The Great Commandment


A sermon preached by Bob Keller on October 23rd, 2011 based upon Matthew 22: 34 – 46.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Jeff came to me and told me that he would be out of town this weekend to officiate at the wedding of Lorretta and Ian Crawford’s daughter.  I agreed, of course, and looked up the scriptures in the lectionary for today.  When I found that the scripture from Matthew’s Gospel was among them for today, my mind was at ease.  After all, what could be easier than putting together a message on the Greatest Commandment?  Or, what could be more difficult?

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee, the student of the law, is exquisite in its simplicity yet so difficult to embrace.  A part of that difficulty comes from the limitations of our language.  We have only one word for love.  Love can mean so many different things.  In fact, one dictionary lists 18 definitions for love while another lists 27 uses as noun, verb and idiom.  Neither dictionary quoted 1 John 4:8 – “God is love.”  Yet, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is “to love the Lord.” 

OK, Lord, I want to do that, but what do I do?  Surely I’m not supposed to love the Lord in the same way I love lasagna!   It was like Jesus anticipated that follow-up question from the law student, and from us.  He tells us to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

To the Hebrew these three places in the body meant something.

The heart was the place where decisions were made, where emotions were felt, where thinking was done, where secrets were hidden, where desires came from. You could decide with your heart, feel with your heart, think with it, hide things in it, and desire with it.

The soul was the place where decisions were made, where emotions were felt, where thinking was done, where secrets were hidden, where desires came from. You could decide with you soul, feel with your soul, think with it, hide things in it, and desire with it.

And guess what you do with your mind? Decide, think, feel, hide, and desire. Heart, soul, and mind are used interchangeably in the scriptures.

All three of these body parts referred to the same thing. So what’s the point of mentioning all three then?

When the Bible says that we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it doesn’t mean that there are three or four different aspects of our existence, all of which must love God. It means that we are to love God with all that we’ve got. It means total commitment. It means total obedience to God.

Author C.W. Vanderbergh said, “Love is a commandment followed by a commitment.” 

In Deuteronomy, Moses was reflecting on all that God’s people had been through, all that they had been taught and all that they could hope for, he wrote, ““Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”  (Deut. 6:5)

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

The simple, yet very difficult to understand, truth here is that God gave His life for us in order to give His life to us.  It was done so that we might live through His life by His grace. It is this truth that makes us who we are: in Christ because of His love.

In the Old Testament, God’s people lived under the Law.  The basis of the Law lies in the Ten Commandments, but to help them fulfill those commandments the Hebrews actually had 613 laws. There were 248 dos and 365 don’ts.  How could they remember them all?  Which were the most important?  Which ones could we “slide” on?  This is why the Pharisee asked the question of Jesus.  Which is the most important?

Jesus told the lawyer the most important – love God.  And he followed up with the second:  love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

Recall the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 where Jesus tells them:  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Jesus tells us about three directions for love:
Love toward God.  There’s a bumper sticker that says:  “Give God what’s right, not what’s left.”  I don’t usually like the bumper sticker philosophies of life, but there’s a lot of wisdom in those few words.  God has to be our first priority.

Then we direct our love toward others.  C.S. Lewis once said, “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now.”

And just think of how much more bearable this life would be if all of us practiced love!

Most businesses would benefit greatly if the boss truly loved his or her employees, and they knew it!
Most marriages would be happier if spouses heard and saw constant reminders that they were loved.
Most families would be happier if the parents constantly and lovingly affirmed their children.

Think about a very simple, but extremely powerful principle that can transform any relationship almost overnight: When it comes to love, say it.

We need to say it.  We need to hear ourselves say it.  Others need to hear us say it.

And there’s love toward ourselves.

Again from C.W. Vanderbergh:

Love sets off a divine chain reaction.
 -Love is the spark that kindles the fire of compassion.

