The Law of Love Trumps All-Rev. Judy’s Homily 30th Sunday in OT 10/26/14
Matthew 22:34-40- What are the greatest commandment(s)?
Today Jesus continues to respond to the “tests” (and traps) from the Pharisees,the powerful authorities, rabbis and priests of his Hebrew religion. Jesus affirms the essence of the Law and Prophets. This takes place after his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and his “cleansing” of the Temple which is frequently portrayed as “chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple”. But, his revolutionary action to chase out (liberate) the animals and birds as well as those selling them for sacrifice meant much more than a frustration with cheating “moneychangers” (John 2:14-16;Matt 21:12-13;Mark 11:15-17;Luke 19:45-46.). The priests are furiously upset with Jesus, but the multitude, the people are with Jesus. Jesus fulfills prophecy by his ride into Jerusalem, and is fulfilling the Law, the very essence and backbone of his Hebrew religion, by essentially defining what the Law and the Temple is about and what it is not about. Jesus defines what the Law is about by all that he does as well as all that he says, as best we can know it. In the Temple cleansing Jesus is establishing that it is not about animal sacrifice. It is about love,especially caring for the most vulnerable like orphans and widows who have no means of support but are accounted for in the Law (Exodus 22:20-26). Care and mercy for animals is also written in the Law, for example farmers are to let their animals graze and drink from the stream on the Sabbath, so they indeed can enjoy a Sabbath. Jesus mentions this in Luke 13:15-16,also see Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4. This emphasis on love and caring for the least among us is fully consistent with the Law and has its origins in the Law in Deuteronomy(22:4) and in the prophets (Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quotes at another point, Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 1:11-16 and Is. 66:3) and also in the commentary of first century rabbis like the prominent Hillel. What Jesus did in cleansing the Temple strikes at the heart of what he sees as the corruption of the Law where the Temple priests are living off the money and the actual meat of the animal sacrifices and losing the key points of the Law, right relationship with God and right relationship with our neighbors, especially the poorest and weakest. This provides an excellent reason to trap him and kill him. To learn more about Jesus’ radical Jewish ethics that included vegetarianism, pacifism and simplicity with identification with the poor, read Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus,Lantern Books,2000. Akers makes a strong argument for the Jesus movement in Judaism that became Jewish Christianity for the first four centuries BCE. While I do not agree with all of Akers’ conclusions it is quite clear that it was not Jesus’ intent to abolish the Law but to fulfill it and show us how to live it.
Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment? The Pharisees and Scribes think they will trap Jesus into minimizing or falsely stating the Law. Jesus boils down all 613 laws to the two greatest commandments: Love God with all your heart ,soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. He adds that the whole law and prophets are based on these two commandments. He is hinging all that is important in Hebrew law, tradition and Scriptures to loving God and all people, especially the most vulnerable people(Ex 22:21-22) wholeheartedly. In Mark (12:32) the man who asked the question has to marvel: “Well said, Teacher”! He also says that this love is more important than religious ritual like burnt offerings and sacrifice and Jesus commends and affirms his understanding. What happens in the Temple cleansing also establishes this priority. It is major. Once again love trumps all. In Luke 10:28 Jesus has a similar discussion with another expert in the law who asks him about how to inherit eternal life. The expert answers with the two great commandments and Jesus affirms this and says “Do this and you will live”. Following this, in Luke, Jesus teaches that loving the “neighbor” includes enemies, like the “good Samaritan”. Jesus is cutting through to the essence of the law which is love, and saying that this kind of love brings life now and forever. We note two things here: Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:7) and the fulfillment of the law is the life of love that Jesus led, and expects us to lead. What kind of love did Jesus exemplify? His love was inclusive-women and children as well as men, poor as well as rich, sick and outcast as well as healthy and mainstream, strangers and outsiders as well as his own people. His love was selfless-even when he was exhausted and frustrated he continued serving, healing, teaching and loving the people. His life included “living sacrifice.” His love was characterized by justice and actually put the last first, calling the poor blessed and fortunate, thus changing the usual order of things. Jesus loved with a wholehearted, radical love. And, he loved until the end when he asked forgiveness even from the cross for those who tortured and killed him (Luke 23:34). And in rising he calls his disciples friends and assures that he loves and is with us forever. Jesus’ radical love is VERY hard to emulate.
I am thinking of the love of caretakers for the very ill. In our congregation when one young man was in the hospital struggling for life his entire family maintained a vigil day and night for weeks. They also prayed and asked for his baptism at a time when he could participate. The moment of baptism was the only joy they had all experienced in days. Only when he improved in quite a miraculous way did his grandmother and mother get to go home and rest. In another case a family kept a vigil until their elderly terminally ill grandparent died. They did not go to work or school and even refused to eat when he could not eat. That was something I could help them with, God did not want their illness too. They ate but would not leave his side until he went home to God. In another situation a wife cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s disease 24-7 only taking a few hours a day for herself. She has sacrificed herself for her husband for over fifteen years and he is still recognizing people and able to stay at home. Her life on the other hand is restricted to his care. This is her sacrifice for him. It is radical love.
I am thinking of the outrage of our community at the death of a precious five year old by drive by shooting. I am thinking of the brave women, men and youth who despite their fear of a similar fate are trying to speak out for justice even though there are many who will not break the loyalty code and act justly. I think of the workers who take time off their low paying fast food chain jobs to protest for just wages, for raising the minimum wage, and the farm workers who take on large chains like Publix and Walmart and McDonald’s. I see in them the Jesus who used his righteous anger as the root of love( an ethical principle described by theologian and ethicist Beverly Harrison) to demonstrate what it takes to enact justice. I think of all the humiliation and blood that poured in the streets to secure the nonviolent civil rights movement. I think of Megan Rice and other nonviolent peace and antinuclear activists who endure prison for love. I think of street ministries to the homeless and hungry where the elements of relentless heat, rain, snow and cold and even disapproval are rewards for serving along with oneness with the poor and least of these. I think of our Roman Catholic women priests who are excommunicated to live the call to priesthood and serve thereby enacting justice in the church. I am thinking about the warmth and love our people give to one another every Sunday. This is all radical love. Radical love is action not rhetoric.
Let us pray that we can love radically, with all our hearts. Amen.