Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.
First &Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
October 25, 2020
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Everything else is commentary or at best a footnote. That’s how two readers describe the centrality of today’s text. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. If that’s the book, if that’s the primary text for the introductory course in our life with Jesus, Jesus 101, then everything else is commentary. I like footnotes. They’re interesting, partly because they often bring up gems that give the text a lively kind of authenticity. But before we think about commentary, lively or otherwise, we need to get the required text in hand. And today that’s Matthew.
This story is not original to Matthew. Matthew’s narrator probably cribbed it from Mark and then adapted it. In Mark’s version, it isn’t a controversy. Mark has it that the lawyer who questions Jesus also praises him, saying that he has answered not only correctly but with deep understanding — an opponent is, in a sense, converted in Mark’s gospel. And Jesus says of the lawyer, in Mark, that he is not far from the rule of God. It’s a rare moment of generosity and amity between Jesus and his opponents. Matthew, however, has placed this text in a series of controversy stories. And the potential for real hostility is high. Basically, Jesus’ opponents have thrown everything at him but the kitchen sink . . . but don’t hold your breath, if they can get it, they’ll throw it!
Matthew makes their intent clear. The verb at the beginning of the text, to gather in the NRSV, echoes Psalm 2, specifically where the psalmist says that the nations plot together. For Matthew, this teaching emerges in a context of conspiracy — this is not Sunday school. This is politics. So they send in the lawyers, that is, the kitchen sink. In this context, a lawyer functions as a professional theologian. This is a person who makes a living through the exhaustive study of the law. Maybe we would think of the Supreme Court justices. It’s a high-stakes conflict, maybe dispute between originalists and constructionists.
So it’s more than a theoretical position on reading a text. The lawyer wants to draw Jesus into an abstract debate about the law. Some said the laws of the Torah were all equal in weight. Even the most insignificant law was equal in weight to the greatest of the laws. You can’t pick and choose. Others were more likely to view the laws of God as a potluck. Some you like, some you don’t. If Jesus says one law is most important, the lawyer can come back and say, “But why do you ignore X, Y, and Z?” And if Jesus says all laws are equally important, he has really said nothing at all, at least not at a practical level.
Maybe that’s the intent here, to get Jesus into a debate that leads nowhere but to more debate. But Jesus’ answer to the question leads us to think differently. First, because he answers the question. How often have we seen that? Jesus usually questions the questioner. But today, Jesus answers the question. Well, almost. The lawyer asks Jesus to name the most important law. And Jesus cites two laws, not one. One was well-known, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul” — this is about as close to a creed as the Jewish religion ever comes. And then Jesus cites a second one like it (according to our translation) or literally, in the Greek, “the same” as it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two, Jesus says, hang all the law and all the prophets. It’s a summary of everything Jesus has been about in Matthew. Jesus names what’ is known in our theological tradition as the rule of double-love. You can’t love God and hate your neighbor and you can’t love your neighbor while hating God. For people of faith, they are almost one and the same. It’s a center. Or maybe a primary lens for reading the story of Jesus and our own story as a people of faith. Jesus leaves a lot for us to work out on our own. This is a summary. It’s not commentary. Which brings us to our lives, our lives as commentary on this text. Maybe we would like to see what sort of footnote or interesting commentary we would create in response to this summary.
Perhaps initially it feels too familiar to be exciting or lively. Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself — we approve of it, but is this really as easy as it sounds? Think about it. Just last week, Jesus said render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which belongs to God. A theologian reading this text would say, with reason, that everything belongs to God. The testimony of scripture is unambiguous on that. If you give to God what belongs to God, and then you go to Caesar, if you have fulfilled your first duty to God, then you’re not going to have anything to give to Caesar.
In other words, it’s impossible. Not going to happen.
And that’s not the only time. Jesus says a feeling of anger is equivalent to committing murder. Lust the same as adultery. Jesus tells the rich young man to give everything he’s got to the poor. And we say, yes, Jesus, I’m going to get right on that! Jesus says it is hard for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of heaven, harder than it is for a camel to squeeze through an eye of a needle. Jesus tells the truth like a political cartoonist tells the truth. Imagine the idea of a camel threading its bulbous, bad-breath, misshapen body through the eye of a needle! It’s amusing right up until we discover that Jesus has a knack for threading the camel through the eye of the needle.
Jesus takes the impossible and makes it possible.
This command is big. Almost too big. It sounds almost like a cliché, something so commonplace that it doesn’t need an explanation. One strategy for refreshing our experience of this command we get comes from Rabbi Hillel the Elder: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbors. That is the whole law, and all else is commentary” (Quoted in Mann, Matthew: Translation and Commentary in the Anchor Bible Series).