 -compassion is the fire that lights the candle of service.
 -service is the candle that ignites the torch of hope.
 -hope is the torch that lights the beacon of faith.
 -faith is the beacon that reflects the power of God.
 -and God is the One Who creates the miracle of love!

Many of us forget that Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

On the surface, some might see this as a mandate for self-love.
But when we consider His words in context, we can see that the principle that Jesus gave us is both radically new and refreshing!

Essentially, Jesus has declared that when we love God the way we ought to love God:
–we will love others the way we ought to love others,
–and when we love God and others the way we should, and
–we will love ourselves in a proper and healthy way.

God’s love gives us a healthy mental picture of ourselves by enhancing our self-esteem without getting into self-worship and self-idolization.

Agatha Burgess is 87 years old and lives in the small mill town of Buffalo, South Carolina. She gets up every morning at five o’clock and begins cooking, and she has been doing this for over twenty years. She gets up and cooks for the local Meals on Wheels. At 11:00 A.M. volunteers come by her house and take the food she cooks to elderly people who can’t cook for themselves, or for other needy folks.

By noon, another group of people come to Agatha’s house for lunch. Mill workers, judges, truck drivers, anyone who comes at noon gets to fill their plates and go back for seconds. Agatha runs an all you can eat kitchen. For all this, they pay $ 2.75. She knows that’s too much for some of the folks who come by, so if they don’t pay she doesn’t say anything.

A Newspaper reporter was doing a story on this remarkable woman and asked her the obvious question, why? Why do you do this 5 days a week every week? Listen to Agatha’s reply because it is the heart of today’s message. She said “I do this because I love it. I always wanted to be a person that lived by the side of the road, and could be called a friend to man.”  She said that she would continue to do this until she died because this is what she lived for, and these people coming everyday mean so much to her.

Rick Warren writes in “The Purpose Driven Life,” “I have been at the bedside of many people in their final moments, when they stand on the edge of eternity, and I have never heard anyone say, “Bring me my diplomas! I want to look at them one more time. Show me my awards, my medals, that gold watch I was given.” When life on earth is ending, people don’t surround themselves with objects. What we want around us is people – people we love and have relationships with.
In our final moments we all realize that relationships are what life is all about. Wisdom is learning that truth sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to figure out that nothing matters more.” – p. 126

John Wesley viewed connection to other Christians in community as essential to maintaining faith, growing in spiritual maturity and reaching others with the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ.
Listen to Wesley’s words on this matter:
“Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than “holy adulterers.” The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”

Do you recall Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Ugly Duckling?” It illustrates the truth that what you know and believe to be truth determines your behavior. Although hatched in the same nest as the other eggs, this “duckling” looked different. He was big and ugly, not soft and yellow like the other ducklings. No one could understand what was wrong with the ugly duckling – not the Mother Duck, not the Rabbit, not the Turkey . . . not even the ugly Duckling himself!

Can you imagine what the Ugly Duckling might have been thinking about himself? “What’s wrong with me? I’m so worthless! I’m such a failure! I’m not measuring up to the other ducks!” The result of such thinking was depression, feelings of worthlessness, a sense of failure as he tried to perform like the other ducks and, perhaps, feelings of rejection.

But what was the truth? The truth was that the Ugly Duckling wasn’t a duck after all. It was a swan. Over the long winter months the “duckling” had changed. It had become what it really had always been, a swan, beautiful and graceful like all the other swans.

The Ugly Duckling believed that he was a duck, and an ugly duck at that! But just because he thought this to be the truth, was it really the truth? The Ugly Duckling believed a lie and because of what he believed, his behavior was affected.

So it is with so many children today.  We can’t understand why a child of eleven could find life so not worth living that he commits suicide.  It’s complicated, and simple.  These children are made to feel different, unloved. 

Our command, and our commitment, is to love.  To love God as He loves us.  To love God with everything we’ve got.  To love one another.  To love ourselves by seeing ourselves as children of God, as reflections of that perfect love in Christ.

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