Wise Words from a Wild Wonder Worker, VII: It All Hangs on This
Bible Text: Matthew 22:34–40 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. William A. Evertsberg
And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and [a]foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
So which of your children do you love the most? You can’t answer that question without getting into a pile of trouble with somebody, and that’s just the conundrum Jesus faces in this morning’s scripture.
The laws of the Torah were as precious as children to the Jews. They’d scrutinized the five books of the Law in the Hebrew Scriptures with a magnifying glass and decided that there were 613 discrete statutes; 365 were negative proscriptions–“Thou shalt not’s”–and 248 of them were positive prescriptions–“Thou shalt’s”–but they were all equally precious to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.
Which is the greater law: the law that forbids strangers from sneaking into your house and taking your stuff; or the law that forbids people from driving under the influence of alcohol?
Which is the greater law: the law that prevents Bristol Meyers Squibb from marketing drugs that might make your liver fail, or the law that prevents Honda from selling you a car with airbags that might explode on impact? It’s hard to choose, isn’t it?
One day during the last week of Jesus’ life a lawyer asks him, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Now, this lawyer is not Jesus’ friendly defense counsel; Matthew tells us explicitly that this lawyer asks Jesus this question “to test him.” This lawyer is a prosecuting attorney who cross-examines Jesus as a hostile witness. Whatever Jesus says, somebody will take great umbrage.
Once again, they think they’ve got him cornered, as with that question we looked at a couple of weeks ago–“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” But once again, Jesus proves to be as elusive and hard to trap as a wolverine–the wild ones, not the tame ones who play football–sort of–in Ann Arbor.
“Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answers. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer asks for only one greatest commandment, but Jesus gives him two: love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself.
“It all hangs on this,” he says. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” They ask for the single greatest, but he gives them the two greatest, because everybody knows that when you hang a picture on the wall by two nails, it’s not going to go crooked.
Rather than choosing one of the 613 Hebraic laws as precious to the Jews as their own children, he tells us what they all mean when you pile them up into one towering mountain of divine counsel. Bam! There he goes again; he slips their clutches like a diaphanous ghost.
Love God with everything you have and everything you are, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus’ response is neither sophisticated nor original; Jesus is just cribbing from the ancient Scriptures. “Love God above all” comes from the Book of Deuteronomy and “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from the Book of Leviticus. The only original contribution Jesus makes to these simple Sunday School lessons is that he seems to be the first one to put the two disparate commandments together in one place.
Jesus doesn’t come right out and say, but implies, that you can’t love your neighbor unless you love God first, and you don’t really love God at all unless you also love your neighbor. Is that true? More and more people doubt it in today’s world. Some people think they have to choose.
Some people love their neighbor so much, they’ve none left over for God. They find it easier to love the neighbor they can see than the perhaps mythic deity they can’t. I am sympathetic. God seems so unreal, right? God is shy; God is retiring. God is invisible. Most of the time God seems gone. “Heaven gives its glimpses,” says Robert Frost, “Heaven gives its glimpses only to those not in a position to look too close.” Yes?
You can kiss your wife’s lovely cheek. You can embrace your precious child. You can clasp your friend’s reassuring hand. The adamantine facet of a diamond will slice the flesh of your index finger if you press too hard, but God is so soft, God is so shadowy, God is so distant.
But could this be true not because God is so unreal, but because God is too real? Could it be because God is the most real thing in our experience? Could it be because God is real and we are merely shadows and ephemera?
That’s the way the Koran of Islam puts it. Only God’s existence is pure, unmixed, unnecessary, and substantial. All other beings–protozoa, plankton, pine trees, porpoises, platypi, peonies, pine trees, and Presbyterians–borrow their existence from the Creator. We borrow our existence–God’s existence is the Bank of Being we draft from.
Divine worship is not the only way to love God above all. You could love God by taking a walk across the thick, garish, mottled, multi-hued, autumnal carpet that coats every walkway of our fair village just now, and breathe a silent prayer of gratitude to God: “Thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks, Great and Giving God: birth is gift, and life windfall, and just to be here at all is unmerited extravagance.”
