The Greatest

A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 25 – Year A – 26 October 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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 greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’”?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

                                                                                                               – Matthew 22:34-46

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Pharisees were well-intentioned, decent people. But their zealous love of God, and their religious devotion to God’s law, made them blind to their own self-righteousness. While the Pharisees eagerly looked for the messianic age to come, they could not see the Messiah in their midst. Instead, they looked past Jesus of Nazareth, straining to behold their own kind of messiah – one who would bless their studious keeping of the law, and usher in an age of peace, when all would obey God and uphold the standards of righteousness and justice. The Pharisees were unaware that their efforts to be good, and to promote observance of the law, were actually reflecting their self-love as they “policed” their society, chastising those who they deemed to be careless, indifferent, or disobedient. Their fastidious vigilance sought to root out bad influences in their community, but they were clueless that their own arrogance was one of them.

Jesus taught openly and authoritatively about many things, including the law. His view that the spirit of the law exceeds the letter of the law deeply troubled the Pharisees. That teaching was at loggerheads with their staunch legalism, and they quickly became his bitter nemesis. Hearing him say, “You have heard that it was said . . . , but I say to . . .” made them particularly angry. To the Pharisees, it was clear that Jesus was playing fast and loose with the law revealed by God to Moses. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus seemed to be displacing Moses as the lawgiver. He would cite well-known laws of the Torah, and freely expand and reinterpret them, making their effect much broader and inclusive than the literal sense. Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law, and not to abolish it. But the Pharisees did not believe him.

Here is an example of how Jesus treated the law. He said:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? . . . You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[1]

With a few commanding words, Jesus took something that was relatively easy to do – that is, to treat one’s own kind with love, and to treat those who are different, or alien, as enemies – and revolutionized the meaning and impact of love. Equal treatment of all becomes the standard of perfection, because that’s how God treats everyone, said Jesus. If you’re devoted to perfecting observance of God’s law, he insisted, then you must aim to act as God acts.

The impact of such teachings as this made Jesus public enemy number one for the Pharisees. According to them no Messiah would change or challenge the law in this way. Therefore they regarded him as a rogue pretender to the messianic role. They saw him as the bad apple that would spoil the whole bushel. Jesus must be removed, one way or another, from their midst. His teachings, they thought, were dangerous and disruptive to the social fabric of a people dedicated to God’s law.

So the hostile encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees were many. Our lesson today features the finale – one last attempt by the Pharisees to discredit or destroy his influence on others. This encounter features an expert in the law, a Torah[2] scholar, among them. His approach to Jesus was direct and dangerous. The lawyer was aware that Jesus had bested everyone else that had tested him in Jerusalem. But he was sure he could get him with a knock out punch. He asked him the question that was on everyone’s mind, and that was of special interest to contemporary rabbis. “Teacher,” he said, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The lawyer probably smiled smugly as he said this. The question was a very difficult one to answer. There were 613 commandments in the law: 248 positive (“do’s”) and 365 negative (“don’t’s”). The challenge was plain. Which one of these is the greatest? Jesus’ knowledge of the law, as well as his power of discernment, was being tested within the precincts of the Temple, the holiest place in Judea. The assumption on the lawyer’s part was that Jesus was in a no-win situation; he was about to prevail by making him look incompetent. However, he had badly underestimated his quarry.

Jesus calmly replied, saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus’ answer was a summary of the law. He drew the two commandments from the Torah – the first and greatest commandment is from Deuteronomy 6:5; and the second, the one like unto the first, he said, is from Leviticus 19:18. They were not original to Jesus, but were rather revelations to the people of God through Moses. Jesus selected these two commandments, and offered this opinion: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  In his view, every other commandment of the law, and the inspired words of all the prophets as well, depend on these commandments: to love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The “double command” to love has been identified with Jesus ever since. His choice of this paring marked Jesus’ entrance into a rabbinical discussion that was prevalent in the 1st century. By that time, rabbis were narrowing the focus of the law to one or two key commandments. Many had stressed the primacy of the first commandment. Jewish males were expected twice daily to recite it as a part of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”[3] Moreover, there is evidence that the command to love our neighbor was being cited alongside the command to love God without reservation.[4]

Nevertheless, these two commandments – taken directly from the Jewish Torah – have been revered by Christians as though Jesus coined them. Why? It is because even though he neither spoke them first, nor was the first to combine them, Jesus “understood that combination with a unique and radical seriousness.”[5] His ethic of love was based on the love of God; in fact, Jesus believed that the two commandments were interconnected. That means that there “can be no love of God that does not express itself in love of neighbor. Conversely, there is no authentic love of neighbor that does not spring from love of God, for otherwise it is a refined, subtle form of self-love.”[6]

The intertwining of the love commandments is new and unique to Jesus. That is why the pairing can be described as the ethics of Jesus. His double command has become the capsule summary of what is expected of those who would follow him. It is an early form of what we in the Episcopal Church call the Baptismal Covenant.

In part, ours asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”[7] We too affirm that love of God and neighbor are interdependent.

It is important to note that in Matthew’s gospel, the lawyer does not argue this point with Jesus. His citing of the double commandments to love stands without dispute. Jesus then asks the Pharisees a question about the Messiah; it is one that they cannot answer because they are blind to his presence. Thereafter “none dared ask him any more questions.”

