“The Greatest Commandment”

Matthew 22:34-46

October 20, 2002


You have heard it said that we are creatures of habit, but I have another one for you, we are also creatures of complexity.  We are not simple people.  We do not live simple lives.  We have complex issues of work, health, home, and faith.  We also don’t do things the simple way.  Everything has to be complex with us. 

In 21st century language, we call it multi-tasking, which is the unique and many times stressful ability to be doing many things at one time.  We live complex lives.  We juggle being a parent, a spouse, a student, and employee.  We juggle work, school, homework, sports, meetings, and practices.  Often we feel like we are stuck on autopilot just going through the motions with no real control of our lives.  We are definitely creatures of complexity, from how we live our lives, to how we interact with others, from who we are, to even what we have.     

          Take for example my car.  I found out something I didn’t know about my car.  It needs oxygen?  I thought that was only my problem, until my engine check light came on.  So I called the dealership and was told that I could bring it in and they would look at it.  $50.00 dollars later I was told that my car needed oxygen, but they would have to connect my car to their computer so it could talk to the computer in my car to see what was wrong. 

What?  My car needs oxygen, and I need another computer to fix it.  Does that mean there is a light on my dashboard of a bed telling me that my car needs a nap, or a light telling me it needs a Turtle Wax rub down and massage, or a refreshing dip in the gas station car wash.  Can it not be just a little simpler?  Why does everything have to be so complex?  Why do we have to be so complex?

Even when we have the option of keeping something simple, we end up making it more complex, sometimes more than we can possibly manage or imagine.  I did some research about the laws of this country.  The Constitution of the United States started off with only 7 articles and 21 sections that took up only four handwritten pages including signatures!  4 pages!  But to that we added 27 amendments. 

Today, the United States Code, which is all of the laws in this country, fills up around 80 volumes of books, nearly 800,000 pages, and this doesn’t even include the Federal Regulations.  In 1942, the Virginia Code was a single book that had 2800 pages.  Today, the Virginia Code is a 25-volume set of books with 15,000 pages, nearly 20,000 separate laws!  And that is just Virginia!

But, let’s not think for a moment that we are the only ones to take something simple and make it complex.  God gave the Israelites something simple to follow, the Ten Commandments.  Just ten simple rules to follow.  Nothing complex about it.  But were the Israelites content with just ten commandments?  Oh, no. They ended up making 613 separate commandments, 365 negative and 248 positive.  Sounds like a lot doesn’t it?  Try following all those laws in order to be considered faithful and righteous, and you probably thought the original ten was hard enough. 

For the lawyer and the Pharisees there was certainly a complex issue at stake.  The Israelites were under assault from a man who claimed to be God, and who did God-like things.  But this man was a Jew; he should have known better, no one is God, but God.  Yet, he was a man who knew and quoted the Hebrew scripture, who knew the laws and commandments better than any religious leader.

The Pharisees had to put a stop to it, the situation was getting out of control, it was becoming too complex to let it go on much longer.  This man must be stopped and the only why to stop him was to discredit him.  And what better way to discredit Jesus, the Jew, than to ask him such a question, on a complex issue about the greatest commandment, that any answer he gave would spell defeat. 

Yet, even though the question from the lawyer was intended to trap Jesus and give the lawyer and the Pharisees even more ammunition against Jesus, it is a question, in which all of us beg for an answer.  Like the lawyer, we move a little closer, lean forward, and cock our head to the side so we can hear better, waiting for a response. 

It isn’t out of spite or ulterior motives that we want an answer, but out of a sense of desperation and a desire for relief.  We already now Jesus is Lord, we know he teaches with authority, we know his words mean things.  We want an answer as much as the lawyer, because even though we are creatures of complexity, we long for simplicity. 

We want some kind of reassurance that we are doing the right thing, doing what we are supposed to do as Jesus’ disciples.  We want the madness of complexity to stop, to be removed from our lives.  It only distracts us from our faith, our spirituality, our mission. 

We want some comfort and peace of mind that we are not just spinning our wheels trying to multi-task everything we are supposed to do as Christians, and then not doing any of it very well.  So we stand with the lawyer waiting with baited breath for Jesus to answer, for his words to give us the one thing we are to do, the greatest commandment we are to follow, the one thing we can devote ourselves to, the one thing we can give our energy, time, and money to.

