Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
In the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible writer A.J. Jacobs documents his attempt to keep all 613 of the commandments found in the Hebrew Bible over an entire year. At the end of the year (and the end of the book) he observes that choices must be made, that not every commandment (nor every word of the Bible) can be held in equal importance. There has to be some way of prioritizing this collection of material, otherwise it’s just endless and impossible.
What is the key to all these teachings? How are the people of God to live and make sense of life in this world?
Jesus has been asked this very question: What is the greatest commandment? The person asking this question is identified as “a lawyer.” This is not someone who puts on a suit and tie on Monday morning and goes the courthouse in downtown Jerusalem to get a citation waved after his client has double-parked his camel in a no-camel parking zone. This is someone who has been carefully and thoroughly trained in the religious teaching and tradition of Israel. Jesus’ interlocutor himself knows the commandments—all 613 of them—very very well.
And so our expert in the law asks Jesus: What’s the number one commandment? And Jesus, being a good Jewish boy, answers with the words he has known from childhood. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” To this he adds a verse from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God with everything you are, everything you have, everything that is in you. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything else is commentary on the text.
Those who question him are looking for an opportunity to make trouble for Jesus. He’s in the temple when he tells this to his hearers. And it is the third time he’s been interrogated there, by leaders of various factions within the religious hierarchy. He came into the temple and threw out the merchants and moneychangers, and upset the ordinary flow of “business as usual.” And when he came into the temple, the people who accompanied him, even little children, were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Palm Sunday shouts, leading to Good Friday’s cries of “Crucify him!”
So it’s an in-between sort of time. Things have happened; there is more yet to come. It’s not a safe, or easy, or comfortable time for Jesus or his followers. Anxiety is high; time is growing short. He’s been asked about paying taxes to the emperor—a question about loyalty and ultimate values. He’s been asked a preposterous question about marital relations in the life of the resurrection—by people who don’t believe in such a thing in the first place. And now he is asked about “the greatest commandment.” It is the last question he will be asked in that conversation, and it is perhaps the most important of all.
Love God with everything you have, and everything you are. All of which is from God in the first place.
When I am attacked by anxiety, or assaulted by fear, or tempted by despair—at the ways we treat one another, or the ways we abuse the creation, or the state of our national and political and cultural life—I remember. “In the beginning, God.” And “At the end, God.” And at every moment in between, “God.” As the psalmist writes, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born; from age to age you are God. Time is nothing to you—a thousand years in your sight are like an evening gone/short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.”
There is no place where God is not, even in the valley of the shadow of death itself. We are held in life—and in death—at every moment, in the hands and love of God. If St. Paul can say of his experience with the Thessalonian Christians, “We were as gentle and loving with you as a woman nursing an infant at the breast,” how much more are we then nurtured and nourished and tenderly held in God—who is both Father and Mother of all life?
In the beginning—God. At the end—God. In between, at every moment—God.
What if we could remember just that? At every moment—to be constantly aware of “Emmanu-el—God-with-us” as we moved through each day? To remember, as we will sing in just a moment, always and everywhere, to give thanks to God. How would that affect our response to Love our neighbor as ourselves? How would it affect how we loved ourselves? I suspect it would affect both of those things enormously—we might possibly even discover something of how God loves.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. That is true.
But it is the same dust of which the sun and the moon and the stars are made. We are part of the creation in our very molecules, the very same creation over which God spoke, in the beginning, and pronounced: It is good, it is good, it is very good.
Go then, friends. Know that you are beloved and created in the image and likeness of God, know that there is no place where God is not. Go out this day, this week, and discover the places in your own lives where God’s dominion of mercy, justice and abundance is seeking to burst forth—even in places of pain and sorrow and need. And when you find those places, and those people, roll up your sleeves and get on with the work of being Christ’s hands and heart in this world.
May it be so for us.
May it be so among us.