The Greatest of All Time
Matthew 22:34-40 | 18 October 2020
Lots of greats, one greatest
The first time I heard about the greatest of all time was a sports documentary about Muhammad Ali. The documentary was talking about his career, his life, and the mix of athleticism and spectacle he brought to the sport. Since then, I have heard the term used for just about everything: greatest video game of all time, greatest novel of all time, greatest sports team, player, coach of all time. After a while, the term seems almost meaningless. The greatest of anything is only the greatest until something greater comes along or someone else decides their idea of the greatest is greater than the last persons. The greats are great, but they can never really be the greatest because sooner or later, someone will come along and dethrone them.
The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and just about everyone else with a vested interested in the religious-political world of the early thirties in the first century was hoping to dethrone Jesus as the greatest teacher of their time. People flocked to hear what he said whether they believed him or not, they marveled at the teachings he offered and recognized it for the wisdom it was. And Jesus was constantly defending his words, his teaching.
In the passage today, we read about Jesus and the greatest commandment. Just before this, Jesus had answered the Pharisees about taxes and astonished the Sadducees on the issue of the resurrection. Both answers spoke to the heart of major issues for these two groups. The Pharisees were interested in how far to take the law when the law appeared to infringe on their practice of religion and the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection as the Pharisees did so they hoped to catch Jesus saying something ridiculous about the subject in response to a childish question.
The Pharisees were now hoping to salvage a victory from these interrogations and a legal expert spoke up and said, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” On the surface, this might sound like an innocent question, but it is far from it. The Pharisees have been emphasizing tradition and the purity laws as an expression of their love for God and their commitment to the greatest commandment as found in Deuteronomy 6:5—” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” If they get Jesus to acknowledge this, they can claim to be have been right all along and if not, they can accuse Jesus of sacrilege.
Jesus response lets them know that cherry-picking the parts of the Law you like and ignoring the others is no way to interpret the scriptures. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 but then adds something to let them know that there is more to the Law than that. Jesus follows this with Leviticus 19:18—” You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” Jesus gets beneath their attempts to cherry-pick a response that leaves him looking foolish and turns the tables on the Pharisees. The issue has changed from loving God alone to loving your neighbor as yourself. Not only that, Jesus adds that all the Law and the teachings of the prophets are dependent on these two commandments. In other words, Jesus is saying the scriptures themselves are built on the idea of loving God and loving neighbor. From here, the Gospel of Matthew goes off in another direction, while Luke’s version gives us a question about who my neighbor is. Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan who cares for the robbed and nearly dead man by the side of the Jericho Road, the man who was ignored by a priest and scribe in the story. This addition gives us an even clearer picture of the expectation that Jesus has for loving God and neighbor.
Most people would say they accept and try to practice this kind of love—directed to both God and our neighbor but do we really? I have seen a t-shirt floating around for a while that says,
Love Thy Neighbor: Thy Homeless Neighbor, Thy Muslim Neighbor, Thy Black Neighbor, Thy Gay Neighbor, Thy Immigrant Neighbor, Thy Jewish Neighbor, Thy Christian Neighbor, Thy Atheist Neighbor, Thy Addicted Neighbor
There is another version that says,
Love Thy Neighbor: Thy LGBT Neighbor; Thy Imprisoned Neighbor; Thy Hindu Neighbor; Thy Native Neighbor; Thy Black Neighbor; Thy Muslim Neighbor; Thy Pagan Neighbor; Thy Asian Neighbor; Thy Buddhist Neighbor; Thy Hispanic Neighbor
Let’s be honest here. There is a lot of political pandering going on with this t-shirt. When I went to verify the words on the shirt, I found it on a website called The Christian Left. There is no doubt that this shirt is thumbing up its nose at those who have a problem in one way or another with the groups listed. There is both a theological point and a political point being made and an agenda behind it. But it’s missing some things or maybe, they just need another shirt. One that reads,
Love thy neighbor: thy conservative neighbor, thy Republican neighbor, thy Trump supporting neighbor, thy NRA neighbor, thy police supporting neighbor, thy military supporting neighbor
And it should take it far enough to make everyone uncomfortable like,
Love thy neighbor: thy alt-right neighbor, thy fundamentalist neighbor, thy hate mongering neighbor, and so on
Each of those statements is bound to make someone uncomfortable, but each of those statements is still true. Each and every one of those groups represented is deserving of our love because they are all our neighbors.
Now I know the next part of this argument usually goes something like this this: I love everybody, but I don’t have to like them to love them. This is usually the love the sinner, hate the sin argument when dealing with people that make us feel uncomfortable. The problem with that line of thinking is that it is focused on the thing we see as sin, not on the person. You end up not loving the sinner—because you still see them as a sinner not a person—and emphasizing their sin as the only thing you see. In the end, we are able to discount the person without knowing them, without seeing them as God sees them and casting them aside.
I think most of our objections to loving people who make us feel uncomfortable is rooted in two things: ego and our fear. Often, when this subject is brought up in this way, I have heard people say, “I’m not going let people run over me. I’m not going let people tell me what to think. I have the right to think whatever I want to about people.” All of these are correct. You may choose to live in a way so that no one ever runs over you or what most people mean by this, in a way that keeps you from actually getting to know people you disagree with. You may choose to live in a way where all your views are settled and unchanging. You may think anything and everything you choose to think about people.
I think people do this because they are afraid that they will have to give up being themselves in order love others the way Jesus did. The answer to that is yes and no. You won’t have to give up your personality, but your personality should be shaped and changed and molded and remolded by the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. But if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, you cannot do anything where other people are concerned without loving them. If any of your views run counter to loving neighbor in the way the Samaritan showed, you cannot claim being a disciple.
A disciple does what their master does and lives by their master’s teaching. Who did Jesus spend most of his time with? The lost, the abandoned, the poor, the homeless, the helpless, the outcasts, the hurting, the needy. Who was Jesus at odds with? Those that hurt, dismissed, or made life miserable for any of those above. Did he join those around him in their sin? No, over and over Jesus called them out and told them to repent, to change the direction of their lives. Did do it from a place of loving first, of being with them, sharing life with them and showing them a better way of living and being? Absolutely.
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” The kind of love we are called to love God and neighbor with is this perfect love, a love that is not afraid, a love that comfortable with being uncomfortable, a love that puts others needs ahead of our rights and preferences. It is not easy. It is messy. It is difficult. But it is right. And it comes from the master of all us who claim to be his disciples. The question is, will we live into being true disciples or into being truly misguided at best and at worst, truly hateful.