Two weeks ago, I began my sermon on Moses and the Golden
Calf by talking about the game show, To
Tell the Truth. This past week, I went back to the same well. And so, I
shall begin today’s sermon by talking about another game show I remember
watching as a kid, called The $100,000Name That Tune. Does anybody remember
Tune was a syndicated game show that aired during the latter half of the
1970s. Each week, two contestants from the studio audience would be chosen to
compete against one another in a series of challenges, where they had to name
the title of songs. The challenge I remember most was called Bid-a-Note. During
this segment of the show, the host, Tom Kennedy, would read a clue about a
song, and the two contestants would take turns bidding against one another for
the chance to identify the title of the song.
One contestant might begin, “I can name that tune in
And the other might say, “I can name that tune in 5
“I can name that tune in 3 notes.”
“Okay then. It’s yours. Name that tune.”
At that point, the first three notes of the song would be
played on a piano, and the winning bidder would try to Name That Tune.
Name That Commandment
Now I mention this because in Jesus’ day, the Jewish rabbis
played a similar game. Let’s call it, Name
That Commandment. In this “game,” rabbis would discuss and debate the Law,
all in an effort to understand God’s law more fully and to live into it more
faithfully. One of the questions they would pose to one another was, “What is
the most important of God’s commandments, the commandment that serves as a the starting point or as the summary of the whole Law?” How a
rabbi answered this question would reveal something about his theological
tendencies and/or his political leanings.
We have some evidence of these rabbinical debates
around the time of Jesus. Some rabbis argued that the heart of the law was
contained in a statement from the minor prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous will
live by faith” (Hab 2:4). This is a particularly interesting answer because
in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul—who himself
was trained as a rabbi—identifies this verse
as the foundation of the Christian gospel (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; cf. Heb 10:38).
The Greatest Commandments
In any case, in today’s gospel, Jesus himself gets drawn
into this debate by the Pharisees. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is
the greatest?” (Matt 22:36). Now before we look at Jesus’ answer, let me provide
some context, a bit of the background and the setting.
Jesus is asked this question, while he is standing
in the temple in Jerusalem, the
religious and political center of first-century Judaism. Jesus has been teaching
crowds of Jewish pilgrims who have journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the
feast of Passover, arguably the central celebration of the Jewish nation. In
two days, Jesus would be dead.
At the beginning of the week, Jesus had ridden into the city on the back
of a donkey in a symbolic royal procession. Jesus then engaged in a prophetic
demonstration in the temple. He disrupted temple activities by overturning the
tables of the money changers and driving out all those who were buying and
selling in the temple precincts. Then, each and every day afterwards, Jesus
returned to the temple to speak to the crowds.
This did not sit well with the religious and
political establishments. The chief priests, the Pharisees, and other leaders challenged
Jesus, questioning his authority. “By what authority are you doing these
things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt 21:23). Jesus, however, refused to answer their
questions. And instead he told parables that served to question their
authority. As Matthew says, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his
parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest
him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Matt
21:45-46). So the Pharisees hatched a plot to entrap Jesus in what he said.
We saw this in last week’s gospel reading. You may
recall that the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus in the temple, and
asked him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matt 22:17).
It’s a politically explosive question? If Jesus were to say, “Yes, it is lawful
to pay taxes to the emperor of Rome, the empire that is currently occupying and
oppressing the Jewish nation, then Jesus will fall out of favor with the crowds.
If, on the other hand, Jesus were to say, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to
Rome,” then he could be arrested by the Roman authorities for inciting
rebellion. Of course, Jesus side-stepped their trap with his ambiguous
response: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” (Matt
After this failed attempt to entrap Jesus, the
Pharisees withdraw, and the Sadducees take a shot at him by questioning Jesus’
belief in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ response silences the Sadducees,
and so in today’s reading, the Pharisees are back at it: “Teacher, which
commandment in the law is the greatest?” Now, I am not exactly sure what the Pharisees
are hoping that Jesus will say that they could use against him. In any case,
Jesus answers their question, not with one commandment, but with two:
He says to them, “‘You shall 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: ‘You shall love
your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the
Both of these
commandments come straight out of the Old Testament. The first is taken
from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. Israel is given this commandment while they are
encamped along the eastern banks of the Jordan River. They have just completed
their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, following their Exodus from Egypt,
and they are looking over Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses will not be
accompanying the Israelites into the Promised Land. So he leaves them, as it
were, with his last will and testament:
Hear, O Israel:
The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
shall love the Lord your God
with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut 6:4–5).
The land of Canaan, which the Lord was giving to them, was a land in
which other so-called gods were worshipped “on every high hill and under every
green tree” (1
Kings 14:23). And so, Moses reminds Israel that they have only one God.
That being the case, the Israelites were to pledge their sole allegiance to the
Lord. They could have no divided
loyalties where the Lord was concerned;
they were allowed no other pledges of allegiance, be it, to a god, to a person,
or to a nation. Instead, they were to love the Lord
their God with all that they were, all that they had, and all that they ever hoped to be.
So what does it look like to love God with the all of our
heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30)? There is a lot that could be said
here for there is no end to all of the ways that we can love God with singular
devotion, but Jesus gives us an important clue when he quickly adds a second
commandment, which he takes straight from Leviticus 19:18. “You shall not take
vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your
neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
… ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.’
And so, loving God looks like loving our neighbor.
We know this, of course. After all, it’s built right into the Ten Commandments.
The first four commandments offer some specifics about how we are called to
love God, and the last six commandments offer specifics about how we are called
to love our neighbor. Love of God always comes first, but if it is truly the
love of God, then it manifests itself as the love of neighbor. “And who is my
neighbor?” a teacher of the law asks Jesus one day. The short answer is,
“Anybody whom God loves; anybody whom Jesus, the Son of God, died for.” At last
count, that includes everybody. Our family, our friends. Anybody that God
brings into our lives, be they strangers or enemies.
Love of neighbor flows directly from love of God. That’s
why the Apostle Paul can write in Galatians:
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal
Did Paul not get the memo? Doesn’t he know that there are
two great commandments, not just one? Indeed, he does, but he knows that there
is no genuine love for God where there is no concrete expression of love for
those whom God loves.
A Story — Wednesday
Let me end with a story about a young man I met on
(This story is related on the video of the sermon).
In the end, what the young man needed was God. But how
does a person find God in this world? Through God’s word and through God’s
people. Every day, we are called to live into our twin vocations of loving God
and loving people. And this is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard,
for a variety of reasons. But let us
never think that love of God and love of neighbor are somehow in competition
with one another. When there is any doubt, let us love our neighbors because in
doing so we will find ourselves fulfilling the call to love God with all of our
heart, soul, strength, and mind.
 So important was this call to love God
fully with singular devotion that Moses continued: “Keep these words that I am
commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about
them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you
rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (DEUT 6:6–9).