Dear Working Preacher,
Sometimes only a story will suffice.
Matthew’s treatment of Jesus’ commentary on the law is complex. It differs from Mark’s (12:28-34), leaving off the scribe’s remark about loving God and neighbor being more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. It’s different than Luke’s, as well, as Luke, himself knowing the power of a good story, uses this scene to introduce the parable of the Good Samaritan. Matthew instead sets this exchange within his portrayal of the ongoing and mounting tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. It follows tense exchanges around paying taxes, loyalty to Caesar, and the validity of the resurrection and precedes Jesus’ long (34 verses!) denouncement of the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, scoundrels, and blind guides. Yes, Matthew’s treatment of Jesus’ commentary on the greatest commandment is complicated.
But it’s not just Matthew that’s complex. It’s the whole matter of the law, as well. I mean, while I think it’s great that Jesus quotes Leviticus and Deuteronomy to establish the greatest commandment, that doesn’t exactly clear things up. For what, exactly, is the Christian’s relationship to the laws of the Old Testament? Are we not free from the law? Or, if we still need to obey it, what parts? There are, after all, all kinds of laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, many of which we simply don’t pay any attention to. And, for that matter, what does the law say about God? Why would God require all those laws? Does God hold us accountable for them? Is God, finally, little more than one giant lawmaker, enforcer, and judge, all rolled into one? Yes, the matter of the law is complicated as well.
Which is why sometimes only a story will suffice. Stories have a way of taking complex and theoretical ideas and making them, if not simple, at least concrete and accessible. So here’s my story. Actually, it’s not mine; it belongs to Frank, my first colleague in parish ministry.
When Frank was nine or ten, he found himself in an argument with his younger sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and pushing and shoving then turned to hitting. Just as Frank had his sister pinned on the ground, fist raised in the air, his mother came into the room. “Franklin,” she bellowed, “stop that!” At that, as Frank would tell it, he turned his head toward his mother and said as only a young boy can, “She’s my sister, and I can do anything I want to her.” At which point Frank’s mother swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter — no you can’t!”
That’s the law: God’s will, desire, and good intention that all of God’s children flourish in this life. It is the law, ultimately, of a loving parent: “She’s my daughter — no you can’t.” No you can’t have everything, hoard everything, own everything. Yes, there are all kinds of laws in both Old and New Testaments, but they all boil down — as Jesus says in Matthew’s account only — to this: Love. Love God. Love your neighbor. And, as it turns out, these two aren’t all that different. Love, you see, isn’t an interior emotion, affection, or attraction in the Bible. It’s an action, a behavior, a commitment to seek the good of another no matter what. To love God then, is to love God’s children and seek the best for them.
It’s that simple, and it’s that hard. Which is where, of course, we often get tripped up. Most sermons on the law I’ve heard seem to move in one of two directions. Either, the essence of Christianity is following this law, in which case the sermon becomes one more occasion to exhort listeners to loving action in the world. Or, the essence of Christianity is that we cannot follow the law, in which case the sermon makes manifest our inability to follow God’s laws and for this reason exhorts us to cling to the cross of Christ for mercy.
Oddly, both of these sermons are true. If we are followers of Jesus, we are called to follow not just the law of love but his loving example as well. And as followers of Jesus we know that we cannot and that our only hope is in the forgiveness promised — not made possible, mind you, but promised! — in his cross and resurrection. It’s the “either/or” that trips us up. That is, they are both true, not one or the other.
We are called to obey the law because the law is God’s parental gift to help all of God’s children flourish. God has given us tremendous capacity and tremendous freedom, and so we regularly have the opportunity to love God and love our neighbor. In fact, nearly every choice we make — what to wear, what to eat, what to drive, what to give, what to share, how to spend our time — reflects an opportunity to love God by loving neighbor…or not. This is our call. Why? Because God loves all of God’s children and the law is God’s way to help them flourish.
At the same time, we will not obey the law. We will not perfectly love neighbor or God. We will fall short again and again and again. For this reason, we do indeed cling to the cross as the sign that God forgives us, loves us, and promises to hold onto us even despite our failing. But this is no excuse not to get right back up and try again, love neighbor again, keep the law again. The cross, far from being a remedy to our failure to keep the law, offers the motivation to embrace the law once again for the sake of our neighbor. Because in the cross we see that God loves us just as much as God loves everyone else. This time it was Frank’s sister his mother felt compelled to protect. At another time it would be Frank. Similarly, God uses the law to command us to care for our neighbor. Just so, God uses the law to command our neighbor to care for us. We are all one family, the law reminds us, one family bound by the mutual obligation and delight of love, real love, love that is not just a feeling but is action, not just sweet words but concrete deeds. The law does not establish our relationship with God — that’s true in both Testaments! — rather, it is the sign of our relationship, God’s good gift to God’s beloved people.
Complicated? Then maybe only another story will suffice. “While they were eating,” Matthew tells us a few chapters after this one, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:26-28). This is how much God loves us — enough to demand that we care for one another; enough to forgive and renew us each time we fail; enough to give us back to each other to try once, again, to live the law of love; and enough to give us the body, blood, and resurrected life, of our Lord Jesus … all in the name of love.
Sometimes, Working Preacher, only a story will suffice. So what’s your story? Where have you seen God’s law and love lived out? Further, what are the stories your people might tell? And how can we together share the story of God’s law of love and life that draws us, and keeps us, together as one on Christ?
Sometimes, only a story will suffice. Thank you, dear Working Preacher, for using your voice to tell it.
Yours in Christ,
P.S.: BTW – This Sunday might be a great time to reacquaint folks with some of the great agencies that can help them love God by loving neighbor. Here are some of my favorites:
Habitat for Humanity
Bread for the World
Lutheran World Relief
And don’t forget to list some of the local agencies in your community as well as all the great things your congregation is doing to care for the neighbor!