Scripture: Matthew 22:34-46
A number. Small number? Big number? I guess that is a determination based on context.
If it is the graduating class of your high school, you went to a big high school.
If it is the bill of the service you had on your brakes, in some instances, you got off easy.
If 613 is the number of inches that your boat measures, you have a dandy yacht of 51 feet. That’ cruising.
613 is just a few calories fewer than can be eaten in a Macdonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese Deluxe.
613. It’s all relative.
In our Gospel lesson the number 613 is representing the entire commandment system of Jewish life. We know there are 10 commandments for we have all heard the story of the giving of these commandments to Moses and the Sinai Covenant between Yahweh and Israel. These were the “thou shalt nots” that the Children of Israel received after the exodus as an agreement of how to be in covenant with God and the community.
Over time, these commandments were expanded to number 613 as all aspects of Jewish life were regulated in order to insure health, safety and other important facets of their existence.
These laws covered, when categorically sorted and classified, such life concerns and passages as relating to God, the Torah, brotherhood and sisterhood, the poor and unfortunate, gentiles (non-Jews), marriage, divorce and family, sexuality, the seasons, business diet, court, property, feasts – and these categories represent only about 300 of the rules and laws.
Imagine how exhausting it would have been to attempt to live by and follow these commandments. Yet, devote Jews worked hard and faithfully to do just that.
But again – how consuming and exhausting that must have been. And why would a loving God stipulate so many orders and directives to the people whom God loved.
One way of understanding these commandments would be to look closely at the bubble wrap that cocooned the beautiful vase you purchased. You opened the box with delight and expectation, only to find a wrapping of bumpy plastic that is inches thick.
With anticipation, you begin to unroll the length of bubble wrap, turning the package carefully as the layers slough off and you come to the vase. A vase that is perfectly preserved and now in your hands because of the support of the bubble wrap. Such was the reason for most of these commandments to the Jews.
For the most part, we can understand these 613 laws which God used to insured and protected the Jews. That is how much God loved them.
And now, in our account in Matthew, we find the Pharisees again, taking shots at Jesus. They engage him with a question. Their point is not to see if Jesus had an answer; they just want to get Jesus in trouble. They challenged Jesus to tell them which of the commandments is the greatest.
What a daunting task for Jesus. So many to choose from. In fact, 613 from which he could construct an answer.
This question to Jesus by the Pharisees' was not so simple. How could anyone, even a great teacher like Jesus, dive into the commandments and pick the single greatest commandment of all?
Haw, they whispered. Our scheme is impossible! He will fail. And with that they poised the not-so-innocent question: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" (We can imagine the other Pharisees standing around, nudging each other, and whispering, "Oh man. Let's see him answer that one if he thinks he's so smart!")
And what was Jesus’ response? He gave them a simple answer that stunned them and left them speechless.
Jesus takes them back, way back, into the ancient tradition of Hebrew law. He goes into Exodus and Leviticus, and answers with conviction "'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.”
Jesus nailed it. So profound and almost magical in its simplicity. “Love God.” That alone would have been a majestic response. But he has a second, slightly different addition to his answer. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Boom. Love God and love your neighbor. The one two punch. The he concludes, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
The computations are changed. Jesus tells them they must not focus on 613 commandments, not 10 commandments, but two - two great commandments that hold in place the entire teaching of the Old Testament. It's the last time the Pharisees dared to challenge Jesus; from then on, they fast-tracked the plot to do Jesus in.
Let’s allow the Pharisees off the hook for a moment and think about why this brilliant response from Jesus is so profound.
It is because Christ’s answer comes with a huge rub between being so simple! - yet so hard. What Jesus tells us is simple to say, but so very hard to do.
It's hard enough to love God, who is perfect; so how can Jesus expect us to love our neighbor, who is sinful and flawed, damaged many times - just as we all are. And then Jesus goes on to say, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Talk about impossible.
One commentator likened this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees by referencing the great Russian author Dostoyevsky. She writes, “He tells of a woman, an evangelist, who traveled around Russia telling people about the love of God. She was captured by God's love for her, and on a mission to tell others about Jesus. But she had a problem: she could never be in the same room with another person for very long without becoming annoyed and disgusted. Others were always doing something that offended her: one woman had a shrill, ear-piercing laugh, and that drove the evangelist up the wall; then there was a man who slurped his soup, and she just couldn't tolerate that; there was a fellow whose obnoxious snoring turned her off. She wanted to tell them all about Jesus, but she couldn't get next to them, couldn't love them as they were. They just drove her crazy!
