When he arrived, he was asked, “Why did you come to a Sunday school so far away? Why didn’t you go to one of the churches near your home?” He answered simply, “Because I find love here.”
As we think about that story, we need to ask ourselves whether others can say the same about our families and our church, and it is because we all struggle with loving God and loving others. But love is the greatest need of humans and it also the greatest obligation of humans. Let me repeat that: love is the greatest need of humans and it also the greatest obligation of humans.
If you can recall the last couple of Gospel readings – and don’t feel too badly if you don’t, because I find that a hard thing to do myself – but if you do you would recall that Jesus was continuously being opposed by the religious authorities. He was opposed by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, and in last week’s gospel by a group of Jews.
He taught them; “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But they didn’t understand, they didn’t believe. And in today’s gospel Jesus is tested by a scribe. Now, if you aren’t familiar with scribes, they were the persons who were responsible for copying the sacred texts so the next generation would have them available. Scribes were highly educated and were meticulous at their task.
Just to illustrate how meticulous they were: I am sure you have all heard of the Dead Sea scrolls.
It is a collection of documents hidden away by a community known as the Essenes and found by a young boy in the last century. Among the various documents was a copy of Isaiah. This copy of Isaiah turned out to be a thousand years older than any other copy previously known – and – it was almost exact in its wording with those copies we already had. A thousand years of copying and almost no changes.
Such attention to detail would leave the scribe with a pretty good handle on what scripture taught us. So, one of the scribes tests Jesus on the interpretation of Scripture. He asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, and Jesus responds that loving God and others is the greatest commandment.
The scribe was glad that Jesus knew the scriptures so well. Since scribes were considered theologians during Jesus’ time he probably wanted to see if Jesus would leave out any of the important aspects of the Law of Moses. And even though the scribe’s question and response were somewhat sincere, the parallel passage found in Matthew 22:35 reveals that this scribe indeed wanted to test Jesus.
Now, I have spoken of this recently, but during Jesus’ time, Jews had a tendency to do tow things. One, they would add countless rules and regulations and thus expand the Law, but they would also endlessly discuss the essence of the Law. Scholars tell us that the Law or holiness code consists of 613 commandments, out of which 365 of them are negative and 248 of them are positive.
David reduced these 613 commandments to 11 commandments. This is found in Psalm 15:1-5. Then, the prophet Micah, hearing the word of God, reduced them to 3 commandments.
He wrote: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So, the scribe asks Jesus an important question: what is the most important commandment? Jesus answered, “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” First, though, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” which is the basic creed of Judaism. And then He adds the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Going back to the creed: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” These are words recited by Jews once in the morning and once in the evening, and every synagogue service begins with this statement – even today. The statement is the basis for the teaching of monotheism.
I think it is important to note that Jesus is stressing the importance of loving God with our whole being. Four times He uses the phrase ‘all: all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. Our love for God cannot be half-hearted. We have to love God with everything!
Scripture reinforces this notion over and over again. In Luke 14:26 Jesus says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. I must admit that I have met only a handful of people in my life that love God at this level. The disciples knew and loved God to this level – and it allowed them to become martyrs for Jesus’ sake.
I think it is also interesting that we can obey God without loving Him. This is what happens when one tries to follow the letter of the law. But when we truly love God, it naturally leads to obedience. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
And when the scribe asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus gave two. But I contend that the second is not possible without the first.
Here is my thought pattern on this one. If there is NO God then what do we have? Well, we have the universe, what ever that is. We have this lovely blue planet and we have each other. As for us, we live 40, 60 or 80 years, then we die and become food for some other being who will live 40, 60 or 80 years and then die. Without God, we cannot explain why we are here or why this blue ball keeps spinning in the sky. There is no rhyme or reason to anything.
But if we believe in God – and yes I cannot prove His existence, but there is a lot more evidence that He exists than there is that He doesn’t exist. So, if we believe in God then we have to ask, why would God do all this? Out of hate? That doesn’t make any sense at all, does it? No! If God is going to create something He would create it out of love. Therefore, God is the God of love. And we learn what true love is by turning to God in the first place. This is why I say the second command is impossible without the first.
Of course, it is equally true that one cannot love God without loving others.
We are all familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke chapter 10. A lawyer put Jesus to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him what was written in the Law? And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said he had answered correctly.
But then the lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan and then asked; “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” You see, we cannot love God without loving our neighbors.
You can’t fulfill one without fulfilling the other.
Turning to Romans 13:8 we read; “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
In Romans 15:1-2 we learn: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
In Galatians 5:14 we read: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And finally in 1 John 3:14-18 we learn: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
So, what are the implications of these commandments?
- If we truly love God and others, we will be actively engaged in evangelism.
- If we truly love God and others, we will be quick to forgive.
- If we truly love God and others, we will help those in need.
- If we truly love God and others, we will bear other’s burdens.
Now, I entitled this sermon The Oft Forgotten Commandment and I don’t think it would take much imagination to figure out why I did that. Going back to the book of Genesis, we find that evil existed in the world prior to the introduction of humankind. In fact, I have often wondered what Satan would have done if God never introduced humankind.
Anyway, between Satan and our own shortcomings it has often been difficult to see love being the guiding principle of our lives.
If one takes the time to examine the Old Testament in any depth they would find a cyclical pattern and the pattern is this: God’s people honor him for a short while, but then fall way. When they fall away they get into trouble, that is they sin. God punishes them for their sins and he does this in a number of ways, but God never completely destroys them – He always offers mercy:
- God showed mercy at the Garden of Eden
- God showed mercy through Noah
- God showed mercy to David and Bathsheba
- God showed mercy to the diaspora by allowing the Jewish people to return to their land.
- Finally, God showed mercy by sending His one and only Son, to die for our sins, our shortcomings – once and for all.
And all He asks for in return is that we love Him – and one another.
OK, so let me get back to our gospel story and down in vv. 32 and 33 I think it gets a little comical that the scribe passes judgment on Jesus by saying, “You are right, Teacher,” loving others is more important than religious ceremonies. But then down in v. 34 Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
/Stop and think about that answer. How far away from the kingdom of God do we have to be to miss it completely? Can one come close and still get in?
The scribe was close because he knew the rule of law, but he was far from it because he didn’t apply that law to his life. In order to be in the kingdom, it’s not enough to agree with Jesus’ teachings – we must submit to them.
We can be born into a Christian family, we can come to church every week, we can remember all the sermons we ever heard (yea right) and still be far from the kingdom. We must love God and love our neighbor.
- Mere knowledge of the Word will not save us, but submission to God’s Word will.
- Sincerity will not save us; but submission to Christ as our Lord and Savior will.
- Doing acts of kindness toward our neighbors will not save us, but loving them will.
So we need to ask ourselves this morning – how far away from the kingdom are we? Is it OK to be an inch away? Do we all too often forget the only commandment that really matters? I mean really, if we can’t submit to commandments one and two, do the others really matter? This is what Jesus was saying to the scribe – and it is what he was saying to me and you when He climbed on the cross and said Father forgive them. Let us then respond in love. Let us be a shining example for all to see.