Sermon

Matthew 22:34-40

Loving God and One Another

By Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Some years ago the school where our children were attending put on the musical play – “Fiddler on the Roof.” The play is set in an impoverished Russian village, Anatevka, populated largely by Jewish families, at a time when Russia was ruled by the Tsar. The people of the village were of simple faith and lived close to the land. They heard little news of the outside world and their lives were governed strictly by their age-old traditions.

As the curtain opens for the first act, the attention of the audience is drawn to the roof of a house on the stage. A violin begins a haunting tune and the shadow of a fiddler, violin tucked under his chin, is seen playing and dancing gaily on the roof.

The lights come on the stage and the first person we meet is Tevye the dairy farmer. His opening words go something like this. “A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy no?… You might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck … It isn’t easy! … How can we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word. Tradition! Because of our tradition we have kept our balance for years … Because of our tradition everyone knows who he is and what God expects of him…. Tradition! Tradition! Without our tradition our life would be as shaky as… as … as a fiddler on the roof!”

Like Tevye, the Pharisees were concerned with tradition. Like Tevye, the Pharisees knew that without Israel’s traditions life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. Like Tevye, they knew the importance of knowing who we are and what God expects of us.

The Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him a theological question. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (v. 36).  The Pharisees asked Jesus attempting to trick him with a theological question. Jesus answered by quoting the Old Testament and the tradition that the Pharisees respected so much. He said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (vv. 37-39).

There is nothing new in Jesus’ answer. This is not something original. In Jewish writings long before Jesus’ time, these two commandments summarised the whole of the law. In fact Luke’s Gospel attributes this summary not to Jesus but to the Jewish lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life (Luke 10:26-27). Jesus asked him,

“What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Every Pharisee, every Jew — even Tevye the dairy farmer in the village of Anatevka — knew those words. These words are the essence, the beginning and the ending of the Jewish piety. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  These words were to be recalled in the morning and in the evening. They were to be taught to the children. And they were recited just before the moment of death.

“A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 39), Jesus continued. Jesus went to the heart of the Pharisees’ tradition — and his own. He quoted the Law in Leviticus dealing with right conduct toward the neighbour. He went on, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (v. 40).

The Jews had been out to trap Jesus. First, the Pharisees and the Herodians had a go with a question whether taxes should be paid to the Emperor or not. A question to get Jesus to condemn himself with his own answer.

Then the Sadducees try out a tricky question on Jesus about a woman who marries seven times. Which husband will she have when the dead will be raised to life? Again a question to trick Jesus because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.

And now the Pharisees test Jesus again to try and find out where he stands in regard to the traditional faith, the faith of the fathers. And in his reply, we find that Jesus had a great respect for tradition. He goes to the very heart of the Jewish faith and quotes passages of the Old Testament. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we hear that Jesus hasn’t come to do away with Israel’s faith. We hear him say, “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill.  For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Jesus has great respect for the traditional faith, but not necessarily the traditional interpretation of the Pharisees.

The Jewish idea of responsibility when it comes to who is to be loved goes like this. Everyone was to love God, that was compulsory. But everyone else was graded as to how much love they were to be given. There were those people to whom it was a responsibility to show love. Those on the outer circles of the community, like outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, Gentiles, Samaritans etc, some were to be loved less, or others were owed no love whatsoever. The Pharisees had established many laws to help people in their observance of this command. These laws told people whom they were to love, and whom they could ignore.

By saying that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbour, this gives a new slant to the traditional interpretation. To love God that was clear enough but to also say to love one another in the same breath puts both of these commands on an equal footing. One is not more important than the other. To love God is to love my neighbour and to truly love my neighbour is to love God. In fact, we can’t make any sense out of Jesus’ radical command to love our enemies unless we first recognise the love that God has for us and loves us in such a radical way even though we are his enemies because of sin.

The love of God and the love of our neighbour are inseparable. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbour. Essentially the entire law of God can be boiled down to two simple commandments: Love God with your whole being; and love whomever God puts next to you as you love yourself.

The late Henry Hamann said in his book on Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus does not separate love for God from love for man, since the latter flows from the former, and since without the latter the former is impossible”.*

Before we go any further we need to understand what Jesus means here when he uses the word love. That little four letter word “love” is used in many contexts. We talk about loving our dog, loving strawberries and ice-cream, or loving a member of the opposite gender. When we use the word love like that we are expressing our affection and have warm feelings for whatever it is that we are loving. Because we associate the word “love” with affection it’s no wonder that we have difficulty loving those people who annoy us, those who have hurt us, and those who don’t deserve to be loved.

When the Bible talks about love it primarily means a love that keeps on loving, it means commitment. We may have warm feelings of gratitude to God when we consider all that he has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Jesus is demanding of us. It is stubborn, unwavering commitment. It follows then that to love one another, including our enemies, doesn’t mean we must feel affection for them, rather it means a commitment on our part to take their needs seriously, just as God committed himself to taking our needs seriously by sending his Son into this world. You see this in marriages where because of the aging process one partner has become physically incapacitated, difficult to live with, very demanding, and yet the other partner keeps on caring and putting up with it all. That’s coming close to the biblical idea of love. It’s that commitment even though it isn’t deserved. It’s that stubborn, unwavering commitment to the other person’s needs often at a great sacrifice to him/herself. That’s where many marriages go wrong. The couple say they are in love – they have warm feelings for each but not the commitment. When the warm feelings fade so does their marriage.

This kind of love doesn’t come naturally. It is true that this kind of love comes from God, but putting it into practice is something we have to work on. Love – commitment – is a deliberate action of the will. To love means deliberately to turn toward another person and their needs, to give away something of ourselves to someone else without thinking of what we will get in return. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15:25-37) we see an example of a man loving his enemy, committing his money, time and energy to seeing to the needs of the man lying in the gutter. He stopped to help and to hang with the consequences. All he could see was someone in need. This kind of love/commitment is self-sacrificing. It is putting the other person first, whether it is God or our neighbour.

In all honesty, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this kind of love has been in short supply in our lives. In fact, if we could love perfectly then there would be no more sin in our world. If we loved perfectly, if we were able to be truly committed to other people, then there would be no more violence, or war, what we say and do would only be gentle, kind and caring.

Because this is not the case Jesus came to pay for our lovelessness. He showed us what true love is. His love touched the dumb, the deaf, the diseased, the disabled. His love warned, wept and washed dirty feet. His love told of a shepherd searching for lost sheep, a Father rushing out to embrace and kiss his lost son as he welcomed him home. His love turned the other cheek, and willingly walked that extra mile. His love carried a cross — and died upon it! His love welcomed each of us into God’s family, forgiving our sin in the water of our Baptism. Because of Jesus you are perfect saints in the eyes of God. Eternal life is yours in Christ. Forgiveness of sins is yours. The perfect love of God is yours.

We no longer have to love; we get to love.
We don’t love in order to get to heaven; we love because heaven is already ours in Christ.
We don’t love in order to win God’s favour; we love because we already have God’s favour in Christ.
We don’t love so that God will love us; we love because God has loved us in Christ with the greatest love we will ever know, the crucified love of Jesus.

Jesus came to make us more loving. What form this loving takes is not important, but what is important is that it does take place. When you fail, remember Jesus loves you, and let his love shine through you into the lives of the people around you.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2005 Pastor Vince Gerhardy.  Used by permission.