Sermon; 21 Pentecost/Proper 25A; Deut. 34:1-12 & Matt. 22:34-46
Today's first lesson comes from the final chapter of Deuteronomy and records the death of Moses. In the first part of this passage we hear that the Lord showed Moses all the land the Israelites were to inherit, but we also hear that the Lord has forbidden Moses to enter that Promised Land and he died never crossing over into it from the wilderness. If you were paying attention to the reading, you may be wondering why the Lord forbade Moses from entering the Promised Land.
It stems from an incident back in Numbers 20 when God told Moses to command a rock to yield water (because the Israelites were yet again complaining that they had no water and were going to die in the wilderness). Instead of doing that, Moses berated the Israelites, and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out and the Israelites were satisfied, but Moses did not do as God had commanded. Granted, it's a little thing – speaking to the rock versus striking the rock – and the Israelites still had their thirst quenched, but it was contrary to how God asked Moses to act. Add to that how Moses berated the people and God made the decision to not let Moses cross over into the Promised Land.
In today's gospel Jesus is again facing tests from various authorities bent on silencing him. Remember that, contextually, we are in Holy Week and are working our way to his arrest and Passion. Today's test comes from a lawyer of the Pharisees. “Teacher,” he says, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Six hundred thirteen commandments in the law and this guy wants to know which is the greatest. There are some that are obviously greater than others, and some that are obviously lesser than others, but to pick one as the greatest? That opens you up for an argument.
Jesus answers, “The greatest commandment in the law is this, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What do these two passages from Deuteronomy and Matthew have in common? Not much, really. But I read something last week that got me thinking that they might be more closely related than we originally think.
Episcopal priest Jay Sidebotham, former illustrator for Schoolhouse Rock and current illustrator for those big church calendars and other things, writes a weekly piece called Monday Matters. In his latest article he quoted RC priest, Franciscan, and spiritual author Richard Rohr: “People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by what they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.”
Our words and actions and how we use them have consequences. Our words define who we are and who we are for or against. In Moses' case, he was faced with yet another uprising and it would appear his patience had run out. God told him what he needed to do for water, but he used other words and other actions. He was defining himself by what he was against – the rebellious Israelites – more than what he believed in and loved – God.
Likewise, over the past several weeks we've been hearing parables of Jesus pointed at political/religious leaders and those leaders coming together to trap him and, hopefully, silence him. Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees, groups normally opposed to each other, have found a common enemy in Jesus. They are defining themselves by who they are against rather than by what they believe and whom they love.
In these two stories notice that both Moses and the Pharisees have separated themselves from the other. Moses separated himself from the rebellious Israelites. The Pharisees separated themselves from Jesus. By focusing on what separates us, on what we are against, and on what we hate, we lose the ability to come together. We lose the ability to find unity. We lose the ability to be part of one body.
Within the law are commandments that both separate and unite. Besides looking to trap Jesus in a legal argument about the importance of a particular commandment, there may have been an underlying issue: Is it more important to use the law to separate or to unite? Jesus' response is to Love God, Love Neighbor. Everything proceeds from those two commandments (as one Rabbi is recorded as saying, “Everything else is just commentary.”). But those two laws are focused on uniting people: they unite us to God and they unite us to our neighbor.
These two stories – the words and actions of Moses that resulted in him being separated from his people and the Promised Land, and the words and actions of Pharisees separating themselves from a man who was trying to unite people to God and others – are important for us to hear today. In our daily lives, in our political choices, in our dealings with family, friends, and strangers, we have a choice as to which words and actions we will use.
Don't misunderstand me – its important to know what you are against. The question to consider though is whether or not we can first articulate what we believe in and whom we love. As John says in one of his letters, you can't hate your neighbor and claim to love God. That's coming at it from the wrong direction.
If we love God and love neighbor, then we will necessarily be opposed to those things which don't meet that standard. But we begin with love, not hate. We begin by saying, “I love my neighbor, that's why I don't tolerate hate speech . . . I love my neighbor, that's why I advocate for equality . . . I love my neighbor, that's why I work to end systemic racism.”
And the list goes on. But that list should always begin with, “I love God, I love my neighbor.”
Because if we can't, don't, or won't, then we just might find ourselves like Moses and end up being separated from our people, or we might discover that we have been working against Jesus.
Our words and actions have consequences. Let's make sure we begin on the side of love.