Divine worship is not the only way to love God, but it’s a good one. We love God by singing; we love God by praying. We love God by obeying God’s law; we love God by hearing the Word proclaimed; we love God by celebrating the two blessed sacraments: baptism and Eucharist. I hope this hour is not optional for your family. It’s one way of honoring the commandment Jesus thought was the greatest of all. Love God above all. This commandment is to the 613 others what Muhammad Ali is to boxing–The Greatest.
Some people can only love the neighbor and have none left over for God. Some people love God so much they’ve none left over for the flesh and blood they share the planet with. Religion, these folks say, is a private, internal affair between me and my God. Keep politics out of the pulpit; don’t bother me with ethical obligations to people I’ve never met and am not related to by blood or marriage. They don’t give any money to the homeless shelter, much less serve meals there, they don’t hand out used clothing at Night Ministry, and they resent it when the government taxes their hard-earned dollars and gives it to poor people.
But then I remember what C. S. Lewis says: “Your neighbor is God’s creation,” he says. “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. It is immortals we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
You see what Professor Lewis is trying to say, right? We are all of us immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. Rome, the Eternal City, will one day pass away. The United States of America will one day cease to exist. Wind and water will someday grind the Rockies as flat as Kansas. Even the burning stars, five billion years old, some of them, will one day spend their fuel and go dark.
We, on the other hand, are everlasting splendors, and therefore, “Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
When he was a young man, Harvard Sociologist Robert Coles worked in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York, and he remembers one day when he and his fellow hash-slingers were struggling with a wino, a Bowery Bum, an angry, truculent man of about 50 with long gray hair, a scraggly beard, a sinister toothless grin, and bloodshot eyes. Dorothy Day said, “For all we know he might be God himself come here to test us, so let us treat him as an honored guest and look at his face as if it is the most beautiful thing we can imagine.” You see how God-love and neighbor-love go together.
One last thing and then I’ll quit. My friend David is one of my favorite people on earth. He’s a senior at Grand Haven High School on the opposite, western shore of Lake Michigan. David is friendly and charming and gets good grades and, best of all, David laughs at all my jokes, no matter how sad or sorry they are, and they usually are sad and sorry. David has some good jokes himself.
Everybody loves David. It doesn’t hurt that he’s blond and blue-eyed and 6’4″ tall. He plays goalie on the Grand Haven High School water polo team, so he has the chiseled physique of someone who spends hours in the pool. His body is like an upside-down triangle; broad at the shoulders and tapered at the waist. You just want to hate him.
Earlier this month, David’s classmates voted him onto the Homecoming Court, but sadly, they did not crown him Homecoming King. As it turns out, a scheming senior named Sydney Watson wrested the crown from David and other deserving seniors by waging a campaign for two of her friends.
With an aggressive vote-getting campaign that would shame the Republican and Democratic parties in this election year, she convinced her classmates to vote for Bradley Langemaat as Homecoming King and Brigid Marcinkus as Homecoming Queen. Sydney Watson stole the Homecoming crowns from the kids who really deserved it.
Sydney Watson, you see, has been working with special education kids since she was a child, all four years at Grand Haven High. Bradley, this year’s King, has cerebral palsy; he gets around in a wheelchair, and talks with the labored speech of that malady; you can barely understand him. Brigid, the new queen, has Down’s Syndrome. She is very beautiful and very smart, but not in any conventional way.
It was the oddest Homecoming in recent memory. And the best. You should have seen the tears of joy and pride on the face of Bradley’s father, so proud of his son, the Homecoming King.
And as for Sydney Watson, the scheming senior who engineered this fiasco? She is a beautiful blond who looks like a Homecoming Queen herself. She’s off to college next year. Can you guess what she wants to study? She wants to be a special education teacher.
I have no idea what Sydney Watson’s religious convictions are, but I do know that she learned something from Jesus–maybe by intention, or maybe by accident–and got at least half of the greatest commandment right: love your neighbor as yourself. Just half of the greatest. But it’s a great start.
Robert Frost, “A Passing Glimpse,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969), p. 248.
The Koran’s phrase ‘unborrowed existence’ is mentioned by Kimberly C. Patton in her article “He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs,” in Harvard Theological Review, vol. 93, Part IV, 2000, 430-431.
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1949), pp. 17-19.
Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), p. 67.Jessica McMaster, “A homecoming to remember in Grand Haven,” Fox News 17, October 3, 2014: http://fox17online.com/2014/10/03/a-homecoming-to-remember-in-grand-haven/ .