Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Year A Matthew 22:34-46 The Rev. Denise Vaughn

The Toughest Answer

Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and poet, was known to greet old friends with the question, “What has become clear to you since we last met?” Not the normal kind of question we greet people with but certainly intriguing. Like many of you, I have always assumed that as I got older, I would get wiser then able to answer some of the big questions in life. In some cases that has been true. I have definitely learned that I am happiest when I organize my life around the things that matter most to me---like my faith in God, my family, my vocation. I have also learned that I will not be able to please all of the people all of the time and that integrity is more important than popularity. I have learned that I need to take care of myself to be able to offer service to others and my family, and most importantly, I have learned that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Life is a learning journey and a spiritual journey. What has become clear to you since we last met? I wonder how the Pharisees would answer this question after their encounter with Jesus. One of the ongoing challenges of life, of ministry is…how do we deal with tough questions. By the time the lawyer, a member of the Pharisees, comes to question Jesus, Jesus had already silenced the Sadducees after they came to him with a question about resurrection. In first century Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two Jewish religious groups were rival parties. Therefore, the lawyer, a Pharisee, in questioning Jesus may have been trying to do one of several things. Like the Sadducees, he may have been trying to catch Jesus with a supposedly unanswerable question to show his opposition to Jesus. He may have been trying to prove to the Sadducees and to those who overheard, that the Pharisees are smarter, or he may have been genuinely seeking to discern what the law required of him. What the lawyer heard may have even inspired him to believe that Jesus is indeed able to answer those tough questions, those big questions in life. He may or may not have been sincere but what he asks is at the center of what really matters in life. What is the greatest commandment? As a religious leader, the lawyer would have known that the Hebrew interpretation of Scripture put all the law on equal footing so to presume to rank the laws according to importance was to speak with the authority of God. To ask Jesus what commandment was greatest was to ask Jesus to do something that no one else would do…which is to speak with the authority of God. To which Jesus did, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Just days before his crucifixion, Jesus’ answer places another stumbling block to many of the Jewish religious leaders. This image of a God who loves the “neighbor” as much as God is unsettling. Are they called to love the unclean and rejected and by his answer, Jesus also asserts his own authority as the one who can unite these two commandments and makes his answer a witness to the fact that He is the Messiah now in their presence. After this, no one dared to put Jesus to the test from then on. Yet, we would be missing the point if we were to leave this story now with a feeling of satisfaction that Jesus outwitted again those who set out to trick him because Jesus’ response also invites us to see the truth. It invites us to have our eyes and our hearts opened to a new way of seeing things. This is our invitation to grow and to learn the answer to those big questions, to learn the key and the point of all the Gospels. You see Jesus, instead of choosing a single rule to follow, chooses the motivation behind all of the rules given to us by God: which is love.  Life is to be understood in the light of love. One cannot love God without loving what God loves. There is no love of God that is not at the same time the love of one’s self and one’s neighbor. The commands are inseparable. Our yes to God is a yes to self and others. The whole aim of the law or scriptures Jesus tells us, is to help us to want to orient our entire life toward God because all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments of loving God and neighbor. But loving God and our neighbor is complex and challenging. There are hidden dangers around every corner because sometimes those we love disappoint us or sometimes those we are called to love are flawed. We are all flawed in some way and yet God never stops loving us and Jesus tells us that when God looks at us, God sees channels of grace. God sees lives through which God’s own love can be expressed to the world. But loving each other is far more easily said than done sometimes.  So how do we navigate a life that is to be understood in the light of love? As Christians we believe that understanding or clarity is found in Jesus, in the scriptures, in the sacraments and in prayer. And as Glen Mitchell in the Journey to Generosity insert today says, “Christians who love God and their neighbor have the currency of the baptismal covenant to guide us. In our baptismal covenant we declare our belief in God, Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit. We, with God’s help, declare that we will continue in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, in prayer, in resisting evil, repenting, proclaiming the Good News, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being. Our currency is God’s love.”  The command to love God with one’s entire self, the command to love one another as one’s self, the command to love Jesus is the command to love without limit. And folks we can only hope to love this way by letting the Spirit of God love in us. In our encounters with God’s love in Christ, it becomes very clear to us that the more we know about the mystery of love, the more we need to learn. This is why for all of life we are on a journey, a journey that requires that we continually seek God’s way of navigating a life of love. We have what we need to do this we just need to embrace it and sometimes, as in the case of the lawyer, the questions provide just the right opportunity we need to proclaim the gospel. The answers are the gift of the Spirit and so are the big questions. Our lives and the lives of the world depend upon our willingness to seek the answers and to embrace the mystery of love.