This conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees is the last conversation Jesus has with the religious leaders in the gospel of Matthew, the last conversation before the government trial that ended with his execution. But we know that when Jesus was brought before Pilate, he did not say a word to defend himself, so these are indeed the last words ever spoken to the religious leaders. It is after this conversation that the religious leaders dared not ask him any more questions. The conversation ended, and their plot to kill him began. It is after this conversation that Jesus turns to the crowds and the disciples to denounce the religious leaders. It is after this conversation that Jesus launches into a speech with the refrain, “But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus warns the crowds and his disciples, “Do whatever they [the religious leaders] teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus says these scribes and Pharisees lock people out of the kingdom of heaven, that they themselves do not go in, and when others are going in, they stop them. After proclaiming this list of woes and warnings, Jesus then laments over Jerusalem crying out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Conversations with Jesus can be dangerous because conversations with Jesus lead to decision or indecision that always has consequences.
Jesus’ response to this last conversation reminds us that all of these controversy stories, all of these parables we’ve been studying over the last five weeks, have been Jesus’ reaction to a group of religious leaders who’ve been blocking people’s access to God, locking people out of the kingdom of heaven, and placing unnecessary burdens on other people’s shoulders. It’s a group of religious leaders who claim to love God but do not demonstrate God’s love to their neighbors. Jesus has disrupted the people in the city of Jerusalem with his actions of proclaiming kingship by riding into town on a donkey and knocking over the tables in the temple. It is in the midst of these follow up conversations, where the religious leaders are testing Jesus and responding to his disruptive acts, that we learn to whom the kingdom of God truly does belong.
The Pharisees send their best representative this time, a lawyer, to test Jesus. The lawyer asks him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There were 613 laws, and it was generally recognized that some of the laws were weightier than others. It was common for rabbis to give summaries of the law, but it was also known that ranking laws would be looked down upon, that any ranking would be mere human proposition. All the laws were to be respected and obeyed equally. The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to make some statement that could be seen as him undervaluing a part of the law.
But Jesus says something they can’t argue with. He quotes two fundamental commandments that he and all other Jews would have been taught while sitting in their mothers’ laps. He quotes the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5; he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He says this is the first and greatest commandment. No one would disagree; this is the prayer that they say both morning and night. They know that their whole lives are to be oriented around God, but then Jesus connects this greatest commandment to a second commandment that is “like” it. It’s a commandment from Leviticus 19:18; he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus makes clear that one cannot love God without loving their neighbor as God loves them. One’s whole life is not oriented around God if one does not demonstrate loving action towards one’s neighbor. Jesus then says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commands. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commands! No law or prophecy is interpreted rightly if it does not affirm love of God and love of neighbor. It’s a strong word for the religious leaders, who claim to follow the law better than anyone. And yet though they claim to follow the law, they block people’s access to God and do not show loving action towards their neighbors. Therefore, they do not really follow the law and do not really love God with all their being because they are not loving their neighbors as themselves.
To love God means to love in the indiscriminate way that God loves. One cannot love God and not love God’s children. One cannot love God and oppress or exclude or ignore any of God’s creatures. This kind of love that Jesus speaks of is the steadfast love of God, love that is not a feeling but an action. It’s the love that God first demonstrated by making a covenant with the people of Israel, promising to be in relationship with them, to care for them, and to provide for them forever. We all know that love is not easy, but it’s often not easy because we mistake love for a feeling instead of a commitment. Love is difficult and hard. Love requires sacrifice; it requires putting your wants and desires aside; it requires hard demands. Often when we are tired and weary and feel drained of all our resources, we don’t feel like engaging in loving action towards our closest family members, much less our neighbors. When fleeting feelings of love pass away, we have a decision to make: will we choose love or will we choose apathy or selfishness?
By calling up a commandment from Leviticus 19, Jesus is showing us that we don’t get to just decide for ourselves what love means. We don’t get to pretend that loving our neighbor can be disconnected from loving action towards our neighbor. By referencing Leviticus 19, Jesus shows us that loving one’s neighbor is not even just occasional charity acts towards our neighbors, but love is participating in a societal vision where all our neighbors are treated like God would treat them. Leviticus holds up a vision where God’s people shall be holy like God is holy, where the Sabbath is kept, where idols are not worshiped, where the poor and alien are provided for, where no one steals, where people are not dealt with falsely, where the deaf and the blind are not defiled, where there is no unjust judgment, where there is justice, where there is no slander, where people are brave enough to call out their neighbors when they have done wrong, where there is no hatred or vengeance, and where all love their neighbor as themselves.
As we end this sermon series –where we have discussed that the kingdom belongs to those who do the will of the Father, to those who produce fruit, to those on the B List, to those who put on the clothes of righteousness, and to those who are loyal to God – it seems that this last call to love God and neighbor is simple, easy, basic. We have grown up quoting this scripture. When asked, “What is the essence of the gospel?” We answer, “To love God and love neighbor as oneself.” But yet this call from Jesus to be kingdom people by loving God and neighbor is anything but easy; it’s extremely hard. It’s easy to say; it’s easy to claim in a theoretical way; but it’s hard to do; it’s hard to center one’s whole life, one’s every action, around love of God and neighbor. We have limits and boundaries to our love of neighbor, don’t we? We give ourselves a pass when loving neighbor is going to cost us or our families something. We give ourselves a pass when loving neighbor is just too impractical or unrealistic. We give ourselves a pass when loving neighbor becomes too personal, interrupting our every day lives. We even allow the laws of our state to keep us from following God’s law. We take the human made rules of our land more seriously than the gospel command to love our neighbor.
In the 1980’s John Fife was serving as the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. He began meeting refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala who were coming across the border and telling him about the death squad killings that they fled. Faced with these horrifying stories of violence and oppression, Fife helped these refugees apply for political asylum, but they were not winning these legal battles. The refugees were labeled as economic migrants who were not being oppressed but simply coming here in search of a better economic situation. Since there was no legal way forward, Fife decided there was only one thing to do: he helped to organize over five hundred churches to help the refugees cross the border and find sanctuary so that they could escape the death squads. This movement was referred to as another kind of underground railroad, like the underground railroad of the abolitionist movement. When interviewed many years later, Fife said, “I assumed it was illegal, but I could not be a Christian and not be involved in trying to protect refugees’ lives. Sometimes you can’t love both God and (obey) civil authorities.” These churches believed that the law was unjust so they worked to change it. And as a result of the action of these churches, the government reopened the cases and let the refugees apply for political asylum. When I think about the kind of love of neighbor that Jesus calls us to, the love of neighbor that demonstrates God’s love, I think about John Fife. Fife didn’t just give the poor and the alien among him a few dollars or a few hot meals and send them on their way. Fife helped to organize a movement that held up a societal vision, a vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of justice, a vision of providing for the poor and alien. Fife put himself at risk. He was prosecuted and convicted of violating federal immigration laws and served five years probation. But what he did actually led the government to reverse their action and grant safety to refugees. Fife oriented his whole life around loving God and God’s commands by loving his neighbors as God loved them.
If we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, it will cost us. It will mean giving up some of our privilege, our power, and our resources. It will mean some people will perceive us differently. It will mean being weird because we don’t choose to go along with the status quo. We will be reprimanded for rocking the boat as we seek to bring God’s kingdom to earth. It may mean putting ourselves at risk. And believe me, I don’t want to put my family, my husband, my son, my job, my status at risk anymore than you do. I don’t want to submit myself to legal consequences anymore than you do. When you know Jesus is calling you to preserve your neighbor’s life as if it were your own life, when you truly understand what that means, there must be a whole lot of praying and a whole lot of soul searching and a whole lot of leaning on your brothers and sisters in Christ. The kind of love Jesus is calling us to is too difficult to do alone; that’s why we have a community called the church. I don’t know if I can love God and love my neighbor as myself without you. I don’t know if I can be as faithful as John Fife without you. I don’t know if I can put aside my own fears and do what the hard demands of love require without you. The question of the gospel is ever before us: Will we love God and our neighbor? It’s a question we have to answer together. We have to walk with each other and work side by side as we strive to live lives that bring all praise to God. And we have to keep asking ourselves what makes us different from the world around us, how will people know that we are kingdom people who seek to follow God’s commands, who orient our lives around love of God and love of neighbor. How is it that the world will know that we are Christians? They will only know by our love, by our love – the hard, sacrificial, self-giving kind of love that Jesus has extended to us and commands us to share with our neighbor.