Do not engage in activities that you would hate if they were done to you. Let’s think about the things we hate . . .Do you like it when people gossip about you? We all know it happens; we engage in it. But if it is our loss and our disappointment, our life that has collapsed, our happiness, is it hateful to us when people talk about us as if we were dead, as if our injury and grief were at best entertainment as they drink their martinis? Or we use people . . . but do you want to be used? Or do you find that hateful? Diners sitting in a restaurant. Six feet between tables, okay. Waitstaff wears masks. Okay. But not the diners. Okay. But then they call the waiter over, smiling, as they order their steak and fries, not six feet distant from the waiter. If the waiter says, “Please wear your mask when I’m taking your order” – they complain to management, cut tips. What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. Would you want your children to live on a street where the police are as bad as the gangs and sometimes worse? You would hate that for your own children and you would hate it so much, you would be in the streets demanding change.
But maybe we don’t hate nearly enough for others that which we would find hateful for ourselves. . . .
Something to think about. Do I hate sin and injustice enough? In the end, I think Jesus gives us something that I would prefer: Do unto others that which would you have done unto you. Love God. Love your neighbors as yourself. Active love. Audrey West, a theologian, says that the command of this text, love God, is as big as the cosmos and as precise as the eye of a needle, and they are one and the same thing. She tells about a video she stumbled on and believes it might be a clue for how this text might be meaningful to us. It was a video on archery. The video begins by showing a young person gently throwing a wooden six-inch disk into the air. In a blink of an eye, the archer draws his homemade long bow and releases the arrow into the sky. A high-speed camera catches the image of the arrow hitting the center of the wooden disk, shattering it into pieces. The next thing thrown into the air is a two-and-a-half-inch plastic ball. Again, the arrow finds its target, almost its very center.
Three more times the archer’s arrow hits ever-smaller targets: a golf-ball, a life-saver candy, and finally an aspirin tablet. In each case, the arrow hits its target. The show’s host asks the archer, “How do you do it? How do you do it consistently and also with the target always getting smaller?”
The archer replies: “The center of an aspirin is exactly the same size as the center of a beach ball. Always aim for the center” (Audrey West, “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century (7 October 2020).
Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul; love your neighbor as yourself. The act of love is our center. What that looks in any given life, will differ. In Matthew, Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, befriends the friendless. It doesn’t matter what the world throws at Jesus, Jesus loves us anyway. And Jesus loves us precisely and exactly. Because love is the center. Love makes us precisely human. So our vocation then is to practice seeing the center in different situations. Practice loving ourselves as whole people rather than as the things institutions and financial systems or class structures would make us into.
Practice loving our neighbor. How? What would you hate for yourself? Resist that in the world. What would you desire for yourself? Fight for that for your neighbor.
I call my mom a couple of times a week. Mostly just catching up. She lives in a city, not unlike Baltimore. And mostly it’s all good. But she had an upsetting experience about a week ago. She told me about it. She was in the kitchen, looking through the window at their backyard. She heard what she thought sounded like thunder. She was about to go ask my stepdad if he’d heard about any bad weather coming in. And that’s when a tall man came into the back door of the house, which was unlocked. She said his face was covered with, as she put it, face paintings — the kind you get in prison. He was in his twenties. Young men, my mom explained, are dangerous. And he seemed to be playing to type, acting wild and unpredictable, falling on the floor a couple of times, like maybe he was on drugs. Or maybe in the middle of a mental health crisis. He said someone was after him. He said he wanted to commit suicide. That frightened mom. But as she was telling me the story, it became apparent that my mom knew all this because she had been talking with him, trying to understand him in a very fraught moment, where her own security was very much a felt need. In fact, my stepdad, once he realized what was going on, went into the backyard to see if he could find whoever was after him, while my mom and this young person continued to talk in the house. My stepdad came back and reported that there wasn’t anyone. They tried to reassure this young person that he was safe.
Mom did call 911. She told him she had too, almost apologetically. Eventually, he ran out the front door and disappeared. But something mom said struck me. She said, “I had to call the police. He could have been an intruder.” He could have been? I wanted to say, “Mom, he was an intruder!” But I think my mom had it right. He was a human being. He was scared. She was scared. He could have been an intruder. But I think mom got it right.
Practice loving God. Love your neighbor. Repeat. Then do it again.
You may not be perfect, you may not be the master archer — but perhaps, by God’s grace and in different ways, we can be lively, or even lovely footnotes, providing commentary on the God who so loves the world. Reading the lively commentary of our lives with Jesus, you might even want to get to know Emmanuel, the God who is with us, even in the footnotes.