Call to Worship/Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (NRSV)
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Lord, let this be. Show us how. Let your love be the lens that lets us see, the quest that takes us where we go, the power that enlivens our lives, the light that illumines the path of your truth, and the very grace that saves us. O God, in this time of worship, fill us with your love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 22:34-46 (NRSV)
When the Pharisees heard that he 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.
Message/The Heart of the Matter
For the Church to be the people of the love of God, we certainly find ourselves fighting over many things. For example, we go back to the year 1054. This is the year of what is known as “The Great Schism,” the great divide or division between western Christianity and eastern Christianity that produced the Roman Catholic Church and eastern orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople and the whole eastern church, and the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated the pope and the whole western church. The issue that led to this was a theological question concerning internal relationships within the godhead. More specifically, does the Holy Spirit proceed from the
Father and the Son—that was the position of the western church–or from the Father only—that was the position of the eastern church. And when you think about this, you almost want to say, “How on earth could you ever know about internal relations within the godhead?”
Another example. For this one, we go to the 1600’s and the reformed church in the Netherlands. In the early part of that century, the Dutch Reform Church almost split over the issue of supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism. The issue in this case was did God decide to send a messiah before the fall—because God knew the fall would happen—or did God decide to send a messiah only after the fall because only then was the messiah necessary. Supralapsarians argued that God knew the fall would happen so the decision to send a messiah had already been made before the fall. Infralapsarians argued the opposite. Again, getting our beliefs right mattered and one wants to say, “How could you know that?”
But this one comes from the late 1800’s in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War. A small-town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities and there for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina and told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water.
Jesus has come into Jerusalem like a king, cleansed the temple, and had his authority challenged by the chief priests and the elders. He responds by telling them that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will make it into God’s kingdom before they do. Alluding to a well-known passage about a vineyard from Isaiah 5, Jesus calls the Jerusalem elite wicked tenants because they have been more preoccupied with propping themselves up than caring for God’s people. He then uses a story of a wedding banquet to describe these religious elite as bullies who had originally been invited but “did not deserve to come.”
Then comes the often-quoted passage that portrays the competition between Jesus and the Roman Emperor. “Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The Pharisees have gone and teamed up with some unlikely allies, the Herodians, to challenge Jesus about his position when it comes to paying the poll tax. It is important to note that the divisions within the first-century Jewish community had varied responses to the rule of the Romans. The Pharisaic option emphasized the importance of Torah obedience and ritual purity as the means to restoring Israel to its original glory. The Sadducees and the Herodians saw that the best way to respond to Roman power was through collaboration rather than opposition. The Essenes responded by withdrawing altogether and moving out into the periphery and starting their own society based on Torah observance. In their eyes, the Temple and priesthood were corrupt. The Zealots, mostly in agreement with the Pharisees, responded by initiating armed rebellion, declaring that “God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.” This was deeply important when it came to the challenge brought to Jesus about paying taxes.
Around the time of Jesus’ birth, a census was issued by the Romans, and for the first time, Roman soldiers came in to enforce a tax on the people in the Judean region. In response, a Galilean named Judas arose and initiated a revolt. Even though they were quickly struck down by the Romans, the undercurrents of this unrest continued throughout the time of Jesus’ ministry. When the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., there was a backlog of imperial taxes to pay, and a number of coins for “liberated”
Jerusalem had been minted. Thus, the question as to whether to pay taxes or not was not just one among many issues; it represented the major political problem for the people during the time of Jesus’ ministry. It was essentially the question: “Whose side are you on?”
Jesus’ famous answer—”Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”—was not his way of just shrugging off the question as if it were irrelevant. Instead, the notion of giving to God what belongs to God was deeply political. By asking his hearers whose image was on the coin, he was calling them to reconsider where they should expect to find God’s image. And here is where the important question about the Great Commandment comes in. Jesus’ political response created a revolution. Like the Zealots, it
was a direct affront to the politics of Rome. As the context here in Matthew makes clear, it was also an affront to the religious authorities.
