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Sermon - 23 Pentecost

In the Name… A fellow hailed a taxi, told the driver where he wanted to go and sat down in the back. After a couple of minutes, he wanted to ask a question, so he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me.” The driver screamed, lost control, went up on the pavement and stopped just before hitting a storefront. After an anxious silence, he said to the passenger, “I’m sorry, but this is my first day driving a taxi. For the last ten years, I’ve been driving a hearse.” Asking questions. Throughout Jesus’ ministry we see people asking him and he asking others. But, today we come to an ominous statement: “after that, no one dared to ask him any question.” I call it ominous because from this moment on in the Gospels, Jesus’ opponents begin in earnest making plans to kill him. The time for talk is over. They’ve heard enough. Yet, when we look at the text we read just now, it’s hard to see anything in it that is particularly disturbing, or even annoying. On the contrary. This isn’t a passage about separating sheep from goats or exposing hypocrisy. Here, Jesus is talking about love between God and God’s people and the love of neighbour for neighbour. What could be more innocuous? They should have wanted more examples. Instead, they shut down. To provide context, at the beginning of this passage, we hear that some Sadducees were discussing and debating various points in scripture and one of the scribes listening to them sees Jesus and asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?" Now, 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 scribe asked, Hey, everyone's got an opinion. What's yours? And Jesus replied, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 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. Indeed, 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 all 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, this one scribe did, and maybe that’s what pushed the leaders over the edge. A crack had formed in their ranks. The radical views of the outsider were now breaking in. Perhaps the leaders were put off by the scribe’s affirmation that to love God from the heart was worth more than any number of pro-forma rituals and sacrifices. Perhaps they were afraid that Jesus would point out that they weren’t doing a good job in showing others how to care for those in need. We don’t know their motives, but an interesting question we might want to consider today is, what about us? Would we ask any more questions? 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. 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?" And, in countless ways, we have made the answer to that question the cornerstone of our faith. Maybe, in our time, the challenge is, "Who is my God?" That is, we have done fabulously with building a horizontal view of the world and the interconnectedness of humanity. But, have we done so well with the vertical view? 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 relationships with fellow humans from relationships with God as if the two were completely different things. No. How we understand God and how we live day-to-day must 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, soul and mind. We cannot begin to fulfil the first and greatest commandment and if we can't do that, what does the rest matter? In fact, in some ways we should be a little more like the Sadducees at the beginning of the passage. Talking to others about what the scriptures mean to us. But, then, thinking about how the vertical relationship should impact all our horizontal ones. And then putting the two together, just as that scribe did. Imagine how pleased Jesus must have felt to hear the scribe say to him, “You are right, Teacher.” No wonder he paid the fellow the highest compliment in return, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” I think those are words which each of us can hear, as well. In the Name…

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