But Jesus’ answer isn’t exactly what we expected to hear.  His answer is no different than what we have already known.  Of course we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.  Of course we are to love our neighbor as ourself.  This isn’t something new.  It’s what we have heard over and over again from the law and the prophets, from Jesus and the other New Testament writers. 

“Come on now, Jesus, is there something we have missed?  It has to be more complex than this.  Can it really be this simple?  You know, Jesus, I’ve read a lot in the Bible, from the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the Old Testament, and throughout all of it there are many commands and exhortations…

‘Do not make idols’, ‘repent’, ‘be holy’,

‘sell all your possessions’, ‘give to the poor’, ‘do not be afraid’,

‘feed the people’, ‘live by faith’, ‘be humble’,

‘turn the other check’, ‘do unto others’…. 

Surely there is just one rule, one regulation that is the greatest of all these.” 

So what do we do now?  Do we go away scratching our heads, wondering what we have missed?  Do we go from here today, back out into the world, searching for the hidden meaning behind Jesus’ words, for the message between the lines?  Do we go back to our homes still trapped in our complexity, trapped by the complexity of rules and regulations, trapped by the complexity of the requirements and prohibitions of Holy Scripture?  

Or do we go from here today, not as creatures of complexity, but as creatures of love?  Do we take another look at what it means to live by God’s commandments, and see them not as a hindrance to our freedom but as a source of our freedom?  Do we go from here today and live in the good news of the gospel, that the law was given, not by a heavy handed God, but by a loving and just God who calls us to love God with every ounce of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves?  Do we go from here today with a new insight, with a renewed and transformed understating about what the law is really all about, that the “whole law is about love, not rules, about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk?” (Long, Thomas. Matthew. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 255.)

          What a remarkable and refreshing way to look at all the things we are to do as Christians.  Instead of being caught up in the complexity of rules and regulations, making the law obligations and requirements to follow, by the grace of Jesus Christ, we have been given a new way to approach the law, as way of being, as a loving response to a loving God.

One of the most prominent reformed theologians of the twentieth century was Karl Barth.  Karl Barth was a man who dedicated his entire working life to the pursuit of theological knowledge, a man on par with Martin Luther and John Calvin, a man who wrote 10 volumes on theology called Church Dogmatics, and let me tell you how complex that is. 

Yet, in spite of all that he knew and all that he wrote about theology, when asked what was the most important truth he had learned in his theological study, Karl Barth would answer, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. 

Karl Barth knew one thing, the only thing he needed to know, and the only thing we need to know, that Jesus loves us for the Bible tells us so, and it is the love of God through Jesus Christ, which teaches us what the law is really all about. 

We all know that the word love has been greatly misused and is a terribly complex issue for many of us in our lives, therefore it is important to remember the Biblical understanding of what love is.  Love in the Bible is more than just a sentimental, emotional feeling of affection and gratitude we may have, when we consider all that God has done for us, love is a commitment, a stubborn, unwavering commitment of us toward God.  Because God loves us with the same stubborn, unwavering commitment, we too are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  The love God has for us teaches us how to love God in return, with our whole being, with all our heart, soul, and mind, so that with everything we do and say, with everything we are, we are committed to God fully and completely. 

The law is then the means by which we demonstrate our love, our commitment, our stubborn, unwavering commitment to God.  As Jesus says, this is the first and greatest commandment, but lest we think that this is all we have to do, Jesus reminds us of the second commandment which is rooted in the first, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love each other with the same stubborn, unwavering commitment that we have toward God, and that God has toward them.

To love God is to love our neighbor and to love our neighbor is to love God. 

To follow God’s law, then, is not an act of requirement; it is the act of love.

As you go through the doors of this sanctuary, out into the world again, out into your complex lives, keep this thought in your head at all times: the greatest commandment is to love, it is as simple as that.  Let the rule of love guide you in your lives of faith, let it be the guide by which you follow God’s law, let it be the simple truth that you know and fruit of your faith.  Amen.