“Dostoyevsky's comment was simply this: "Although she loved God in general, she couldn't stand human beings in particular."
One of the characters in the Peanuts comic strip once said it this way: "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand!"
In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, we feel a gentle confidence in this answer of loving God. But in reality, how easy is it to love God? Not the Sunday School love of God that we age-appropriately communicate to children in singing Jesus loves me, but a robust, living, active love, full of depth and dimension and mystery and even confusion. It sounds almost quaint when we hear Jesus telling the Pharisees as his response - love God with our whole being, all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. But in reality, when we think about how this will have an impact on our day, we have to ask, “In truth, how simple is that?”
Well, in truth, it is not simple at all. It is extremely difficult to love God completely. Unconditional love is being described here, and, in my opinion, it is beyond the reach of we who are so human, and frail, and damaged, and impacted by these strange times. I have heard preachers state that we can have unconditional love for God and others. I personally have trouble even attempting to imagine such a great and majestic love extending from me to God and my world.
But I do believe that this is the love that God embraces for us. I believe that God loves us - period. No commentary. No explanation. No expectations. No rating scale or check off boxes. God loves us. Completely. It is a staggering concept.
And in this example of God’s love for us, I believe we find the hope and impetus to work at the goal of loving God and others completely.
It is a relationship of example. God loves us and shows us how to love others in that example. We can access times and places where we have felt God’s adoration for us.
I have heard our Colorado Kids express this after some time alone with God in the wilderness of the Rockies. It was more than a high altitude feeling. More than sitting on top of the world and being supposedly closer to God just by being elevated at 13,000 feet. It is a reflection of stripping the world away enough that God’s presence is seen and felt and experienced. Whenever God touches us like that, we hold these times precious. It is affirming and empowering. It is majestic.
And then, Jesus says, use the power of a second commandment to extend that felt, experienced, real love to others. Take ourselves out of the action for a change and merge in the glories of these two great relationships. The God who loves us and sustains, supports and encourages us, then asks us to do the same with others.
Let’s get political – or, at least as political as we get in our senior high GROUP meetings. Coming up on the 2016 election, two of our GROUP lads, both of whom were politically active and yet opponents, began sharing their conservative and progressive musings in application to the discussions. They were actually quite thoughtful in their positions, well versed in how they saw issues, and would often turn our discussion to some reflection or commentary of the topics of the day. Sometimes they would get agitated or even a bit hot under the collar. They would debate and point out strong facts, interpretations and opinions to their arguments.
Initially, the other kids became nervous, shocked and very, very quiet as the two young men went at it. I am just wicked enough that I would let it go for a bit. It made for a great meeting.
What was telling about these mingled spiritual and political interchanges was that they always managed to keep the politics relevant to our discussions. And, they were always, and I mean always, civil and respectful.
Although I do admit that I was a little concerned when we wrapped up an especially energetic evening and one of the young men asked the other if they were still on to go to an archery range later in the week. Oops. Double take!
The point? They both found meaning in life from their close relationships with God. They both were intricately built for serving others and attended our GROUP work camps all thought high school. They both were could not breath if they were not helping and loving and respecting others. They modeled for us at GROUP the essence of working to love God with mind, body and strength, as well as allowing that love to propel them to engage in all that was wrong in the world. Youthful idealism? I don’t think so. It was God’s unconditional love that they modeled their life after.
It sounds so easy – and in reality, it is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of our Christian identity.
And in both responses from Jesus concerning the Greatest Commandment, the core is love. Which may be why Martin Luther King Jr. determined, "I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Mother Teresa said, "I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, 'How many good things have you done in your life?' rather he will ask, 'How much love did you put into what you did?"
Thomas Merton develops this love thinking even more, saying, "The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them."
A perfect summation come to us from Jesus in John 13:34-35. I guess after everything was said and done, Jesus felt a 614th commandment was appropriate, so he added one. He says to each of us here today and over all of time, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
So simple – yet so hard. Have at it Federated! Continue to worship, lead and give example through the love of God displayed to each of us in Christ Jesus. Amen.