Summary: The sermon preached after 9/11.
On Tuesday afternoon I pondered what to preach this Sunday morning. With the tragic events of the day, it seemed that a sermon should be preached addressing the questions and feelings that we would be wrestling with. But as I considered the text before me, I thought What better text to preach from? If the text presented – as I had titled the sermon – “What Most Matters to God,” then all the more in such a time as this we need to hear “What Still Matters.”
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus’ opponents have engaged in three rounds of debate with him, each time thinking they would shame him, each time finding themselves shamed. The verbal sparring is over now. This teacher of the law is honestly asking a legitimate question. Matthew tells us that he is testing Jesus. That may be true, but it does not seem to be in a hostile way. We often test one another with questions to see how well the other knows what he is talking about. This man seems genuinely impressed with Jesus and wants to know how he will reply.
His question is a common one for rabbis to address and for Jews to ponder. If, as tradition taught, there were 613 individual statues of the Law, surely one wants to have some kind of order of importance. This is just the kind of question Americans love to ask. We never simply ask what authors a person likes to read, or singers or movies. We want to know “Who is your favorite author, your favorite singer, your favorite movie, and so on. We can’t wait until a new year comes so we can rank the best or the most significant (we won’t have trouble with that one) or whatever.
So, Jesus, what commandment is more important to God than all others?
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
As before, Jesus is quick with a profound answer. He recites Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, from the Hebrew word for “hear”: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. It was, and is, the “watchword of Israel’s faith,” the Jewish creed recited by faithful Jews each morning and evening. Every Jew standing around would have nodded their heads in affirmation and approval, perhaps concluding with “Amen.”
The following commandment – 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength – is also the verse that follows the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4. As the Shema developed over the years in the synagogue, it included more passages, including verses 5-9:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Again, the crowd and even most of the religious leaders would be nodding their heads in approval at Jesus’ answer. What he says next, however, would have made them wonder yet again at his wisdom. 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
Again, Jesus is merely reciting a commandment, this one from Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. He is not unique in presenting concern for our neighbor as essential to the Law. Rabbi Hillel, a generation earlier had answered a similar question with this: “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Another anonymous writer in The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs several times speaks of loving God and loving man together.
“Lord the Lord and love your neighbor.”
“I loved the Lord,
Likewise also every man with my whole heart.”
Love the Lord through all your life,