Sermon October 25 Matt 22:34ff Everything Else is Commentary Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you have a preferred learning style? Like most other labelling, the notion of having a preferred learning style is far more useful if we see it as offering us insight into what works best for us and why, rather than grabbing onto it as justification for limiting ourselves.
But as long as we keep that in mind, it can be rather interesting to consider for ourselves what's the best way we take new information on board.
It's rarely unilateral. But as humans we can learn by seeing, by hearing, and by doing. And for each of us, whatever it is that we're trying to learn, there's probably a way we find it easiest. And probably also a way that... just really doesn't work as well.
I, for example, I really like written directions. Words and diagrams. Write down how to do something, and I will read it, and then I will give it a go. Until I get it right. Which often means getting it wrong a bunch of times, and having to go back to the beginning and start over – and I KNOW in this magical age that there are videos I could be watching --
But for whatever reason, I prefer to look at words and diagrams. And then give it a go.
It's just a preferred learning style. But wisdom would dictate, and it's always worth remembering, that no one way of learning is best. And no one way of learning is complete.
It's less a moment of learning than it is a moment of testing, this moment we hear about in our passage today from the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus is still in the temple, surrounded by his disciples and others, and this is late in the story – this is close to his death – and he himself has been preaching and teaching – but in this particular moment, he's being set up for a test.
By one of the Pharisees, faithful leaders of the Jewish community, but by one in particular who's identified here as a lawyer. Which when WE hear the word lawyer, we think of someone who's learned civil law or criminal law – but in Jesus' time and in his Jewish community, a lawyer would be what WE might think of as a theologian.
A lawyer would be an expert in the law of Moses. In the Torah. In the books of the Bible. A lawyer would basically be, in the context of the Jewish community that Jesus is part of, a scholar of the Bible. Biblical law. The commandments and teachings received from God through Moses and the Prophets and collected into what we'd call the Older Testament.
So he's basically a Biblical scholar, a theologian, this lawyer. And he sets Jesus up here not for a moment of learning from Jesus, but for a test.
Of all the commandments, WHICH – he asks Jesus – WHICH is the most important. It might sound to us like he's trying to learn something, this lawyer. Like he's trying to learn from Jesus which commandment Jesus thinks is most important, and then he'll sort of incorporate that into his own contemplations.
But that's not actually his point here. His point is in fact to TRAP Jesus into identifying just one commandment as being The Most Important – because then he can imply that Jesus clearly thinks all the REST of the commandments are second-best. Which would be a very wrong thing, and then haha on Jesus, he's been GOT.
But of course, that's not how it plays out. Jesus eludes this lawyer's trickery not only by answering with not 'the one' but 'the TWO' greatest commandments –
But even more importantly, what he distills his answer into is essentially the expanded version of the fundamental in-your-bones words that ground the faith of God's people Israel at a level far deeper than just words.
It's what's called the Shema, because that's the first word in the phrase. It's a bit like we might refer to the Lord's Prayer as 'the Our Father', because that's how it starts.
Shema Yisrael – Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One. For faithful Jews, like Jesus, like the Pharisees, like this lawyer, these are the central deepest grounding words.
They're the opening of morning prayers and evening prayers, they're at the heart of all it, they're literally written on the doorposts – a faithful Jew affixes a tiny box to the doorpost of the home and inside is a little scroll and on it is written that verse. Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.
And how is all that meaning LEARNED by God's people? Not just by reading and then understanding, but before a child even has language – by hearing, by watching, by doing. These are words that transcend words. That convey meaning deeper than intellectual understanding. About essential in-your-bones connectedness to God.
That's where Jesus choose to distill his answer – into this in-the-bones connectedness. Before continuing the verse that's distilled in the Shema with what comes next – "and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind."
And then the second follow-up, so he can't be accused of choosing just one: "and your neighbour as yourself".
It's clever, but it's also meaningful. Because what Jesus is asked for by this lawyer is a commandment – like a rule made of words to be read and then memorized and then followed –
But what he answers with is instead an identity. An identity that gets absorbed – not just by reading but by hearing, by watching, by doing, until it becomes a way of being.
It's interesting that when Mark tells this story, in HIS gospel, the lawyer who challenges Jesus actually thanks him for this response. Like wow, Teacher, you're so right, you've put it perfectly.
