself to the risk of unreciprocated emotions or anything scary like that.
But the difficult truth I have to grapple with is that you can love your neighbour without loving God, and if I do that Jesus says I’ve ignored the most important thing. The other way round, by the way, is not possible. You can’t love God without growing in love for your neighbour, even though you can love your neighbour and run away from God all your life.
Loving God with everything you’ve got begins by responding to the commandments, the patterns of life revealed to us in the Law, the prophets, and most fully in Jesus Christ. We begin to show our love for God and our response to God’s goodness when we set out to do as God would have us do, when we evaluate our lives against the standard demonstrated to us in Jesus and set about making up the difference. Now that, right at the start of our journey into loving God will involve us in loving other people, and even loving those people who are most unlovable. It will involve a radical revision of who we are, and how we live, and how we relate to others, and what we value and devote our heart, mind and energies to.
And all that is only the beginning, the first step in loving God with everything you are. That will occupy you for the rest of your life, but along side that, if you’re uncompromisingly committed to loving God, other aspects will develop too. Things that are much more relational. Things that take you away from the realm of doing, of action. And that might be OK for you but I get scared when I get too far away from the security of being able to do things. The first step beyond action involves contemplation, particularly the contemplation of God’s mysterious presence in everything and everyone around you. As many of you have discovered, significant things begin to happen in your love relationship with Jesus when you take plenty of silent time to contemplate the reality of his presence in that tree, or that person, or that icon.
Even then there is still much further to go. Those of you who have given your whole heart, mind and soul to loving God and others for many years and have made great progress will have added to these two the ability to encounter Christ, much more directly, to not need the physical mediators, but to be able to walk straight into the presence of God, into the Holy of Holies, to be able to gaze lovingly into the unveiled face of God and lose yourself in in wonder and praise. That, however, is way beyond anything I’ve experienced as anything more than a fleeting glimpse, and I don’t even know many people who have developed their prayerfulness to that extent. I’ve met numerous people who’ve claimed it, but you can’t be that close to God and still be as blatantly untransformed as most of them were.
But as people who are fair dinkum about loving the Lord with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds and with all our energies, that is the direction in which the road ahead of us leads. Jesus in his inimitable style has exposed our tendency to prefer talking about it to giving ourselves over to it. And he has confronted us with the need to decide what our attitude to the Messiah is and to begin living it out. “Love the Lord your God with all that you have and all that you are” is fine by most of us as an answer to a question, but if we live in the world, all of us find it much harder to really live by. And so for each of us, to move out on that journey is going to require us to back up our commitment of heart, mind and soul with a commitment of time, patience, discipline and accountability. And for all of us, as a community on this road together, it is going to require love, patience and lots of support and encouragement. And with that love of each other, we can together move into the great unknown of God’s mysterious loving presence.