On the surface, the question “Which is the greatest commandment?” doesn’t seem like much of a test. But the question about which of the 613 commandments in the Law was the greatest was hotly debated at the time. Some held that they were equally important; others that a gradation was needed in practical application in daily life. Jesus’ answer juxtaposes Deuteronomy 6:5, the great Jewish prayer, the Shema, with Leviticus 19:18. Verse forty adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The mention of the “law and the prophets” takes us back to 5:17-20, where Jesus introduces the purpose of his teaching ministry as “to fulfill the law and the prophets.” And back to the Sermon on the Mount (7:12), where Jesus teaches “the Golden Rule,” followed by “this is the law and the prophets.”
New Testament scholar Douglas Hare points out that “In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us. But Deuteronomy 6:5 is not talking about warm feelings but stubborn, unwavering commitment. To love the neighbor (including our enemies) does not mean to feel affection for them, but to imitate God in taking their needs seriously.”
Jesus, having answered the Greatest Commandment question, seizes the initiative, and becomes the test giver. He addresses a theological question to the Pharisees with their nationalistic hope of a future Davidic Messiah. He asks whose son the Messiah is supposed to be. They answer “David’s.” Jesus then asks why David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, addressed the Messiah as Lord when he wrote Psalm 110:1. If David uses such a title of respect and distance for this Messiah, how could the Messiah be simply David’s son? The passage ends on an ominous note. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” When dialogue stops, relationship is over. In this story, when dialogue with the teacher ends, plans for his death begin.
Early 20th Century African American poet Countee Cullen spent the summer of his eighth year in Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly after he arrived, he noticed a little white boy staring at him. Countee smiled, but the little boy did not smile back. Instead, he stuck out his tongue and called him a hurtful, racial slur. Cullen later wrote a poem that included his recollection of the summer when he was eight. In it, he says this: “I saw the whole of Baltimore from May until September. Of everything that happened there that’s all I can remember.”
The white child likely soon forgot the episode. And he probably never was aware of the pain he inflicted on the young stranger. But the truth is… everything counts. EVERYTHING. Everything we do and everything we say. Everything helps or hurts; everything adds to or takes away from someone else.
Educator and writer Leo Buscaglia put it like this: “The majority of us lead quiet, unheralded lives as we pass through this world. There will most likely be no tickertape parades for us, or monuments created in our honor. But that does not lessen our possible impact, for there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our encouragement, who will need our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give. Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. It’s overwhelming to consider the continuous opportunities there are to make our love felt.”
Henri Nouwen wisely offers: “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Frederick Buechner: “The longest or the shortest journey to be travelled is the
eighteen inches between the head and the heart. It seems to me the goal is to
shorten the trip.”
Prayers of the People
Merciful Jesus, you said that: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ For when our hearts have been focused on the vanities of this life and we have loved you less than we love the things of this world, forgive us Lord.
You said as well, Gracious One, that:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul.’ For when we have pursed a selfish happiness instead of seeking to please you by taking more seriously your commandments and your laws, forgive us Lord.
You said, as well, O Christ, that: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind and all your strength.’ For when we have focused our time and attention on our burdens and worries, when we have failed to seek your wisdom and turn to you for your strength and
support, forgive us Lord.
You have said as well, O God, that ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ For when we have failed to love our brothers and sisters; particularly when we have neglected the poor and the strangers among us and for when we have treated others as less than ourselves, forgive us Lord.
Lord God, Christ Jesus, Holy Spirit, we thank you for your mercy and love. You make new all who turn to you. We bless you and thank you for your faithfulness to your people and for your care for the world. Today we pray not only that we might be a people who love as you have shown us how to love. We pray as well for the people and the nations around us, that they may know you and your healing and saving power in their lives. We hold before you, O God, and ask your blessing upon each person and each situation that you bring now to our hearts ______. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Holy and Compassionate God: We thank you for hearing us, and for answering us. Give us eyes to see you in our midst, ears to hear your words of challenge and of encouragement, hearts to welcome you, and hands and feet to serve you and walk humbly with you, trusting in your great mercy and power as it has been revealed to us in and through Christ Jesus, your Son and our Lord, our brother, and our friend—who taught us to pray with one voice:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
John of the Cross, 16th century: “In the evening, we will be judged on love.”
Hear this: the Lord our God is the one and only Lord.
Therefore go out into the world and love the Lord your God
with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love others as you love yourself.
And may God give you justice and freedom;
May Christ Jesus set you free for love;
and may the Holy Spirit go where you go and protect you on your way.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.