People were always asking Jesus questions. The first documented question posed to Jesus in the Bible came from his mother after she found him in the Temple teaching (at age twelve) after he had been missing for an entire day: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety” (Luke 2:48). My mother expressed similar concerns to me on multiple occasions when I was young… but I don’t remember her being quite so calm about it.
The New Testament tells us about all kinds of questions people would ask Jesus throughout the period of his active ministry. They often had to do with the nature of the Kingdom of God… or about the expected Messiah. Sometimes, Jesus would respond by telling a story or parable. Other times, he would use metaphor to get his point across. Every now and then, Jesus would answer questions directly. Jesus was always teaching and answering questions… for those with ears to hear.
When he arrived in Jerusalem for what would be his final visit, the questions became more “pointed.” The Chief Priests and Pharisees sensed that Jesus was a threat to the Temple hierarchy and the established faith, and they were determined to lure him into saying something blasphemous so that they could discredit and arrest him. They questioned him about his authority to heal and teach (Matt 21:23-27), about whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor (Matt 22:15-22), and the nature of the resurrection (vv. 23-33) hoping that Jesus would say something actionable. The problem was, Jesus knew his Hebrew Scripture better than the religious professionals did and, time after time, he would leave them standing, scratching their heads, wondering how he had, once again, escaped the trap they had set for him.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the Pharisee asked Jesus which commandment in the law was the greatest. The Hebrew Law consists of 613 Mitzvot, or commandments: 248 “thou shalts,” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” all of which are equally binding. It would have been viewed as highly presumptuous (even blasphemous) for any human to evaluate divine law… for instance, by declaring “moral law” more important than “ceremonial law,” and it’s likely that the Pharisee’s question was intended to bait Jesus into making just such a misstep. Jesus knew better, of course. This was one of those times when Jesus answered the question plainly and, rather than singling out any specific mitzvah as more or less important than another, Jesus provided an elegant summary of all 613 Mitzvot in these two “greatest” commandments: to love God (Deut 6:5) and love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). And the Greek word that Matthew used for love was ἀγαπάω(agapao), which is an action verb.
The command to love God seems pretty straightforward… or maybe it’s not… but that’s a rabbit hole we’ll go down together some other day. The question on my mind today is “how are we to understand what it means to love our neighbor?” In the part of Leviticus from which “love your neighbor” was drawn, God is telling the Israelites how they are to get along as a distinct people. In other words, loving one’s neighbor meant loving other Israelites. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives his followers a new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (13:34), but the author of the First Letter of John seems to indicate that “one another,” means brothers… or fellow believers (3:14). Could this be what Jesus meant? That we are to love only our own people? Fellow Christians? People who are “like us?”
It would be great if things were that simple, but Jesus rarely lets us off the hook so easily. When we think we have it all figured out, we need to think again. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan: Who was “a neighbor” to the man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road? Was it his fellow Jews?… the priest or the Levite? No! It was a man of a different culture and faith tradition… a sworn enemy! Jesus once said, “You’ve heard that ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” (Matt 5:43-44). Jesus also seems to equate love of neighbor with righteousness in his description of the Second Coming (or Parousia). He said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he’ll sit on the throne . . . and he’ll separate people, one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . and the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when . . .? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers… members of my family… you did it to me’” (Matt 25:31-46). The folks at the king’s left hand… didn’t make out so well. Jesus had claimed kinship with those on the margins: the outcast and the infirm, the sojourners and prisoners, and his followers were expected to “draw their own circles wider,” as well. So, who are our neighbors? And how can we love them?
We’re confronted daily with a variety of questions—important moral issues—that demand thoughtful response from us as followers of Christ. Is there such a thing as “just war” against a neighbor? Is it right to execute a neighbor, even if he is a convicted murderer? How do we balance the reproductive rights of a neighbor with the rights of an unborn neighbor? How many neighbors should we allow to immigrate into our country, and under what circumstances? Should neighbors be required to have health care insurance? And, if so, should a tax be levied on other neighbors to help pay the premiums for those who can’t afford it? What is the best way for us to “exercise dominion” (cf. Gen 1:26) over God’s creation, in which we and so many other neighbors live? How shall we strive for justice and respect the dignity of neighbors in committed same-gender relationships?
I expect there is a great diversity of opinion among readers regarding some of these neighbor relationships, and I’m not here to tell you what to think and what to do. That’s between you and your Maker. I will, however, offer you a context, or better yet a sine qua non (Latin meaning: without this, there is nothing) within which to consider these and other moral dilemmas of our time. My mother was a woman of strong faith, and her first response when confronted with almost any moral dilemma was, “What does this have to do with loving one another?” It was initially a hard sell for me. It had to be more complicated than that! I spent years trying to rationalize moral decisions on the basis of my artificial concept of “virtue,” before I gave in and started trying to grapple with these issues from the standpoint of what it means to love one another. And that’s plenty complicated – believe me. But we learn in Proverbs that, “The fear of the Lord (fear meaning: submitting to God’s commandments) is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (v. 9:10). Jesus told us to Love God and our neighbor, and maybe I don’t need to tell you that we make it easier on ourselves when we do what Jesus wants us to do.
I’ll close with a final (short) story about Jesus’ life from the Gospel of Mark… it’s one you’re familiar with, I think. And after that, a song…
“(Six days later,) Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:2-8).
The song is, “Will you not listen?” by Michael Card. I hope it brings it all home for you.