Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Greatest Commandment

October 25, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 22:34-40[1]

Peace to this house.

I saw a bumper sticker once that read: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ I’m pretty sure he meant ‘Don’t kill them.’”  Yes, love God, and love your neighbor, but Jesus went even further, saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[2]

Here we have Jesus being challenged again.  The lawyer asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”[3]  I mean, if you had to pick just one, any one, whatever comes to mind.

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.’”[4]

There it is, the Law and the Prophets summed up in three sentences, two simple points.  Love God. Love your neighbor.  Jesus didn’t make this up, it comes from scripture, from the Laws of Moses that he would have learned in his youth.  If the first one wasn’t clear from the Ten Commandments given in Exodus, it is clarified in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”[5]

The command to love your neighbor, though implied in the Ten Commandments, is made explicit in the Torah, in Leviticus 19:18. There we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Rabbi Hillel was a Jewish religious leader, sage and scholar associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who died right around the time of Jesus’ birth. Hillel summed up Jewish law in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”[6]

Okay, that’s easy enough.  My neighbors are fellow Israelites, right?  I can love them; they’re just like me!  As long as I can hate my enemies, I’m fine.  That’s in the scriptures too, isn’t it?  Sure enough, in Psalm 139 it says: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”[7]  So, yeah, that’s in there.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard enough.  But Jesus gives an even greater challenge: “Love your enemies.”[8]  While the Psalms are nice poetry, the Law is in the Torah. Jesus goes back to the source.  Leviticus 19:34 reads: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”[9]  From there, Jesus expands the Law.  Love the alien.  Love the stranger.  Love your enemy.  Remember that parable in Luke’s Gospel of the “Good Samaritan”?  Jesus tells us that the enemies of the Israelites, the aliens that resided with them – the Samaritans – are precisely the ones that should count as neighbors.

Whoa!  Love my neighbor and my enemy?  That’s a lot to ask.  I mean, really, my enemies?  Those guys are out to get me!  I suppose if we were stuck in an elevator, I could tolerate them, but love them?  That’s fine for Jesus, he’s like, God, or the Son of God, or something.  He can do anything.  I’m just an average guy.

Well, who was Jesus?  We believe that Jesus was the Son of God, surely, but Jesus was also a human being like the rest of us.  He lived, breathed, ate, slept, had friends, laughed, cried, sang, prayed, and learned the scriptures.  Only a few people knew about him before he was baptized and began to preach and teach.  He was a person with an above-average understanding of God.  He understood, in a way that most of us struggle with, how much God truly loves us, all of us, and what that means.  And he tried to show us that we are, all of us, children of God.

God created the world, and everything, and everyone in it.  God loves all of us, for we are all God’s children.  God created all of us, all human beings, in the image of God.  There is a part of God in each of us, in you, in me, in our neighbors, and even in our enemies.  When we look in the face of an enemy, Jesus tells us that what we should see is not what divides us, not the hatred that burns between us, but rather what connects us, what binds us.  What we should see in the face of our enemy is the image of God, a human being that is loved by God just as much as we are loved by God.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God's image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.[10]

Dr. King reminds us that loving our enemy can begin with simply recognizing the good in that person.  Well, maybe “simply” isn’t the right term.  Finding the good in a person you hate, or who hates you, takes effort, practice, discipline.  This is hard work.  Following Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy.  But the rewards are heavenly!

One more thing. If all of this weren’t hard enough, Jesus goes even a step further.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[11]  Oh, come on!  How can we be perfect like God?  What is “perfect” anyway?

In this context, to be perfect means to be complete, whole, to have integrity.  The New Interpreter’s Bible says that, in this text, to be perfect means “to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in devotion to… God.”[12]  The NIB goes on to say that this perfection is not the abstract ideal of being untouched by the material world, but that, for Matthew, “it is precisely amid the relativities and ambiguities of concrete action in this world, which is God’s creation…, that the disciple is called to be perfect.”[13]  In the rough and tumble world, with its dangers, trials, and tribulations, we are called to follow God with integrity, with our whole being.

Perhaps if we look back at Leviticus again, we can get a grasp on this where this concept of perfection may have come from.  There, the word that is used to describe service and devotion to God is holiness.  Leviticus 19:2 reads: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”[14]  A note in my Study Bible explains that being “holy” was a description of the nature of God and the goal of humanity.  We are not, and can never be, God; but we are commanded to emulate the holiness of God, to imitate the love of God for all people, including aliens, and our enemies. [15]

Holiness, perfection, this is the goal we strive for.  It is not, I think, a matter of attaining divine perfection or holiness so much as seeking it, living toward it, responding to God’s call to love everyone, even our enemies, and all of creation.

In order to love our enemies, we must learn to see things from the perspective of others.  We must try to understand where the other person is coming from, what matters to them, what their hopes and dreams are.  Other people do not see the world in the same way that we do, though there is much that we each share in common with another.  Your deepest concerns and wildest dreams are not mine.  I can only know your world through what you tell me – so loving is linked to listening, searching for understanding, and being ready to step outside of myself and stand in your shoes.

Jesus asks us to love as God loves.  Treat others better than we have been treated.  Love those who seem unlovable.  Jesus wants us to commit stunning acts of kindness and indiscriminate generosity.  Let us join in the struggle to transform the world with the only power that can – the power of love.

[1] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 5:44-45.

[3] Matthew 22:36.

[4] Matthew 22:37-39.

[5] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[6] Note on Galatians 5:14 in The HarperCollins Study Bible, Copyright © 1993 by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, p. 2190.

[7] Psalm 139:21-22.

[8] Matthew 5:44.

[9] Leviticus 19:34.

[10] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957.  Article online. Available from:

[11] Matthew 5:48.

[12] NIB, 196.

[13] NIB, 195-196.

[14] Leviticus 19:2.

[15] Note on Leviticus 19:1-37 in The HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 182.