Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46
The theme of the “two greatest commandments” has seen plenty of traction in Christianity, but especially Jesus’ summary of the second table of the law: love your neighbor as yourself.
While Christians often talk about this “new commandment” as one of the most important things Jesus said, I wonder how we, as preachers, might help to make this text come alive for our congregations. If individuals can hear this text as a calling for their lives as opposed to an affirmation of how they already live, this text could change how they view the world.
Homiletically, there might be a few different avenues of approach for the theme of neighbor. First, the command to love your neighbor as yourself and the command to love the stranger as yourself could be linked together given their proximity in Leviticus 19. A second and related theme might be to talk about how love of neighbor (and stranger by extension) is connected to love of God. Finally, it might be worthwhile to talk about agape and possibly even link it to Paul’s definition of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13.
Neighbor and stranger
It often seems that Christianity is boiled down to the “Golden Rule” of love your neighbor as yourself. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is from Leviticus 19:18. Yet, not many verses later, we find the command to love the alien (stranger) as ourselves in Leviticus 19:34: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This proximity might allow us to drill down into a particular congregational context, and call a congregation to ask themselves, “who are our neighbors?” We might wonder what love might look like for these neighbors.
Many congregations might have “neighbors” who are really “strangers.” They may have people in their immediate neighborhood who have no relationship with their church. If we are to love our neighbors (and strangers) as ourselves, how can the church reach out to those people without necessarily trying to evangelize them (love of neighbor does not use them for our own advantage)?
If a congregation can think long and hard about loving its neighbors, even those that don’t look like them, don’t talk like them, don’t believe like them, don’t make as much money as them, that congregation might have a completely new understanding of this text and their role in the world. This could be a daunting task, since there is so much political energy around the issues of neighbors and strangers.
One approach might be to explore Leviticus 19 in more detail as a way of understanding what Jesus meant regarding “neighbors.” This might be challenging, but it might be timely to remind ourselves and our congregations that we are there to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whatever political side we may come down upon, the church should be a place for community and love. As preachers it might be possible to play with the idea that loving the alien, or stranger, in our midst is the same as loving our neighbor. Imagining what that might look like could help the church become more creative in its approach to those who are strangers in their churches, neighborhoods, or families.
Loving God means loving neighbor
Leon Morris in his commentary helps us to see how these two commandments might not be viewed separately. He writes, “Jesus was asked for but one commandment, but he goes further and adds ‘a second’ that, he says, ‘is like it.’ Wholehearted love for God means coming in some measure to see other people as God sees them, and all people as the objects of God’s love. Therefore anyone who truly loves God with all his being must and will love others, and this is expressed in the commandment that is repeated in the Pentateuch (Leviticus 19:18, 34).”1
The idea of tying the two commandments together may not be new, nor would comparing stranger and neighbor from Leviticus 19. But, these ideas might find a new home in churches who are living in an increasingly polarized political climate, and wondering what their mission in the world might be. Indeed, while this love of the stranger could become a new moralism for them, it might help them to see how the church can rise above partisan politics and simply show God’s love for all people. Churches and individuals hearing the call to “see other people as God sees them,” might find that neighbor and stranger are not such different categories after all.
I have done many weddings where I Corinthians 13 is chosen as scripture. I am quite happy whenever the couple chooses this text because it gives me an opportunity to talk about agape love. While we enjoy making the Golden Rule into an easy moralism, it becomes an entirely different story when we look at Paul’s definition of what agape love is. And, Paul is not the only possibility here, many others have written about love in amazing and beautiful ways. Exploring what love could look like in this commandment to love others could help to expand the impact of your sermon.
1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 563.