Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. (Ps 19:14)
From today’s Gospel: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Mt 22:36) [18th Sunday after Trinity, 15 Oct 2017, All Saints, Prescott AZ]
In chapter 22 of St. Matthew’s gospel, the Religious Establishment made three attempts to entangle Jesus in a controversy and use His own words against Him. First, the Pharisees sent their disciples to Him, asking whether paying taxes was legal, or not. Jesus told them to “give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” (Mt 22:21) His answer embarrassed the Pharisees’ disciples, and they went away to report that they had failed to trick Jesus. Then, the Sadducees challenged Him on the resurrection of the dead, because they believed that there is no such thing. In response, Jesus demolished their false beliefs and told them that God is not a God of the dead but of the living. Finally, it was the Pharisees’ turn to lay a trap for Him. They asked Him to rank the Law of Moses: “Master,” they said, “which is the great commandment in the law?” (Mt 22:36)
I wonder how we would react if someone asked us a similar question. How would we, for example, rank the Ten Commandments?
Is it more beneficial to keep holy the Sabbath-day, or not to use the name of God in vain? What about: Honor thy Father and thy Mother, versus: thou shalt not covet?
These may be tough questions for us to answer, and similar ones were just as tough for the Scribes and Pharisees. They had studied and debated the merits of each law in the Torah for decades, without coming to a conclusion.
And so… they decided to ask Him… not to get a satisfactory answer, but to trip Him up! If Jesus preferred any particular law, they could argue that some other law was much more important, and thereby show Him to be a fraud! The Pharisees were convinced that His answer could be challenged and His reputation destroyed, no matter which law Christ would select as being the greatest.
We now know that Jesus answered: “Love the Lord thy God… and love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Deut. 6:5, Lev 19:18) He also said that “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The Pharisees were dumbfounded! This man had humiliated them again, this time by quoting from the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus… a part of the Torah that they should have remembered all along!
By reminding the Pharisees of these old laws, Jesus confirmed the most personal truth of our faith. The central principle of our faith is anchored in our obligation to love God and … through that love… honor God, first and foremost. In fact, the first four commandments remind us to honor God, and God alone! We read in the Book of Exodus: (Ex. 20:1- 11)
“I am the Lord thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image… for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…
Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His Name in vain.”
Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day… For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth… and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it. (BCP pg. 68)
The strong words of the first three commandments require no interpretation. They lay before us an unquestionable command to honor God, and God alone, with all our heart and mind. By fulfilling the fourth commandment we set aside one day each week to worship God, love Him, and learn about Him. Sunday rest is designed to allow time for reflection on God… and our place in His design… rather than being overwhelmed by the ever-present requirements of our own design. In return, God promises to “show mercy unto thousands… that love me… and keep my commandments.” (Ex. 20:6)
And because He loves us, He did not leave us adrift to fend off the harshness of this life; He protected us through the ages and sent to us His Son for our redemption. God loved us first; He created us in His image and for His glory; He wants us to return to Him whenever this earthly life is completed.
As we all know, love is a two-way street: it must be shared between at least two parties to have validity; it must be nourished to grow and become strong; it must be true and devoted to stay fresh; it must be answered to be of any value. God’s love for us embodies all these attributes, and Christ commands us to return this love to Him… to be devoted and true to His laws… to nourish and make strong our love for God through obedience, humility and faith.
Furthermore, our love for God must be visible through a lifestyle that includes the love for each other. In fact, Jesus explained love for our neighbors in many parables and even in the Sermon on the Mount. He let us know that the Father regards the sins against our neighbors as so offensive to Himself that He will refuse our offerings until we have become reconciled with anyone whom we have injured by thought, word or deed. In other words, we cannot say one thing… and mean another; we cannot condemn others… and act as if we loved them; we cannot preserve the bonds of community with a smile, but destroy the very fabric of that same community through adversity, indifference, or even belligerence.
Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart… and love thy neighbor as thyself!
We should note in which order these commandments are given: loving God comes first, and the love of neighbor second. This may seem obvious to us, but some people prefer it the other way around.
They wish for a proving ground, so to speak… a step-by-step progression for growing in love of man first, and then advance to loving God. They say that, if we first love man who is complex and unpredictable, we can then, perhaps, mature in spirit and confidence to love God, who is much more complex… and often unreachable.
Unfortunately, this approach does not work very well.
