- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 21 Pentecost
In the Name...
Henry Augustus Rowland, a professor at Johns Hopkins, was noted both for his ground-breaking discoveries in physics and his personal modesty about his work. Once, however, when he was called as an expert witness at a trial, a lawyer asked, "What are your qualifications to testify?" Without hesitation, Rowland replied, "I am the world’s greatest living authority on this subject." Later, a friend expressed surprise at the professor's uncharacteristic answer to which Rowland said, "Well, I was under oath."
When Jesus answered the questions put to him by scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and lawyers one can only imagine he felt the same way. He not only refused to fall into their traps, he always managed to put them in positions which exposed the weakness of their positions. Today, a lawyer asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?"
In Jesus' time, this was a matter of some debate. We're not merely talking here about the famous Ten Commandments; we're talking about all the laws contained in the Torah, the first Five Books of the Bible. The rabbis had determined that there were 248 affirmative laws - thou shalt’s - and 365 negative laws - thou shalt not’s. The debate was over how to prioritize them. Some thought that the dietary laws were as important as keeping the Sabbath, others that breaking the law against marriage to non-Jews was worse than murder. It was in view of this that the lawyer asked, Hey, everyone's got an opinion. What's yours?
And Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, Love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets".
We call these words of Jesus, The Summary of the Law, and they really are because, if you look at the Ten Commandments, you'll notice that the first four are all about ways in which we show our love of God - do not worship false gods, do not make idols, do not invoke him falsely, and be sure to keep the Sabbath - while the next six are all ways we show love of neighbour - honour your parents, and do not murder, cheat on, steal from, falsely accuse, or covet the things of, others.
And it's not just those ten. All the 603 other laws in the Torah have love of God and Man as their basic motive. We heard this morning, from Leviticus, part of the Torah, about how to treat people. That's love of neighbour. Other laws about temple sacrifices and tithing reflect love of God. When Jesus said he came to fulfil the Law, he didn't mean that he would settle the question of how many tassels to put on a prayer shawl, he meant that, in his person, the motive behind the laws would be fully revealed and understood. The Nature of God is Love and God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. And that's what the Jews didn't grasp. They saw the 613 laws as a literal check-list, not just examples of something more far-reaching. They didn't see the forest for the trees.
But, then, Jesus suddenly asked them a question which seems totally unrelated. "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" Well, the Pharisees confidently replied, "The son of David." It was, after all, commonly accepted that the Messiah would be a descendant of the great King David.
Jesus presses the point, however, and starts quoting the Psalms. "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand." And it's this argument which completely confounds his critics so much that, it says, from that moment on, nobody dared to ask him any more questions.
Now, tell me, did any of you understand what he said? It's a theological argument. The psalm portrays God inviting someone greater than King David to sit with Him, but, if this someone is the promised Messiah, Jesus argues, then, a) how can the Messiah be a descendant, and thus less important, than David? And, b) how can a mortal man sit with God?
The Pharisees know what he's saying. He's pointing out a major flaw in their theology. But, do we need to understand what it's all about? Why should we even care about theology?
When I first went to my parish in Allentown, PA, one of my colleagues showed me a study that had been done a few years before on what people in the Lehigh Valley said they wanted from church. 40% said the number one thing churches should be providing are social activities, like youth groups, spaghetti suppers, basket bingo, etc. 23% said that churches should be providing social ministries like food pantries, literacy classes, budget counselling, etc. Only 21% said they expected churches to provide worship and spiritual growth - Bible studies, prayer groups, sacraments, etc.
In other words, only one in five people wanted what the church exists to provide - knowledge about God.
And, if that's true, the question may be fairly asked, if one doesn't know much about God, how can one possibly love Him?
There's a little game I play. I ask people if they can name the Ten Commandments, and just about everyone starts off by easily getting most of the last six but, only with great difficulty can they name even a couple of the first four, if any. And that tells me folks are a lot better about loving their neighbours than loving God. Maybe it's because they don't know Him as well.
In Jesus' time, the big debate was how to love one's neighbour. Jesus told a parable about a Samaritan to answer the challenge, "Who is my neighbour?" Maybe, in our time, the challenge is, "Who is my God?" St. John said that loving God was the fundamental basis for loving other people. He would be amazed, today, to find that many Christians separate love of fellow humans from love of God as if the two were completely different things. People who would never dream of stealing or murder, practice secular values, stay away from church, believe it doesn’t matter what you believe and still say they love God. It's like saying, I cheat on my wife on Thursday, but, I'm faithful to her the rest of the week.
No. Learning about God is not an optional extra. Theology is important. How we understand God and how we live day-to-day go together. We cannot feel love for anyone unless we know the one we love. So too, unless we know who God is we cannot begin to love Him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind. We cannot begin to fulfil the first and greatest commandment and if we can't do that, what does the rest matter? Even pagans can be humanitarians.
The question that Jesus put to the Pharisees was a question about his identity and they could not answer it. But, if Jesus asked any one of us, "Tell me about who I am", or "Tell me about my Father", what could we answer?
So, let's take our theology seriously and get to know God. Then we can keep, not just one, but, both of the Great Commandments.
In the Name...