What is the Greatest Truth?

19th Sunday after Pentecost
Oct 23, 2011 – Trinity Tavistock
Steve Hoffard

Matthew 22:34-46

What is the Greatest Truth?

“Is the Bible true?” This is the question I used to begin the last grade seven-confirmation class. “Is the Bible true?” We had a very quick round of “yes’s” but not without some hesitation. Already the class has come to recognize that any questions I ask don’t often allow for a simple answer. But “Is the Bible true? Well that’s what you might call a no brainer. . . Isn’t it? How would you answer that question? If I were to ask you, “Is the bible true?” What would you say?

After the kids answered yes, I began to ask some questions of my own. “What about that story about Jonah and the whale? Did Jonah really live in the belly of a whale for 3 days and 3 nights? They weren’t so sure about this one. Then I asked, “How about the story of Noah. The guy who built a boat that was 300 x 50 cubits and 3 decks tall that was able to transport two of every kind of bird and animal and creeping thing? What about that story I asked? This time they were more certain and they even explained to me that this why there are no longer any unicorns, because they had missed the boat. I was positive that the certainty they had with this story was due more to the Irish Rovers than bible literacy so I tried again and said, “What about that talking snake in the garden of Eden? Did that really happen?

These questions are meant in the confirmation program to transition the students from their Sunday school faith to a more adult understanding of their faith and the bible. We try to teach them the bible doesn’t have to be historically accurate or a literal accounting to have meaning in their lives. We teach them that the writers of these stories didn’t expect us to read them in a literal way. Instead the writers of the bible inspired by God wrote these stories using many different techniques and types of literature to more effectively show us who God is and how God is at work in our lives. We teach them that the bible is not to be used as a legalistic rule book to trap people into thinking the way we think. To set ourselves up for salvation while damning others different from us to the pits of hell.

And this is the same thing Jesus was trying to teach in Jerusalem. I sure would not have wanted to be a Sadducee or a Pharisee in the temple that day. Jesus was pulling no punches. Ever since he rode back into Jerusalem he was behaving like his time was running out. There was an urgency about him, like he didn’t have the luxury of being able to tip toe around anymore. We saw this when he flipped over the tables of the money changers and the dove sellers. And now teaching in the temple he has already silenced the Sadducees.

The Sadducees were like the religious right of Jesus day. Their name in Hebrew means “the righteous ones” and according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Sadducees were rude, encouraged conflict and rejected all other traditions. This group was active in the temple but made up mostly of priests and wealthy, powerful community leaders. Recognizing that Jesus’ teaching if followed would limit their wealth and power, they had tried to use the law to trip up Jesus. It didn’t work and Jesus was able to reveal that they easily misinterpreted the scriptures and did not recognize the true power of God who gives life to the living.

The Pharisees approach Jesus next, and one of them, but not just anyone of them, this one was a lawyer or scribe. One who was extremely well educated—an expert in the law. They pull out the big guns to use the scriptures to entrap Jesus. He intends to expose Jesus’ lack of mastery of the law. They lawyer asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The lawyer assumes that certain laws have differing levels of importance. You can sense he asks the question with a snicker in his voice.

Jesus’ answer comes directly from the daily prayer life of the Jews. He cites the “Shema that was recited every morning and evening. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “This”, Jesus says, “is the greatest and first commandment.” But then Jesus adds, that a second is like or equal to it: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus places the commandment to love neighbour on the same level as the most basic obligation of religion, the command to love God. Jesus recognizes that the covenantal commitment to God is expressed in all our actions and relationships. This is the fundamental principle through which all other commandments in scripture are to be interpreted and applied.

In the text that follows today’s reading. Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for misunderstanding and misusing the law. They use the law to lay heavy burdens on others and draw attention to themselves. By quoting the shema, Jesus points out the aim of the law is to orient one’s entire life toward God, and that we can’t love God without loving what God loves. One cannot love God by excluding or oppressing any of God’s creatures. Love unconditionally, is Jesus’ command. Jesus refuses to identify love of God with rigid religious requirements.

The Gospel of Matthew was written at a time and in a community where there was a division between Christian and more traditional expressions of Judaism. We need to recognize that but we also need to be aware that Jesus’ criticism is not limited to just the Jewish leaders of the first century. We Christians now are just as prone to the sort of religious behaviours that use faith to obtain power, prestige, and to be exclusive. Jesus’ words and deeds are as relevant to us today, and as hard to hear as they were to the scribes and Pharisees in first century Palestine.

Early this week we heard of the suicide of grade 10 Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley. Jamie was yet another youth who was bullied for being gay and as a result of the pain took his life. I think most of us would be willing to stand up against bullying, but I can’t help but wonder how years of using scripture to exclude people by telling them they are an abomination hasn’t contributed to empower the bullies of this world. In this one of many examples we have been quick to exclude by saying the law clearly condemns homosexuality.
If we listen to Jesus that the greatest commandment is to Love God by loving neighbour those clear laws, get muddy really quickly.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings. While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction.”

Quaker Pastor Phillip Gulley has written a book called “If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus”. In the book he says, “It is apparent, after several millennia of experimentation, that the Ten Commandments we Christians all know and love and want to hang in courtrooms haven’t lived up to their billing. We’re still coveting, fornicating, and stealing, and seeming to enjoy it more than ever. So I’ve suggested ten new standards around which we can orient our lives. They are as follows:

If the church were Christian, Jesus would be a model for living, not an object of worship.

If the church were Christian, affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.

If the church were Christian, reconciliation would be valued over judgment.

If the church were Christian, gracious behaviour would be more important than right belief.

If the church were Christian, inviting questions would be more important than supplying answers.

If the church were Christian, encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity.

If the church were Christian, meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.

If the church were Christian, peace would be more important than power.

If the church were Christian, it would care more about love and less about sex.

If the church were Christian, this life would be more important than the afterlife.

He concludes by saying, “In the end, what I’m hoping for is a church a little less full of itself, and a little more full of love. It wouldn’t take much, for love and grace and kindness have a way of multiplying.”(1)

The Sadducees and the Pharisees knew all the words of Scripture, but perhaps without knowing their deeper meaning. They knew that we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. But they failed to recognize that one cannot love God if one does not love the neighbour. Perhaps the y can be excused. But we can’t. We know we have no excuse for acting as if we don’t know any better. We do. Will we act in love, or will we hold on to our fears and grievances?

Ultimately, whether or not it makes sense to love our neighbours and our enemies, this I know; without this love, our lives do not make sense.

They only make sense in God—the God who is love itself. (2)


(1) Gulley, Phillip (2010) If The Church Were Christian: Rediscovering The Values Of Jesus – Harperone
(2) B.J. Beau (2011) – The Greatest Commandment Times Two http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/article/entry/1801/the-great-commandment-times-two
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