That’s Matthew’s version of the incident. Luke frames differently, having the lawyer ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus does not answer, but instead pitches the question back at the lawyer, saying (in effect), “ You’re the legal expert; what do you think the law says?” And it is the lawyer, not Jesus, who quotes the double command to love. Jesus then says, “Right. Do this and you will live.”

That prompts the red-faced lawyer to retort, “But who is my neighbor?” Everyone who was listening knew that under the law, the neighbor was one’s fellow Jew; the requirement to love was restricted to the Jewish community only. There was no duty to love anyone outside that world. Jesus once again does not answer the test of his knowledge. Rather, he tells a parable, the one that we know as the “Good Samaritan.”[8]

The story invites the lawyer to take the perspective of a Jewish man who is the victim of brutal muggers. He is hurt, robbed, and left for dead. In short he is in need of love from his neighbors, and two come by – a priest, and a Levite – but do not help him. They are professional holy men, who love God and know the law; however, they fail to love their neighbor. A third man enters the scene. He is a Samaritan, one of the most detested and avoided people in their world. He has a dubious pedigree, and is treated as an untouchable. Under the law, the Samaritan is not a neighbor; he is an enemy. The surprise is that he stops, has compassion, and gives the help needed despite the fact that he is not a fellow Jew. Jesus asks the lawyer a question, “Who do you think was the neighbor in this story?” The lawyer knew; because he had watched the others pass him by. So he said, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

Like his reinterpretation of the law in Matthew, Jesus in Luke’s gospel blows open the short-sightedness, and hypocrisy, of mere legalism. He has redefined “neighbor” as a verb instead of a narrowly conceived noun. The question, Who is my neighbor? Now becomes, “To whom am I a neighbor?” Unless you’re showing compassion, you’re not truly a neighbor. Moreover, the neighborhood now has no boundaries; it’s everywhere, and the potential recipients of neighboring love are all people, not just our friends and members of our community. That is big.

Jesus’ command, “Go and do likewise,” is not a simple requirement that is easily fulfilled. Of course, that’s the point. We have the law and the prophets, and it is imperative that we do what they command us to do. If we could satisfy the spirit of the law, we should. Then the world would be at peace and concord with God and one another. Then we would need no Messiah. We would have built the kingdom of God ourselves. And all would be complete.

But that isn’t the case. We know what we ought to do, but we do not do it. We know what we ought not to do, but that is what we do. This is the human dilemma. We can understand the value and the potential of loving God and our neighbor. But all too often we do not have within us what it takes to do what the double command to love requires. Reinhold Niebuhr was right, “Love is the impossible possibility.” Though we can see it, love exceeds our grasp.

One of my teachers said that when Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do likewise,” he might as well have been telling the man how to get to England from Virginia. “Go toward the east, and keep walking until you reach the seacoast,” he said. “The water you see is the Atlantic Ocean. Now dive in and swim toward the northeast until you encounter land. That may or may not be England, but you will have done your best.” In other words, even though the goal is clear to us, we do not have the will, the strength, or the endurance to achieve it. As the man from Maine reportedly told a visitor asking for complicated directions to a remote place in his state, “You can’t get there from here.”

We know that these – the greatest — of the law’s commandments that Jesus regards as the greatest are integral to the Christian life. Everything else we stand for depends on them. And yet we are impeded somewhere between belief and action. So what does it take to bridge the gap? How can we obey the double commandment to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself?

First we need to get over ourself, admit our failure to do what real love requires of us, and take seriously our reliance on God’s grace. As we affirm our trust and hope in Jesus, our Lord, it is important that we mean what we say when we confess of our shortcomings:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.[9]

Telling the truth, and taking Christ’s outstretched hand, is a good beginning.

Then it is essential that we accept our helplessness when it comes to fulfilling what God requires on our own terms and with out own resources. Try as we may, and try as our forbears the Pharisees did, neither we, nor they, can save ourselves. Coming to grips with that enables us to stop pretending and to stand open-handed before God. That kind of humility happens when we look in the mirror and know, in the words of the old Prayerbook, that “there is no health in us.” Then we can accept the only help that matters, the help of God’s grace.

It works like this. Accepting grace, God’s free gift of mercy and power, is comparable to receiving assistance to breathe. When a person’s own respiratory system has failed, he is not able to breathe and sustain life on his own. The patient needs help in the form of an artificial respirator. However, that device cannot be helpful until the patient stops trying to breathe on his own, and trusts that the respirator will do it for him. When the resistance stops, and acceptance starts, respiration begins. And a life will have been saved. So it is with God’s grace; thus we pray:

Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God, until my heart is pure, until with Thee I will one will, to do and to endure.[10]

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let it be so. Amen.


[1] Matthew 5:43-48.

[2] The Torah (which in Hebrew means, “teaching” or “instruction”), is also known as the Pentateuch. By tradition it is attributed to Moses, and consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

[4] The Testimony of the Twelve Patriarchs

[5] That insight was advanced by the New Testament scholar Gunter Bornkamm.

[6] See Reginald H. Fuller, “The Double Command of Love: A Test Case for the Criteria of Authenticity,” in Essays on the Love Command, ed. and trans. Reginald H. Fuller et al. (Philadelphia:Fortress, 1978) 41-56.

[7] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 305.

[8] Luke 10:29-37.

[9] The confession is contained in the Holy Eucharist, Rite II, p. 359, in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

[10] “Breathe on me, Breath of God,” is a hymn written by Edwin Hatch in 1878, and set to the tune, Trentham.