The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
October 27, 2002
Exodus 22:20-26 + 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 + Matthew 22:34-40
We must consider Mark’s earlier use of this story to understand what Matthew may be doing with it. Matthew changes the questioner, because in Mark’s version, it is a scribe who asks the question and is impressed with the response. In Matthew there is no room for this friendly question and the compliments that arise from the conversation. In Matthew, a question asked earlier has dismissed the Sadducees, and these Pharisees have, in a sense, rolled up their sleeves and said: “We’re the “pros” at this. Let’s go after him.” As a contest of wits, it’s a draw. Jesus does not answer the question. They ask for one commandment, he gives them two.
In the end, what we inherit here and what we proclaim today is not about them, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, or Jesus. It is about us, and it is about what is asked of us.
The story of this encounter reveals just how theology and ethics have integrated. When the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel says that Love of God and Love of Neighbor are “like”, he reveals how much the relationship with God (call it “theology”) and the relationship with neighbor (call it “ethics”) have in common. The relationship of the divine creator and created is the stuff of theology, while the relationships between the created is the stuff of ethics. For followers of Jesus, these two relationships integrate into a balanced and focused way of life that is profoundly spiritual and consistently ethical as a consequence of their integration. The inter-relationship of these two commandments is an issue here. To enter into the mind of Jesus on this matter, think for a moment of how he treated the Sabbath Law. Remember how he insisted that human need took precedence over the legal requirement. That is the integration to be found in followers of Jesus. He did not come to replace the law, but to fulfill the law – a fulfillment to be found in the ethical behavior of his followers in their relationship to one another. Love for neighbor teaches us how to love God. Then Jesus goes a step further and radicalizes this love of neighbor to include enemies. It only makes sense to those whose love for God empowers them to imitate the generous, inclusive love God has for all creation.
But the story of this encounter also raises the question of commandments. If a commandment is the requirement or the prohibition of some kind of behavior, then we have to wonder if “love” can really be commanded. At this point, we must deal with the word that carries the idea. “L.O.V.E. in English is not a good tool to communicate what the Sacred Scriptures are revealing as God’s Will or God’s Command. That four letter word is simply inadequate. What is asked of us by God’s command has nothing to do with warm feelings either of gratitude toward God or of affection for others. In fact, the Biblical concept of Love bears little resemblance to romance, affection, and warm feelings of intimacy. It looks more bull-headedness, stubbornness, and unwavering commitment. It isn’t nearly as much fun, and when the Bible speaks of love, rather than violins playing, drums should be pounding.
Commitment, unwavering, immovable, unbending, teeth gritting, jaw set commitment is what this is all about. Nothing else, and commitment can be commanded. And so, commitment to God as a commandment means there will not be any other one, and no created thing nor any created person will take that God’s place before us. Such commitment is observed in obedient behavior and a determined effort to fulfill the will of God, as it is known. Commitment to neighbor, says Jesus, has nothing to do with liking the neighbor, nor with warm and affection feelings. For followers of Jesus Christ, love of neighbor means imitating God – which translated into human behavior means taking the neighbor’s needs seriously. It means seeing the needs of the neighbor as though they were one’s own. Where there is need for Justice, it is not someone else’ responsibility. Where there is hunger, homelessness, loneliness, or any other need, it becomes my need because that is how God sees it.
It is the risen Christ who speaks in this room today revealing as always what God asks of us. It is commitment. It is single hearted, pure intentioned loyalty. When commitment is given without condition, every other relationship is affected. What God takes seriously, we take seriously. What God plans, we plan. What God does, we do: from giving to forgiving, from finding to seeking, from suffering to dying, and from binding up to setting free.
There is reason to rejoice here today and throughout this week because a commandment is given – not as a burden or as a way to limit or restrain us, but to set us free to be ourselves in the image of our creator and to love without limit, without condition, and without end. That is the essence of the covenant we share and renew at this altar: bound to God and to each other we are here in holy communion.