Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Here ends, in this passage, the disputations and entrapments orchestrated by religious leaders during Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem.

October 23, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

Here ends, in this passage, the disputations and entrapments orchestrated by religious leaders during Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem.

They had been at it for a while. In Matthew’s telling of the story, on this Tuesday of Holy Week Jesus was involved in a long series of disputations with Sadducees, lawyers, chief priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and their disciples.

In each confrontation, he proves himself more careful, clever, and inspired than his adversaries. When Jesus questions them about the messiah and his relationship to David, they are stumped and finally silenced (22:41-46).

But before being silenced, a legal expert from among the Pharisees asks Jesus one last question in order to test him, “Which commandment in the law is greatest?” (22:36). For him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority. It seems that after a long day of verbal battle, even the Pharisees begin to lose steam and wonder whether their efforts had been worthwhile. 

Jesus’ answer is classic. Loving God is the first thing, the most important thing. But, with it comes a corollary: to love God means that you also love God’s people. The ancient rabbis put it in similar terms: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law.” 

What more can be said after this? Silenced, the Pharisees finally withdraw from the fight. On the next day, they hatch the plan that will remove this trouble-making prophet and permanently silence him.

The key problem in interpreting this double commandment for our time is that we lose sight of the biblical meaning of love. Our culture has equated love with intense emotion. To love is a stronger response than to like. And, both are measures of a passive response to something outside us.

We like chocolate: we cannot help ourselves. We love a movie: it entertains or moves us. We love a boy or girlfriend: they make us happy. We love a spouse: they complete us.

But, biblical love is not passive and it is not strictly emotional. In the Old Testament, there are references to many kinds of love, but the love referred to here by Jesus is the love of Deuteronomy 6:5, the love of Yahweh. This love is far from passive. It is the active response of the faithful person to the love of God. 

God’s love is also active. God chooses (elects) to love Israel above all nations and to bring his love through this chosen people. To love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, is to choose to respond to God even as God chooses to love us. Feelings and emotions do not enter into the equation.

In the New Testament, the principle word used for love is agape. Like philia, or brotherly love, it is a passionless love. Eros is the word for passion or desire. The latter two are used sparingly in the New Testament. Agape in the gospels has some connection to emotion, where God cares for God’s creatures and creation.

But, chiefly, it refers to what can be called loving-kindness. It is not passive emotion, but active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity, again, both acts generated by the one who loves.  In short, loving is a choice, not a feeling.

If we can replace in our listeners’ minds the cultural clichés about love with a biblical understanding of love, we can begin to make our way with preaching on this text. 

To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.

If we could, that might evoke in us a profound feeling of love. We might fall in love with Jesus’ beauty and grace if we could know him as Mary and Martha did. But, we are commanded to love an intangible God. It is likely that many of our listeners will admit failure in feeling a deep, abiding affection for a God who is often distant and unknown. Nonetheless, to love God is our duty as Christians. 

Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.

But, biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Herein is the good news for Christian people. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

When the action to each is equal, the love to each is equal. This is counter to what we expect, but it is in keeping with what the commandment requires. This means that, to those with whom we are intimate, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

And what about love of God? Again, as God chose Israel and elected to forgive her at every offense, so we can chose God and serve him in every way. We can love with our heart: through generosity to God’s people. We can love with our soul: by worshiping God and praying for our neighbors and ourselves. And we can love with our minds: studying God’s Word and letting it correct us, enlighten us, and send us out in loving action to the world. 

See how these commandments are connected, “the greatest commandment” and the “second, which is like it”? When we love God’s people, we are always, and at the same time loving God. 

They are inseparable. Surprisingly, sometimes our emotions follow suit and we actually feel a love of other, or a love of God. But the emotion is not commanded. Only the action of love is commanded. In Christ, this we can do, even when we don’t feel like it.