Jesus and the Most Important Commandment

For the last few weeks, we have been hearing a series of stories in which various folks have been asking Jesus a bunch of questions. Different people from different groups or schools of thought, kinda like different denominations of the day, were asking the questions. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, perhaps others. These are folks who one author has called Jesus’ competitors. 

 Some of the questions seem designed to trap him in some sort of crime, or to turn public opinion against him. Some questions seem more like the questioners are just interested in trying to figure out who this guy is and what he believes. And then we get to today’s question. Along come the Pharisees, perhaps a little excited that Jesus just put the Sadducees in their place on a question that they agree with Jesus about, and they ask him,  “What is the greatest commandment?”

 I am currently reading a ridiculously massive book on Jesus’ followers and competitors. And about 300 pages are devoted to trying to understand what we historically know about the various Jewish groups at the time: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Essenes, etc. I am not quite done, but so far, it is a lot of words that basically show us that we don’t know a whole lot. We really don’t know that much. But we do know a few things. And one of the things that we do know, is that the central question of the day for all the different camps was how the people should understand Mosaic Law, the Torah, the teachings from what we now know as the first five books of the Bible. 

 And in the Gospel reading today, Jesus goes beyond their precise question of what commandment is the most important and lets his hearers know exactly what he thinks about this central issue of how we should interpret the Law as a whole, and not just the Law, but the prophets as well. He starts by quoting two commandments. Quoting Deuteronomy 6, he says: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And quoting Leviticus 19, our first reading for today, he says: Love your neighbor as yourself. And then going beyond the question they asked, he continues by saying: On these two hang all the law and the prophets. He has gone beyond their question of what is the greatest, by going on to say that these two are the interpretative lens through which we understand the rest of it. 

 Our interpretation, our understanding of the Law, has to be understood through the lens of love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Every religious judgment, every ethical decision, every moral choice, must be filtered through the lens of love. As our Presiding Bishop likes to put it, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets. Earlier, Matthew reports Jesus saying that he came not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law. But that statement raised as many questions as it answered, and here Jesus starts answering those questions. The Law that Jesus is fulfilling is the law of love. Everything we believe and everything we do has to be seen, understood, envisioned, imagined, through the lens of love. 

 As followers of Jesus, the implications of this teaching are enormous and far reaching for our lives. It touches on decisions we make at our work, home, and church. It affects our relationships - how we treat our family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. It impacts how we spend our time and how we spend our money. It should determine who we are as a church, growing evermore in love as we work to see the world through this lens. 

 Each of these areas and many more could be a sermon on their own. And each will be. We talk about love around here a lot and we will continue to do so.  But it’s pledge campaign season, so we need to talk about the implications of love on the decisions we make around money. I know we don’t like to talk about money. It causes all kinds of fears and anxieties within many of us. We might have learned that money is evil, or at least dirty. (As a side note, Scripture does not teach that money is the root of all evil, it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil). But money is a part of who we are. It is necessary for survival in our modern world. It is one way that we store our labor and helps us exchange goods and services. Money is a part of the world in which we live. Money is not intrinsically evil, it is in how we use it that money gains and morality or immorality. The question for us as followers of Jesus Christ who taught us to look at the world and make decisions through the lens of love, is how do we use money to foster this love of God and love of neighbor? How do we make sure our financial stewardship decisions are grounded in love? 

 I want to offer you two ways today. One way we do that is using some of our money to foster loving community. Last week, at the 8am service, Kim Davaz gave a moving statement on why she chooses St. Mary’s. And if you missed it, I highly encourage you to go to our website or podcast or Facebook page and take the three minutes it takes to listen to her words. Or you can be like me and even though you were here, you could go listen to it multiple times, because it really is so moving. Kim powerfully and personally expressed the love found within this community and her own story of experiencing that love here in St. Mary’s. It is a love I see every week in parishioners reaching out to each other, supporting each other, caring for each other. And like that cup that runneth over from psalm 23, the love here runneth over, expanding beyond the internal community, reaching out into the wider community, welcoming, serving, caring for the stranger outside of these walls, treating the folks that we meet with dignity and respect, markers of true love. And that community of love is only possible because folks have been generous with their financial resources over the years to build up and foster this community. I know it is more than just money that makes this a loving community, but it is a necessary component. We need to be generous with our financial resources to build up and foster this community for the coming year and for the future. 

 That is the first. Here is the second. The other way to use our money to grow in love is by using the act of giving as a spiritual practice. Whereas that first way was based on the outcome of the giving - the love that is built through the use of those financial gifts -  this way of understanding the relationship between money and Jesus’ teaching on love is based on the intrinsic act of giving. Jesus teaches us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be, too. The order there is deliberate: where our treasure is, there our heart will follow. And so, through the act of giving our treasure, through seeing pledging as a spiritual practice of giving to God, our heart, our love, will follow as well, helping us profoundly deepen our love of God. 

 That has certainly been my case. When I first learned about giving as a spiritual practice to help move my heart more toward God, to help me fall more deeply in love with the Holy One, I was skeptical, but intrigued. And so, I tried it, giving more and more each year, and with each passing year, I found my heart following, just as Jesus had taught, and I found my anxieties and worries and fears around money melting away. There is still work to be done, I still have some anxieties around money, but it is so much better, and I will continue to work on it though generous giving.

 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets. And on these two hang our decisions and our very being as Christians. This love of God and love of neighbor as self (which implies a love of self) is the lens through which we, as ones who follow Jesus Christ, have to see, understand, envision, and imagine this world. Love God. Love your neighbor. Give generously. Amen.