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The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the 21st Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on what it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Gnaw away!

Matthew 22:34-46

When they heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they gathered together, and one of them, an expert on the Law, attempted to trick Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?”

Jesus answered:
“You must love the Most High God
with all your heart
with all your soul and
with all your mind.”

“That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments the whole Law is based – and the Prophets as well.”

While the Pharisees were gathered around him, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose descendant is the Messiah?”

They said, “David’s.”

Then Jesus asked, “Then how is it that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls the Messiah ‘Sovereign’? For he says,

“‘The Most High said to my Sovereign,
‘Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your foot.’”

“If David calls the Messiah ‘Sovereign,’ how can the Messiah be a descendant of David?” No one could reply, and from that day on no one dared ask him any more questions.

The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?

Jesus is still in the Temple in this extended scene that is starting to look like a game show called “Stump the Rabbi.” We have skipped over the section where the Saducees quiz Jesus on the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33), but now another one of the Pharisees takes up the baton and begins to test him by asking him what commandment is the greatest.

Jesus answers with two extremely familiar (to the Temple authorities) quotes from Torah — Deuteronomy 6:5 (the Shema of Israel) and Leviticus 19:18. They are an interesting and intentional juxtaposition. Jesus links love of God to love of neighbor — and then says all other law flows from that. This is not an innovation, but a return to the heart of the covenant. (As Jesus has said, he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it!) We love God fully and before all else, and from that place of utter devotion to God our whole life becomes an expression of that love through loving our neighbor and ourselves.

Finally, after Jesus has answered every question and silenced the leaders, he asks them a question … one they cannot answer. It’s Jesus’ way of saying that he can play this game, too … and play it even better than they can. And so the chapter closes with the score Jesus 1, Temple leaders 0. If they are to defeat Jesus, they will have to use more than just words and tricks … and that is what they intend to do.

A few things to chew on

”To learn to love our neighbor as ourselves … means we must learn to love ourselves as God has loved us (1 John 4:11). To learn to love ourselves truthfully is not easy because we most often desire to love ourselves on our own terms.” – Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas gives us an interesting and profound take on the Great Commandment. He calls it “loving truthfully” – and it is hard. Loving truthfully is about acknowledging there are areas where we are deeply powerless in our lives and not being afraid of them. Loving truthfully is about embracing that powerlessness as a gift — the gift of the opportunity to need God, and love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Loving truthfully is learning to trust that the God who has been on the cross is with us in the deepest brokenness of our lives … our individual lives and our common life … and and helps us love each other out of that brokenness together.

We “church people” love theological conversations! We love to argue over what are the right answers and to weigh one piece of scripture against another. But theology isn’t something written in a book or a cleverly crafted argument. It’s the Living Word of God. Living in our lives. Living as we learn to love and be loved — totally and honestly. The Pharisees and Saducees test Jesus and he hits it right back at them like a bad batting practice fastball. Then he shows how easy it is to play this game by buzzing one right by them. It’s his way of saying Yeah, so what? I can be clever, too. Big deal.” The theology of Jesus is not about clever arguments. It’s about loving God, loving neighbor and being loved — totally and honestly.

The theology of Jesus is not about what happens in these verbal spars. It’s about what happens next. About the journey to the cross … and beyond.

Try This:

Before I was ordained, I asked a friend what advice he had for a new priest, and he said: “Love God … all else is commentary.” It’s a recasting of something Rabbi Hillel once said (“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”). What an extraordinary thing to take absolutely literally.

This week, take a few minutes at the beginning of each day in prayer and say, “God, all I have to do today is love you. I don’t have to succeed. I don’t have to earn anyone’s love or approval. I don’t have to have all the answers or even any of them. God, all I have to do today is love you. Help me love you more.”

Then throughout the day, when you face a decision or encounter a person or get into a situation just ask “what does loving God look like in this?” Just pray, “God, help me love you more.”

Write This

The final part of the quote from Rabbi Hillel (above) is instructive. The teacher said “this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” He was not saying the rest of the Torah was irrelevant but in fact that the rest of the Torah was important instruction on how to live out the central truth.

Jesus says the most important thing is the Shema – Loving God with all that is in you – and the rest of scripture is commentary on that. This week, as you journal, write about the passages of scripture that are teaching you about what loving God deeply looks like.

The Challenge of Loving

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It can be tempting to soften and sentimentalize Jesus’ words into “be kind to your neighbor as yourself.” But that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

Love is hard.

Love is not letting one another — or ourselves — off the hook.

Love is the deep community Christ calls us into, the community where “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17).

Love is refusing to let ourselves or one another get away with anything less than believing we are beloved and need to treat each other that way.

Yes, love is, in Paul’s words, “patient and kind,” but love is also unyielding in its devotion and insistence on not letting us fall short of all that we can be.

Love is all-consuming and demanding … and is so hard to fit into our attention spans and busy lives.

Not an hour after my first son, Schroedter, was born, a friend asked me how it felt being a dad. I said:

“It is the most amazing feeling. I’ve had a son for only an hour and already I would step in front of a moving bus for him.”

There are moments where we are so full of that love and passion that every decision seems clear and easy. But for most of us those moments are few and far between. How many times have I not chosen to spend time with that son or acted annoyed when he interrupted me working? Plenty. Does that mean I love him less than I did that day? No … in fact if anything I love him more. It means that living this kind of love on an everyday basis is so
very, very hard.

And yet that is the Beloved Community we are called to be as the church. And not just for each other in our families or even in our faith communities but as a city, a nation and the world.

Imagine that. If we are called to love as God loves, to love as Christ loves, we must be willing to step in front of moving buses for each other. We must be willing to put the needs of others — even those who are so different from us — above our own.

What does it mean to love our neighbor this way in your household? What does it mean to love your neighbor this way in our All Saints community?

If love truly is refusing to let ourselves or one another get away with anything less than believing we are beloved and need to treat each other that way then what does it mean to love our neighbor today … in Pasadena in Northwest Pasadena, in Los Angeles? In Orange County? In America? In the world?

And what does it mean to love yourself?

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Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings

The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.

Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Want to read more?
The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.
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“Gnaw on This” is a weekly publication of All Saints Church, written by our Rector Mike Kinman.