Sermon for Sunday, October 25th, 2020, the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 1; Exodus 22:21-27; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
The Text: Matthew 22:34-40
The Topic: The wholehearted love of God and love for one’s neighbor go hand in glove.
When animal trainers go into a cage of lions, they carry whips and pistols. But invariably they also carry a stool. According to William H. Hinson, the stool is the most important tool.
The trainer holds the stool by the back and thrusts the legs toward the face of the wild animal. The animal tries to focus on all four legs at once. In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis overwhelms the animal. It becomes tame, weak, and disabled because its attention is fragmented.
Likewise, the stress of having too much to do can paralyze us.
— John Maxwell, Developing the Leader within You (Nelson, 1993)
Our Lord Jesus Christ did not multiply the number of laws Christians have to obey but simplified all moral law into the two greatest commandments: wholehearted love of God and love for one’s neighbor. Both these commandments were part of the Jewish Law and popularly known, but our Lord drew attention to them as the most important laws God has given man.
“Love is the grand secret of true obedience to God,” wrote Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900). Genuine love for God enables Christians to follow the only God with purity of heart and mind, for it is the sincere love of God which motivates us to do God’s will daily in thought, word and deed. Bishop Ryle’s comment that love is the secret of true obedience to God implies that true obedience to God by itself is impossible without love. Without love, the greatest acts of obedience to God mean nothing. St. Paul made this point when he wrote:
“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:3, KJV
A whole-hearted love of God was the ideal of all the great saints throughout the history of the Church, and remains the ideal of all who aspire to lead saintly lives. When Jesus walked the earth, there were people who expressed their love to him with extravagance, such as Mary, sister of Martha, who used a pound of costly spikenard ointment to anoint Jesus with, six days before the Passover. Some protested this extravagance as waste, but the Lord commended her for it. So today, the Lord Jesus calls us to love God with an extravagant love, however we show it.
Extravagance of love has been shown in the lives of many saints, including St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), commemorated on October 4th, who renounced his wealth in order to love God and his fellow-man by serving the poor. He founded the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans, but his ideal of strict and absolute poverty could not be maintained, though the order grew rapidly all over Europe. He was known for his devotion to our Lord, for his joy in all suffering and trials, and for his praise. In the “Canticle of the Sun” he wrote, “Most High, omnipotent, good Lord, To thee be ceaseless praise outpoured, and blessing without measure.” Let us not think of God’s love revealed in Christ as a virtue merely to be contemplated, but let us realize that these two commandments came to mankind through Judaism and then through Christianity as a call to perfect obedience.
THE TWO GREATEST COMMANDMENTS: MATTHEW 22:34-40
For us, the most significant part of today’s Gospel Lesson is the Pharisee’s question to Jesus about the greatest commandment in the Jewish Law and Jesus’ reply to it. The Pharisee, who was an expert in the interpretation of the Jewish Law, asked Jesus this question to put him to the test. Whether there was a commandment that was greater than all the others was a question of debate among the Jews in the early first century A.D. But instead of being drawn into debate, our Lord Jesus Christ speaks the truth concerning the greatest commandment in the Law, which was part of the Shema, or Jewish confession of faith: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Such a total focus of all one’s love on God means that one will obey Him at all times. This Jewish Law of complete love for God is now, through the Lord Jesus Christ, given to all Christians as the greatest of all God’s commandments. Now the Lord Jesus was asked only for the greatest, or first, commandment in the Law, but He gives the second most important commandment as well. Why is this? It can only be because the second commandment is so important that it always needs to be quoted and applied wherever the first one is. It is thus with a thoroughly Jewish and Christian understanding that St. John later wrote:
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”
– 1 John 4:20, KJV
By highlighting brotherly, or neighborly, love as the second greatest of all the commandments in the law, the Lord Jesus Christ gave both to the Jews of his time and to all his followers down the ages, the most succinct summary of God’s Law that mankind could ever have received. These two great Commandments put all the Jewish Law in perspective, and provide the foundation for all Jewish and Christian moral commandments.
If one is tempted to think that true religion includes the love of God but excludes the love of man, one grossly misunderstands both Judaism and Christianity. The love of God, if it is really genuine, necessarily includes love of neighbor. On the other hand, if one mistakenly thinks that true religion includes only the love of man, and not of God, one has neither Judaism nor Christianity. If God is excluded, then one has excluded both the Old Testament and the New Testament from one’s religion, as well as the means of grace to obey even the second of the Two Great Commandments.
THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS IN OUR LITURGY OF HOLY COMMUNION
The truth is that the Two Great Commandments are like a plumb line to see if our lives are being built straight. We all fall short of God’s grace and do not measure up to God’s standards.
In our service of Holy Communion, either the Ten Commandments or the Summary of the Law (the Two Great Commandments) is read. They function to remind us both of the basic laws which God requires us to keep and of our sinfulness in not obeying them. With the latter realization comes our awareness of our need for God’s grace and His indwelling Holy Spirit to guide, strengthen and enable us to fulfill His will. Whenever the Summary of the Law is read, it includes Jesus’ words, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Law and the Prophets were the two most well-known written sections of Holy Scripture in the first century A.D. All other commandments in the Law, and all the writings and oracles of the Prophets depend on these two Laws. This profound statement means also that if one aims to obey these two Laws, it follows that one seeks to fulfill all of God’s Law including every prophetic reminder of its requirements.
“God is always first,” one might say, and love for one’s neighbor second. But do we live like this? Many people tend to live instead with themselves first, others second, and God last, or not at all in the picture. Will you be faithful in making the love of God your life’s first priority?