Matthew 22:34-40 – The Hardest Commandment

Previously, in Matthew . . .

Jesus has been facing challenge after challenge

  • He has “cleansed the temple” (21:1-17)
  • Three times faced challenges to his authority to do such a thing (21:23-22:14)
  • Resulting in three parables – 2 sons, wicked tenants, and a wedding banquet
  • The Pharisees directly challenge him on the matter of taxes (22:15)
  • The Sadducees challenge him on the resurrection – and they don’t even believe in resurrection! (22:23)
  • Today, the Pharisees come back at him with another challenge

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[b40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

We hear Jesus talk about love and we picture the smiling, gentle man, with children on his lap. Realize this: Jesus speaks his most famous words on love in the middle of a fight for his life – seriously!

Sometimes, it is possible to be “both formidable and loving in the cause of righteousness.” You can love someone and still contend with them. Jesus is passionate about his cause while loving his enemies. Right in the middle of a verbal fight for his life, Jesus says, “The most important thing is love God with your whole self.” They knew that! They’d been reciting that verse their whole life.

He is showing that kind of total commitment by taking the fight right to them; he’s not backing down! In this battle all three sides – Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees – have the same amount of passion for the same God! They all believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have all staked their lives on that belief. We give the Pharisees and Sadducees a hard time, but, in this debate, all three sides are on the same team!

Sound familiar? Has our passion put us at odds with brothers and sisters of the faith? Every day? Every election cycle, at least!

Here’s how it happens in my life, occasionally:

I make a comment on a Facebook post. That leads to one of those virtual, semi-anonymous, from-a-safe-distance arguments. I try to stop before it gets to far gone, but sometimes I don’t. I “leave” the argument feeling animosity for the person – until I see them in person. When we see one another, we remember our friendship, our common faith, and the bond that brought us together.

When we love something – or someone – so strongly, our passions can divide us. But, our presence with one another unites us. It doesn’t erase the differences, but presence can drown out the shouting of division. When the tide of these divisive times leads us to arguments with friends, and we are tempted to break that bond, remember:

In the same situation, Jesus was still able to challenge his opponent to love.

Instead of cursing the Pharisee, who dogged his every step with challenge and argument (and, make no mistake, Jesus knew what their plan was!), Jesus never let his passion override his compassion.

What can we learn?

We learn that love means passion and commitment. We overuse and misuse the word, “love”. Love is as much “tiger” as “teddy bear.” When Jesus speaks of love, he speaks of commitment. When he shows love, it is often strong and fierce like a tiger. Rarely, if ever, does the Bible describe love as a kind of “teddy bear” affection. Even the love of a shepherd for his vulnerable sheep is a love of fierce protection and commitment.

The first half of Jesus’ response is a challenge to give total commitment to God. The Pharisees knew it as the “Shema,” which meant “Hear.” It was the centerpiece of their prayer life. Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This verse was the “John 3:16” of their day. By quoting it, Jesus reminds them that they are all called to the same total commitment of faith. Heart, soul, and might! They have known that all along.

Loving God with total commitment sometimes takes us to fierce places. We defend those places like a tiger!

Jesus’ second statement reminds us to take that ferocity and use it – not against others, but for others. Being called to “love your neighbor as yourself” means we take our neighbor’s needs seriously. It means we fight for them, not against them! No matter the position, no matter the difference, love calls us to defend and protect rather than demean and reject.

If we are totally committed to God – with heart, soul, and mind – we are totally committed to one another – with heart, soul, and mind.

Marcus Borg, in a sermon on this passage, puts it this way: being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves.

We are not immediately such a person, we become that person. Change happens, even for those who already believe. This kind of transformation occurs in the book, The Same Kind of Different as Me,  by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (now turned into a movie).

Ron is a wealthy art dealer, and a believer in Christ. While he travels with work, his wife, Deborah, volunteers at a local homeless shelter. Ron occasionally drops by and volunteers a little. At the shelter, Deborah meets Denver, an older black man. Denver grew up in a Louisiana share-cropper’s family. After leaving home, he drifts from place to place, ending up in Deborah’s homeless shelter in Texas.

By the time he and Deborah meet, Denver is a bitter man; the Christian faith of his childhood has not weathered well. He later confesses she is the first white woman he has ever held a meaningful conversation with. Their friendship strengthens, and Denver’s faith is awakened. When Deborah receives a cancer diagnosis, Denver prays for her.

When Ron first met Denver, he was wary. He judged the homeless man as dangerous and stayed away. Denver viewed Ron as just another rich, white guy volunteering out of pity. As Ron watched the friendship between his wife and Denver, he learned that Denver often had more depth and wisdom than he did. As both men watch Deborah suffer and eventually die, a deep and supportive friendship forms.

Two men transformed. They were already the kind of person who could love God. They became the kind of person who could love what God loves.

It didn’t happen all at once. It didn’t happen without total commitment.

When Jesus says it, it sounds so simple – Love God. Love neighbor. And, really, when you think about it, it is simple. Love God? Check! Love neighbor? Of course!

But, when the “rubber hits the road,” if our total commitments lead us into conflict (which they seem bent on doing!), it’s the hardest commandment of all. That’s why it takes a heart, soul, and mind commitment to God, for whom all things are possible.

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