March 19, 2017
We love thinking about great things. We debate what is the greatest movie of all time, like The Godfather? Citizen Kane? Shindler’s List? Maybe you have a personal favorite? How about the greatest baseball player of all time? Is it Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Lou Gehrig? We can talk about who was the greatest world leader of the past century, or what was the greatest piece of music ever written. It’s fascinating discussion, even if we don’t necessarily agree on the answers.
Our conversation today is between Jesus and a teacher of the law. This man asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment. In reply, Jesus quoted from the Old Testament. The first part comes from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, where it is written, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
This is what is known as the Shema, that Hebrew families are to teach to their children, talk about during the day and think about before going to sleep. These words are placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes even today, in a container called a mezuzah. Its purpose is so they will think about God every time they come in or go out of their home. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. These words are as important to someone who is Jewish, as much at the Lord’s Prayer is for us. Love God completely, with everything you have. For Jesus to give this answer was to identify with what any good Jew would also say.
“Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Why these four elements of loving God? The heart is considered the source of our emotions and feelings, so loving God involves how we feel. Our soul is our spirit that connects us with God’s Spirit. The mind is our intellect and thoughts, and strength refers to our actions and the work of our bodies. We need not check our minds at the door when we come to faith in God. Use all of these – heart, soul, mind and strength – in expressing your love for God.
Jesus then quoted from Leviticus 19, which instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Value your neighbor’s honor as much as you do your own. Take care of your neighbor’s property as diligently as you do your own. Do what is best for your neighbor in all situations.
Jesus said that everything in the Law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments. Paul affirmed this when he wrote in Romans 13: “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Love God and love one’s neighbor. One might say that this is the Reader’s Digest version of the Bible – God’s word in simplest form.
Time and again Jesus commands us in love. From John 14:16, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In John 15:12, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” Love God more than money or material possessions. Let love be genuine.
The kind of love that exists between God and Jesus is how we are to love others. God wants us to be as one, even as God and Jesus are one. Whom do you love – family, long time friends, your political party, within your community, maybe people who are struggling in some way, from addiction or homelessness or other issues? Does your love for any of these people stem from your love for God? In the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, Jesus describes how God goes seeking for those he loves. When we see a particular group of people needing our care, we want to reach out in love, because that is what Jesus would do.
By the love we experience now, we learn something of the eternal nature of God that we will better understand later. We cannot know the fullness of God’s length and breadth, depth and height now, but it will be ours to grasp in eternity. We grow frustrated at the tension and hatred in our world. We strive towards God’s love, although perfection will elude us. God knows us, however, more fully and more completely than we can ever know God. God loves us perfectly, even if our love in return will be imperfect. Jesus proved his love for us in his death on the cross. By his death we are forgiven; by his life we are given the promise of eternal life.
For each of us here in this church, we have a relationship with one another because we first have a love relationship with the Lord. Do you love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength? Do you wish to live like Jesus did, knowing the depth of God’s love and sharing that love in all your relationships?
There’s a second part to this story, however. Jesus had this conversation with one who was a teacher of the law. You remember them – they were the ones, along with the scribes and Pharisees, that Jesus often had disputes with. But here’s one who seemed a little different. He called Jesus a teacher. He asked his question then praised Jesus’ answer, saying, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love God and neighbor is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus perceived that he answered wisely and told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I have to wonder what Jesus meant when he said this man was not far from the kingdom. Certainly there are times when it is good to be near the mark. In archery, even if you don’t get a bulls eye, you can score points. Same with bowling. Sure a strike is great, but knocking down even one pin will give you a point. Of course, that’s not always the case with other sports. It’s either a basket or it’s not a basket. Get a touchdown or try for a field goal. A baseball is either in or it’s a foul ball, and a runner doesn’t get partial credit for getting around three bases but not back to home plate.
Did Jesus want to be encouraging, because the guy was on the right track? Often the scribes were in opposition to Jesus, but something in this man’s sincerity must have touched Jesus’ heart. Jesus wanted to affirm God’s wisdom in the law and the teacher’s insight that love is more important than sacrifice. You are not far from the Kingdom of God when you try to do what is right, when you believe that God is One and God is good. To love God and one’s neighbor is what God’s will is all about.
So how close is close enough? You can drive in the Indy 500, but if you have car trouble on lap 499 and don’t cross the finish line, being close doesn’t count. Was Jesus challenging him to keep seeking God’s truth because he wasn’t there yet? What did he get right? What was missing for him, and by extension, what do we need to learn?
We don’t know who this teacher of the law was, or what Jesus saw in him that was lacking. Was the law too much in his head and too little in his heart? Did he get caught up in too much duty and too little passion? Too much trying to be holy by his own efforts, and too little depending on God who alone deems us worthy? He may sound like any one of us. We’re close, but then we get distracted, and start majoring in the minors, as the expression goes. We get off focus; we start worrying about unimportant things and neglect what is critical in faith.
This teacher of the law put great emphasis on following God’s law, but there are different motivations behind seeking to do what is right. For instance, I could say, “Feeding bears at Yellowstone is prohibited.” Or I can say, “Do not feed bears; they become too used to humans.” Or I might say, “If you love bears, allow them to maintain their natural feeding habits. The first one states the park ordinance. That’s the law, so follow it. The second one gives a reason why we should comply with what the park desires, but the third one speaks to our love for wild life. Do this out of love.
We are to love God and love our neighbor, but who among us can really do that on our own? We are so human, so flawed, and so liable to mess up. We can never completely fulfill either of these commands, but God does not leave us stuck in the gap between what we are and what we could be. That’s why God sent Jesus – to counter our many acts of wrongdoing with his one perfect act of obedience. His love and his obedience in going to the cross is what gives us grace and forgiveness and life and peace.
Ultimately, we are not saved by following any religious rituals. There are many good reasons for being here in worship, but gaining points for heaven is not one of them. It is Jesus who saves us, not any act on our own. We trust in him and call him savior; we cannot trust in our own efforts.
We have a mission to proclaim that God loves us so much that God was willing to do everything that was required for us to be made friends. God came to us in the person of Jesus. He took our punishment. Jesus died for us, to bring us back to life and give us eternal life. As we have been profoundly loved, so we endeavor to love others as best we can. On our own we can only come close, but with Jesus our savior, we gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven.