October 29, 2017 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Do you remember the WWJD bracelets that were popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? What would Jesus do? Did your mom or dad ever give you one of those as a reminder to behave yourself when they weren’t around? Did you ever give one to your child? They were a silent but not so subtle way of saying, “What would our Lord and Savior, the sinless incarnate Son of God, do if he were in this situation?” In other words, it was a way of strapping a good, hefty dose of guilt right on your wrist to remind you over and over that you aren’t perfect. Happy birthday, son. We love you.
Actually, the funny thing is that the kind of moms and dads who like to use religious guilt to motivate their children’s behavior would probably rather not have their children act like Jesus, who, although sinless, was quite the trouble-maker. When it came to observing the sabbath and keeping it holy, Jesus enjoyed breaking the rules in order to prove a bigger point. When it came to hanging out with good, upstanding people, Jesus never liked that crowd and always preferred the company of real sinners. When it came to following the examples of others, Jesus would rather be remembered as a firebrand who thumbed his nose at the elders than as a dutiful student who respected them. If parents are willing to give their children a guilt complex in order to keep them in line, they’d be better off giving them a WWPD bracelet, so that those kids can ask, “What would the Pharisees do?”
In today’s gospel lesson, those law-abiding, rule-following Pharisees asked Jesus to pick which commandment in the law is the greatest. Matthew tells us that they were trying to test him, which is his way of letting us know that they weren’t interested in what he had to say except that it might get him in trouble. Since Jesus had earned a reputation as a rabbi who didn’t always follow the Law of Moses, this was their chance to expose his lawlessness and faithlessness. If they could get him to say something like, “Thou shalt have no other gods but me,” they could seize on it as an implicit acknowledgment that he didn’t think sabbath observance or prohibitions on adultery were important. Surely this loosey-goosey liberal would give them something they could use against him.
They expected Jesus to confirm their assumptions that he didn’t care about being faithful to the law, but, instead, he gave them a reinterpretation that left them stunned. The greatest commandment? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your mind. And the second is just like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. The Pharisees tested Jesus to see if he would leave anything out, and, in reply, Jesus gave them a test of his own. His two-fold summary revealed that being faithful to the law isn’t about picking one or two or ten or even all 613 commandments but living a life that is utterly and totally devoted to God and neighbor. All those commandments about the sabbath and idols and honoring father and mother and keeping kosher and fasting on holy days and caring for the widow and orphan? They were given by God to help God’s people know what their lives would look like if they truly loved God and their neighbor, but those 613 mitzvot were never supposed to be a substitute for a real relationship.
If you asked a couple who had been married for sixty years what a healthy marriage looks like, what sort of answer would you get? Stories of good times and bad times and a love that persisted through them all. Celebrations and anniversaries and birthdays and holidays and spending them with someone you love. Births and baptisms and illnesses and deaths and travelling through all of the joys and pains of life with the never-failing support of your spouse. I’m sure that they could write a list of 613 rules for how to be a good husband or wife—like don’t buy your wife a toaster oven for your anniversary and always remember to pick up your dirty socks—but the love that exists between two people who have been married for six decades is far greater than the successful adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. There’s nothing wrong with a set of guidelines as long as we don’t confuse the rules for the relationship that they’re supposed to point us toward.
We belong to God. We are God’s children. God has chosen us. God has called us by name and made us his own. What does it mean for us to belong to God? It means loving God with everything we’ve got. And it also means loving other people as if they were ourselves. That’s how we live when we honor the relationship that God has made with us. But how can we do that? How can a species that is programmed for self-interest learn to love and care for others as passionately as we love and care for ourselves?
The strange, hard truth is that a right relationship with God doesn’t happen when we are mindful of all the rules on our checklist but only when we give God all the love we have. Going to church, saying your prayers, and placing money in the offering plate don’t mean you have a real relationship with God any more than cleaning the dishes, buying some flowers, and saying “I love you” makes you a good spouse. What matters is where your heart is. If your heart belongs to your spouse, you’ll do all of those things and more. If your heart belongs to God, you’ll give him more than an hour and a half of your time and $20 from your wallet each week.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind, and love you neighbor as yourself. You belong completely to God, so give to God your whole self. When you make a pledge this year, don’t ask yourself how much you’re supposed to give. Ask yourself what it takes for you to belong completely to God. Give to God all that you have—your whole heart and soul and mind. What portion, what percentage, of your income do you have to set apart for God’s work in the world before you know what it means to say to God, “Here I am. I give you my whole self, my entire life. Use me?”