In Matthew's gospel we don't get that nice ending, but presumably it happened. Because Jesus IS so right. And he HAS put it perfectly.
Because I don't know that any of us would be able to say that at some level our sense of feeling connected to Godness – however we think about that – and how that shapes a way of BEING – I don't know that any of us would be able to say that that hasn't been somehow, fundamentally, ABSORBED.
Maybe in our home of origin, maybe via experiences since, maybe mysteriously in the midst of some kind of major life-change, maybe because we've found ourselves making ourselves deliberately ready or deliberately open or deliberately attentive.
To some degree that sense of connectedness has been absorbed. It's become identity. It's not been a matter of reading about it and memorizing and following a series of directions; it's not been a matter of listening to a lecture about the three great philosophical proofs of God's existence and processing what one's heard; it's not been matter of sitting in a pew and learning when to pop up periodically to sing.
It might be all of these but it's more than these. A tiny child being read a Bible story doesn't start understanding God loves them from the words – they absorb it from the arms that are around them and the lap they're sitting on. We don't learn we're not alone from the minister repeating it endlessly on a Sunday morning – we absorb it when we're walking on a beach and the ocean that's patently just a bunch of water somehow gives us strength. And no one learns they matter in community from sitting in a pew week after week – they absorb it from finding out a place in a pew is there for them.
So never mind, Jesus essentially says to the tricky tricky lawyer in this situation, what's the greatest commandment, like it's about reading or hearing or memorizing or even practicing, and that's how it's learned like a thing, and now you follow it.
Here's an identity, he says, of being loved and loving that you just get to absorb. And maybe you've been absorbing it your whole life and lucky you, or maybe you're just starting now. And lucky you. Because it's an identity that just becomes a way. And what could be simpler?
It's kind of ironic that what we actually find most difficult to deal with is its simplicity. Be loved and loving. Because our instinct is to want that identity to somehow be predicated on personality traits.
Pop culture is full of the mantra of 'I can't love others until I really love myself' and we do battle with the notion that 'love thy neighbour' still has to count as a commandment when it comes to people who are truly terrible.
Our instinct is to want that identity we're being invited to absorb – the identity of being loved and loving – our instinct is to want it predicated on personality. How can I be loved, how can I love myself, when I'm so dreadful. How can I love that neighbour, when they're so dreadful. Our instinct is to need that love to somehow be deserved.
But it just isn't that complicated. It's predicated on nothing more than our humanness. It's love as God simply wanting for us – and us simply wanting for each other – fullness of life. That huge Hebrew word 'shalom' that we so often just translate as 'peace' when what it actually encompasses is the four pillars of fullness of life: food, water, shelter, well-being.
Just by virtue of our humanness, God wants these for us: food, water, shelter, well-being. That's us being loved. Loving ourselves is just us chiming in – claiming that identity of being loved fiercely enough that if a world of broken systems is withholding from us fullness of life – food, water, shelter, well-being – we'll know that's simply wrong.
But that's why this identity of loved and loving can't be separated from all of us being neighbours to each other. Because it's hard to demand food, water, shelter, well-being from a wrong world of broken systems if we don't have food, water, shelter, well-being. We need neighbours who love us. Who want that fullness of life for us. And THEY demand it of a world a broken systems on our behalf. As we do for them when the situation is reversed.
That's all there is here, in this identity of being loved and loving. It's not about personality or actions. There's no expectation that we need to ante up with uncritical cuddles or unilateral 'respect' for what's patently not respect-able. I can love my neighbour when my neighbour is the American president, and want for him food, water, shelter, and well-being -- but when I also love my neighbour and my neighbours are mothers stuck in a refugee camp on the Mexican border who may never see their children again? That doesn't mean I don't get to rage against him and call his actions despicable. Because what I want for them too as my neighbours I love is fullness of life.
These aren't commandments we read, memorize, follow, that Jesus gives us here. They're an identity we absorb – being loved -- that becomes for us a way – being loving. And that absorbing happens all the time. You want to know that you're loved today, right here? Look around you at all the people wearing masks. There it is. You want to know that you're loved? Look at all the Americans lining up for hours in queues that would make the British proud, never mind Canadians – to vote and make sure their votes are counted. That's love. It's pervasive and it's all around us. Thanks be to God. Amen.