a sermon, based on Matthew 22.34-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017
From the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem on that occasion we annually commemorate on Palm Sunday, he has been embroiled in one fight after another with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, chief priests, elders, and scribes, all, through serious questioning and subterfuge, seeking to discredit him. They have challenged his authority to preach and teach in God’s Name and to act as a prophet, driving the usurious money changers and sellers of animals from the temple. Jesus, in turn, has confounded them with parables that expose their duplicity and, in one stunningly scathing declaration, beginning, “Woe to you,” condemning the unrighteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Our gospel passage depicts the last gasp challenge of Jesus’ adversaries before being silenced, daring to ask no more questions. A testy lawyer proposes a test, “What is the greatest commandment?” A tough, trick question. By this time, the written code of God’s Law numbered 613 commandments; 365 “thou shalt nots” and 248 “thou shalts.” The lawyer, in effect, dared Jesus to choose wrongly and thus shame himself in the face of the people. Jesus, always standing on a higher plane, summarizes all of the laws; first and foremost, “Love God.” then adding a necessary corollary for all who dwell in time and space, that is, in relationship with others, “Love neighbor.”
Now, we, who breathe the ether of life in this world, often equate love with our emotions; how we feel. Even more, our degree of loving often is based on the scale – and our often unconscious determinations – of our likes and dislikes. Still more, given our fundamental human self-interest, our recognition of love often is rooted in our awareness of the benefits we derive.
I know or think I know these things based upon years of pastoral ministry listening to others speak of their lives and loves and a longer number of years coming to know myself. To wit, I love Pontheolla because of who I have become through her. I love fine food and wine because they satisfy not only my hunger, but also my palate. I love good writing because it speaks to my intellectual curiosity and stretches my imagination.
Ah, but the love of which Jesus speaks, indeed, the love that Jesus is and demonstrates is never inwardly self-focused, but always outwardly other-focused on God and neighbor. And Jesus’ love does not emanate from emotion, but rather is a work of the will, the power to choose and to choose constantly. For this reason, Jesus’ love calls us, he calls us to love with our hearts, souls, and minds; all that we are, for it takes all that we are to be constant.
Jesus calls us to act benevolently, first toward God who first loves us, then toward all whom God hath created; yes, our families, friends, and acquaintances, those within our associations of birth and choice, those we like and the like-minded with whom we agree and strangers and those we don’t like and with whom we disagree, even those who have harmed us who we might call “enemy.”
So, let’s admit it. Jesus’ love is impossible for us. For how can we, sensate creatures, who know most (all?) of what we know through our physical senses, love God who is intangible Spirit? And how can we love our neighbors as ourselves, as we wish to be loved, for our neighbors, even our nearest and dearest, being other than we, at some point, are bound to do unto us as we would not desire, and so, too, we toward them?
Ah, here is the genius of Jesus in linking these two commandments. Our love of God is made manifest, real, tangible, visible in our love of neighbor, and our love of neighbor whom we can see is to love God whom we cannot see.
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)
A lawyer questions Jesus (Un avocat interroge Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot
 Matthew 21.1-11
 Matthew 22.23-33
 Matthew 22.15-22
 Matthew 21.23
 Matthew 21.12-13
 Matthew 21.28-32. the Parable of the Two Sons; Matthew 21.33-45, the Parable of the Vineyard
 Matthew 23.1-36