The Greatest Commandment, Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon:        The Greatest Commandment

Scripture:     Matthew 22:34-40

Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Location:      First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL            

Date:             October 25, 2020

            Have you ever been intentionally put on the spot in front of a bunch of others? Someone asks you a question to determine if you really know what you’re talking about?

            I just graduated from seminary, I answered my first call to a serve two small churches in north Georgia. In the Presbyterian system, a congregation calls a pastor and then he or she appears before the entire Presbytery of that region and is “examined” by those attending. The examination is to determine your fitness and ability to run a church. It’s an oral test.

            Seated towards the back of the church, I hear my name called out to please come forward. Nervous. Sweating. I’ve heard about these examinations before and some of the stories were not pretty. I share my statement of faith and now the 150 or so pastors and ruling elders get to grill me. A man stands up and goes to the microphone. He is a visiting pastor from Kenya and with a smile, he asks the first question. “Mr. Reesley, explain for us the relationship between Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations and the Cherokee peoples’ Trail of Tears.” He turns and sits down.  What wall did that come from? I looked at all the faces expecting an answer and tried to keep from getting an anxiety attack. It’s at this point God showed up.

            Spirit said, “Wrisley, you have just been asked a question from a man who has had and has witnessed the abuse of his rights and dignity as a black African male. He is asking you a question about a group of indigenous Americans who have had their rights, way of life, and land taken by the white man and then forcibly marched a thousand miles to Oklahoma to be resettled.”

            I spoke: The Cherokee nation, like the people of Israel and Judah, were forcibly removed from their homeland and taken as slaves, and were exiled to a foreign land. The book of Lamentations is the Jewish book we might even call, “The Trail of Tears.” I realized it wasn’t a trick question at all; if you think about it a moment, it all fits together nicely.

            Today’s text from Matthew 22:34-40 describes a similar scene. Jesus is still in the Temple and he is being grilled by the religious scholars and leaders of the day. They are doing everything they can to trip Jesus up and get him to say something scandalous in order to arrest him. So they ask him one more tough question hoping to entrap him.  Listen to the Story from Matthew 22:34-40.

Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [1]

            In the eyes of the religious leaders and scholars, Jesus’ behavior appeared to them to play loose and easy on the Torah. Jesus associated with the ne’er do wells of the day – you know, those politicians, women of ill repute, shady business leaders, Gentiles; in essence, if you listen to any of the local or national political ads at how a candidate’s opponents are doing all these horrible things, that’s what the religiously serious scholars and leaders thought about Jesus. They believed Jesus was violating the Torah, the Law, when in fact Jesus was attempting to recast the Torah, the Law, in a way that got to the essence, the heart of it.  They all looked and listened to hear what Jesus would say.  Which one of the 630 some-odd Laws in the Torah would Jesus pick?  You see, the Jews believed that all the Law was important and vital.  If you say one Law is more important than another, you risk demeaning all the Law.  They thought they were tricking Jesus; instead, they tossed him a softball.

            Jesus, being the good Jewish boy that he was, recited a prayer every Jewish person would know by heart. This prayer was the first prayer you were supposed to say upon waking and the last words you speak before sleeping.  He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 which is called the Shema. Our Jewish friends have that little scroll on the doorways of their homes we call “mezuzahs” that have this scripture and prayer placed inside them.

            The first prayer in the morning is what? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. What’s the last prayer before bed? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

            It’s beautiful isn’t it? The first and last prayer of the day, both in our living and sleeping, is to love God with everything that’s within us! We don’t love with some of our heart, some of our soul, or with some of our mind; we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind.  We are to love God with the full range of our emotions. We are to love God within the spiritual depths of our being which even reaches beyond our mortal time. We are to love God with every aspect of our intellect, our imagination.

            If we pause and think about it, this is a prayer that sets the bar pretty high! How many of us can say we truly live this prayer out every day and night? What are the first words you and I say in the morning getting out of bed? What are our last words as we turn out the light?  The greatest command of God’s Law is to put God first in every part of our lives.  In our jobs; we put God first. In our marriages and relationships, what are we to do? We put God first. In the way we raise our children, what are we to do? We put God first. The way we treat a server at our favorite restaurant, what are we to do? We put God first.  When we use a check or a credit card for whatever we are buying, what are we to do? We are to put God first. When we make our household budgets, what are we to do? We are to put God first and not just give God the leftover!

            And then Jesus goes adds a twist to the Shema. He couples it with a scripture from Leviticus 19 taken from a list of edicts God shares with Moses about how to treat the poor and down and out in the community. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When Jesus put these two scriptures together outlining what is now called the Great Commandment, he silenced all the critics.  They had nothing to say.

            Loving God and loving neighbor are two sides of the same coin. You can’t separate love for God with our love for those about us. It’s a Yen/Yang type of thing. We can’t have one without the other. As scholar Dale Bruner remarks, “(Our) purpose of living is the adoration of God and the cherishing of human beings…(we are to) love the God who love you and cherish the person who meets you.”[2]

            Jesus reminds us that upon these two, the entire love and expression of God hangs. Like the capstone of a stone archway, that if removed, the whole arch comes tumbling down, so are these two commandments, if they are yanked away as the capstone of the Law, the all the words of prophets and preachers come tumbling down if they are not obeyed. Jesus words are evangelical because they point us to God alone.  These words are missional in that they turn us outward to share God’s love with others. Or as Bruner reminds us, “This Double-Love command gives humans a direction to face (i.e. towards God) and a way to be (i.e. loving towards others in our midst).”[3]

            Beloved, what if we in the Christian tradition were to adhere to what our Jewish neighbors do and that is to twice a day utter the words of not only the Shema but the words pointing you and me beyond ourselves to the people we pass on the sidewalk?  What if we were to wake up every morning and the first thing out of our mouth is the prayer, “Today, I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, and mind; I will also love those around me as I love myself.”  What if we were to go to bed every night and the last words on our lips are, “As I close my eyes to sleep, I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, and mind; I will also love those around me as I love myself.” 

            All together now, let’s say, “I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, all my soul and with all my mind; I will love my neighbor as myself!” Now let’s go prove it by the way we live! Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder

First Presbyterian Church

401 SE 15th Avenue

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. A Commentary. Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 409, 417.

[3] Ibid., 412.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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