Rather than maturing into loving God, we must recognize that Love itself originates with God… and it is only after we return this love to Him that we can extend it to others. We cannot create love for a person, try it out, and then pass this on as proof of loving God. Love is not a creation, but a gift from Him who is Love Personified! We cannot love man properly without first having our home in the love of the Lord.
The Reverend Francis J. Hall, an Anglican Professor of Dogmatic Theology, wrote that: “The most glorious and significant moral attribute of God is His love, which is His will to embrace in [a] personal fellowship with Himself all [people] who are capable of enjoying such [a] fellowship… or all [those] who, by divine mercy, can be enabled to enjoy it.”1
As eloquent as this definition may sound, we are left with a question: are we the people who are capable of enjoying a loving relationship with God, or are we the people who must, through divine mercy, be enabled to enjoy His love?
I believe that we fulfill both attributes. Because each person is created in the image of God, we are capable…. and because we are redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ, we are enabled!
We are granted the capacity to reason, to be moral, to choose between good and evil and to care for our neighbors. In short, we are created with the love of God already rooted within us.
And even though humanity fell from grace through the sin of Adam and Eve, we remain endowed with this gift, and we are elevated, through divine help, to acquire righteousness and personal holiness, so that we may become loveable ourselves. Through this endowment of fellowship with God, we are able to show our capacity for communion with God and respect for other people, whom God also created.
In fact, by returning our love to God we become perfected and sanctified.2
In all we do, however, we are but a shadow of the true and complete love of our Creator, and because He loved us first, it becomes for us a privilege and obligation to honor the Ultimate Source of who and what we are. If we profess to love God, we should do so with a commitment that grows in devotion to Him… and matures in practical service to mankind, because, “…on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Certainly, when Christ said this to the Pharisees, He was not talking about theory or theology. Instead, He reminds us that the Law of Moses governed the physical behavior of people, and that the prophets represented Israel’s spiritual relationship with God. Until Christ came, the Law of Moses kept Israel in a unique connection with God, and it governed the people’s interactions with each other. The Prophets, on the other hand, were the primary voice of God to correct Israel’s behavior when they strayed from His path, and they were the confirmation that God remained involved with His people. He chose Israel to be His people… and He always loved them. From the nation of Israel, Christ would come, “and He [would] reign over the house of Jacob forever.” (Lk 1:33)
The importance of exclusive obedience to the Law changed forever with the teachings of Christ. By emphasizing to first love God with all our strength, Jesus changes the entire focus of Jewish religious practice. He shifts the emphasis of people’s behavior towards love and redemption… to us possessing a soul which can be lost through our own vanity… or be saved by the mercy of God.
From now on, the old Law of Moses takes second place to the new law of loving God and neighbor because “God showed how much He loves us by sending His one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him.” (1 Jn 4:9) Jesus is the visible manifestation of God’s love, and we should appreciate who He really “is”.
If we were asked: “What think ye of Christ? Who is He?” what would we say? Perhaps, one of our answers could be the words Simon Peter used: “You are the living Christ, the Son of God.”(Mt 16:16) Another answer would remember what a voice from heaven said: "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased." (Mt 3:17) A third answer comes from Jesus Himself when He answers the Apostle Thomas: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) Finally, we may want to keep in mind the words of St. John’s Gospel where he writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14)
Any one of these answers may give us an intimation of who Christ is, and any one of these answers allows us to reflect on His life of service, His love for humanity and His sacrifice on our behalf. When we look at ourselves in that light, we see the immensity of God’s love and realize, perhaps, the most comforting answer of all: Christ is forever our Mediator and Advocate before the throne of God. (BCP, pg. 75)
In order to love Him, we need to know Him… we need to reflect on His life, His death, His resurrection, ascension into heaven and continued intercession for us before the throne of our heavenly Father. We need to keep in mind that the relationship between God and ourselves will never end, that He is Love Personified… that we are His creation (!) … and that He loves us more than we could ever imagine.
In order to grow in loving God, we should ask ourselves repeatedly: Have I found a way within myself to abide in this Fountain of Love? Can I truly say that He is my God, Redeemer, Savior, Shepherd, Friend… and can I act on that conviction by returning my love to Him? Can I extend that same gift to my neighbor?
May we seek unceasingly to dwell deeply in the Love of the Lord and extend that same love to all we meet.
1 and 2 Francis J Hall, Dogmatic Theology, Vol III, The Being and Attributes of God, pgs. 301, 302