Summary: Contrasting the Gospel to the cultural gospel of loving yourself.
My daughter was a little upset when I called her last week. She had gone to the traditional service at her church in Tennessee, instead of the contemporary service they usually attend. The senior pastor who is proficient in both Hebrew and Greek, and taught at the seminary level, preached on Matthew 22:36-39 where the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Now, he is supposed to be a biblical academic, but he brushed over the scripture for the day and did not speak about it, rather he talked about what he said was a “third” law: The importance of loving yourself. Never mind that the Bible never tells us to love ourselves, but in fact tells us to deny ourselves, he lifted it up as a biblical principle, to the point of ignoring the first two commandments to love God and others.
You see, the problem with us as human beings is not that we don’t love ourselves enough, it is that we love ourselves too much. Our problem is not low self-esteem, but pride. Listen to our culture which is constantly telling us to value ourselves, treat ourselves, love ourselves, be good to ourselves, believe in ourselves and you begin to get some idea of the values of our current culture which are centered around the self. Instead, the Bible tells us to value truth, treat others well, love God, be good to others and believe in the Christ who sacrificed himself to give us life.
The closest the Bible comes to telling us to love ourselves is the Old Testament passage which Jesus quoted: “Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39; [Leviticus 10:18]). But Jesus was not telling us to love ourselves. The point of what Jesus was saying is that we already love ourselves. No one has to teach us that. From the earliest days of our existence, our personal needs were all that we were aware of. We cried when we wanted something that we did not get. We fussed and fought over toys instead of sharing them. A young mother recently posted this about her child on Facebook: “Clara has developed the highest pitch squeal/scream that makes dogs bark all over the neighborhood, her brother cry, and her mother cringe!” But like little Clara, we too want our way. We still want what we want, and we want it now. We are self-preserving, self-focused and self-exalting. We are envious when others have more than us, are better looking than us, have a better life than us, are smarter than us, are healthier than us, etc. We don’t have to be told to love ourselves, that is already in place. The point of what Jesus is saying is that we are to love others as much as we love ourselves — which is a lot.
And this is where our Scripture comes in today. To anyone with eyes, it was so easy to see through the Pharisees, although, many of the people in that culture may have assumed that this was the way things were supposed to be. Jesus’ public statements against them were highly unusual and certainly shocked people who heard them. But the Pharisees who were supposed to be living symbols of what it meant to live for God, instead, were full of hypocrisy and drove people from God. Their lives were completely self-centered. As Jesus said, “Everything they do is done for men to see.” If anyone loved themselves it was them. They flamboyantly prayed in public rather than private. They were ostentatious and dressed in flowing robes with special tassels. They tied leather boxes, called Tephillin or Phylacteries, to their heads and arms with the Scripture containing the Shema written on parchment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Over time these boxes became bigger and bigger to draw attention. They made their tassels larger and longer as they competed with one another. As their phylacteries became bigger, their love for God became smaller. It was comic and absurd. When they fasted, everyone knew it, for they threw ashes over their head and moaned as they went about. They competed for the best seats in the synagogue, and wanted to be called by special titles: “Rabbi”, “Father”, or “Teacher”. Everything in their lives said, “Look at me!”
At the same time they were showing off, they were also doing everything they could to make others look bad. They were tying heavy burdens on people that they could not bear. They would watch people like hawks to make sure they weren’t breaking the laws which the religious leaders had set up. They complained to Jesus that healing a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath was work and therefore wrong (Matthew12:10). Forget the fact that it relieved suffering and restored wholeness to the man’s life, it was still wrong. Forget the fact that they themselves would help their donkey out of a ditch on the Sabbath, they still would not approve of Jesus healing a human being on the Sabbath. As Timothy Keller writes, “Their hearts are as shriveled as the man’s hand. They’re ... anxious about the regulations. They’re... judgmental, and self-obsessed instead of caring about the man.”