The Scripture text was Matthew 22:34-46
The religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus.
“What is the greatest commandment,” they ask.
Now, this sounds harmless. But, it is really a doctrinal test. A test to see if Jesus agrees with them or not, a test to see if Jesus belongs in their religious club or not.
Religious people like their tests, to see if you are in their group or not. Are you in, or are you out?
See, the rabbi’s had found 618 commandments in what we call the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – but they called the Law. They even broke them down into positive commandments and negative commandments. So, honor your parents was a positive command and do not commit murder was a negative command. They had it all figured out.
Some of the religious people of that day said all the commands were equal. Others said that the negative commands were the most important while others said the positive commands were what you really had to focus on. So, they are testing Jesus to see where he falls in this argument.
Jesus does something interesting here, though. He answers the question, but not in the way that they asked it.
See, they asked for the greatest commandment – what is the most important thing to do. But Jesus instead replies “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
See, the one thing pretty much all Jews agreed on was there one command above all the others. We find it in the book of Deuteronomy: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. It was often the first verse they would memorize as children, and the one verse everyone knew. it was a lot like John 3:16 is for us today. If you were Jewish, you knew this verse.
But Jesus messes with their head here. He says that there is not one greatest commandment – he says that there are two equally great commandments – to love God and to love your neighbor. Loving God is good, Jesus says, but it is equally important to love your neighbor. In fact, they are not just equally important: They are equal – to love your neighbor is to love God. In fact, it is how we love God.
My friend Bart Campolo sums up this passage as “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.”
Some 2000 years later, not much has changed. We still have tests to see who is in and who is out. Sometimes, we stake out claims about God. We say “In order to serve God, I have to exclude this person”. We say “In order to follow Jesus, we have to offend or hurt this person.” But Jesus says that when we do that – when we say this person is outside of love, that this person or that person is not worthy of our love – when we do that, we are not loving our neighbor, and thus we are not loving God.
And for the many times that we do that, may God have mercy on us all.
In the name of the Father, and the Son and The Holy Spirit. Amen.