a sermon on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Matthew 22:34-40
I spent most of this past week being a good pharisee. Last Sunday after worship, I flew to Louisville, Kentucky, for the annual Polity Conference of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This conference brings together presbytery staff and stated clerks like me to talk about the rules and regulations of our church and how we live them out. Most people would find the discussions quite boring and esoteric, but for folks like me it can be quite interesting! Then yesterday, I spent the day at Stony Point Center attending part of the annual synod assembly of the Synod of the Northeast, where we also talked rules and regulations all day long as the synod considered new bylaws and sought to implement a new understanding of their mission. I think all this attention to church law over the past week probably solidifies my qualifications and perhaps even my reputation as a good pharisee.
Now in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were one of several groups of Jewish leaders who brought a particular focus to their religious practice. They along with the Sadducees show up in our text from Matthew this morning. The Sadducees were mostly known for their belief that there would be no resurrection of the dead, and the Pharisees were known for their attention to Jewish law. The Pharisees had a pretty negative reputation with Jesus, and that has carried over to his followers. They were always challenging him on his actions and interpretations of the law, always seeming to try to catch him in a mistake that would give them the chance to declare that he was not a faithful Jew, always pushing back on his words and actions that seemed to imply that the law was only a guide and not something that needed to be followed carefully.
So it is no surprise that one of Jesus’ last encounters with the Pharisees in the gospel according to Matthew comes as they ask him to identity the greatest commandment in the Jewish law. Matthew tells us that this question was meant to test Jesus, but even so it’s still a surprisingly good question. No matter what you think about the law, it ought to be a good thing to consider which commandment is the greatest among them all. As much as the Pharisees may have been trying to quiz or entrap Jesus here, they also picked a question that is pretty open to differences in interpretation and an issue that actually matters for the life and practice of faith.
So when they asked him to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus responded quickly and thoughtfully, giving not just the greatest commandment but the second-greatest, too. First, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence,” with all your heart, soul, and mind. Jesus chose what might be to some an obvious response—this commandment, understood to have been offered by Moses as part of his own summation of the law toward the end of his life, stands very prominently at the center of Jewish life and liturgy. The Pharisees could find no objection to this at all.
While they had just asked Jesus for the greatest commandment, Jesus continued and offered a second commandment that “is like it:” “Love others as well as you love yourself.” This was perhaps a more unexpected choice, but it was still very much in keeping with Jewish law and Jesus’ practice. This specific law to love neighbor is buried in a longer list of the more obscure commandments in Leviticus, a book known today more for its restrictions on idolatry, eating and cooking techniques, sexual practice, and cotton-polyester blends, among other things. However, most of the commandments near this particular one focus on treating others and especially the poor and outsiders with respect, honor, kindness, and justice. When Jesus lifted up the command to love neighbor as self alongside the command to love God, he made it clear that attention to God’s commandments means attention to God’s people, too.
Jesus then concluded his discussion of the greatest commandment by insisting that these two commandments are more than just the greatest—they are the pegs on which everything else hangs. Without these two commandments, the other ones mean nothing. Without the perspective that these commandments offer, everything else is just legal mumbo-jumbo. Without the center of love for God and love for neighbor that we find here, everything else falls to pieces on the floor.
So the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were likely a bit astonished at his moves here, but what really matters in all this is not Jesus’ ability to interpret the law but rather his wisdom to sort out what is really important in all of it. For Jesus, the specific details of the law clearly mattered far less than the broad scope of it. The principles of love for God and love for neighbor that lay behind the law mattered far more than any particular provision. And the emphasis on love as right relationship with God and neighbor took much greater priority for Jesus than any policy regarding Sabbath observance, any restrictions on eating or cooking techniques, or any prohibition on wearing blended fabrics.
So even from my somewhat biased place, I think we need a few good Pharisees these days. We need people who can help us understand what God’s commandments lead us to believe and to do. We need people who can open the texts that define us in new ways and help us understand how they can be more than law books to be followed carefully. And we need Pharisees who can remind us that all the law that we follow hangs on these two pegs—these two laws—of loving God and loving neighbor.
In another account of this exchange in Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes on to offer a definition of neighbor by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was an insightful moment, because Jesus’ questioner was challenging him to define “neighbor” as narrowly as possible. In the same way, I think we could bear some similar attention to the definition of “love” here, for we too are tempted to define love so narrowly or find ways to limit our love for one reason or another. What does it mean for us to love God and love neighbor nowadays? How do we deal with the challenges of this word in our world where it is so easily defined as a human feeling between two people, with all sorts of limitations and possibilities that might emerge from that? How do we experience and show our love for a God who can seem so distant and disconnected from us and our world? And is it even possible to love our neighbors in this world where we are so easily paralyzed by fear of them—by fear that they might have a deadly virus, by fear that they look or act or love differently from us, by fear that they might harm us as we help them, even by fear that we might be opened to new and different ways of life as we encounter them along the way?
The temptation for Pharisees like me is to put even matters of love for God and neighbor into a law-based way of thinking, to give specific guidelines for what this love might look like and what it should not look like, to set up laws and rules that define love for God and love for neighbor in specific, quantifiable ways, to codify our fear because we are afraid to love. But the Pharisees of every time and place must instead welcome the ambiguity and uncertainty of love—love that can’t be checked off a list, love that can’t be defined by simple laws or limited by human understandings, love that defies human limitations, breaks any restrictions on it, extends beyond our own understanding, and shatters our fears of the other, all because it is divine love, shaped and formed and directed by God and shared with every neighbor we can imagine.
So I think we need some good Pharisees—people who understand these two pegs of love of God and love of neighbor, people who can open us to the broader gifts of love as we direct our attention, affection, and devotion to the divine, people who can show us a broader understanding of what it means to be a neighbor to everyone we encounter, people who can remind us that all that we say and do must reflect our love of God and our love of neighbor.
So may God guide us to understand all the more these greatest commandments, how we are called to love God and love neighbor, so that we might live in that kind of real and deep love each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.