Shortly before our reading picks up, Jesus has come back to the Temple. But this time, the Temple authorities thought they were ready for him. As soon as he entered, they demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (21:23)?
Jesus refuses to answer. Instead Jesus tells a series of parables attacking them for failing to do God’s will, for persecuting God’s messengers, and for refusing God’s call.
The priests and elders are incensed. But what can they do? They cannot simply arrest Jesus because he is too popular. Before moving openly against him, they have to discredit him in the eyes of the people. So they try to catch him with a series of trick questions.
Today we get their final trick question: “which commandment in the law is the greatest”? Matthew is clear that the lawyer asks this “to test” Jesus. But it is not a very hard test. Jesus simply quotes the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (6:5). What Pharisee could disagree?
Jesus goes on to add a second law, this one from Leviticus (19:18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They hadn’t asked that, but for Jesus love of God and love of neighbor always go together.
Now, a lot of things separated Jesus from his opponents on that day in the Temple. But not this. It is the only time Jesus simply answers their question. It is the only time they simply accept his answer. Everybody there that day knew, Christians and Jews today still know, we are supposed to love God and love neighbor, just like the law says.
But then Jesus adds the final touch, which has a little more bite. And here we begin to get into the challenge of our reading, for them and for us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Apostle Paul says the same thing, and brings out the bite even more clearly. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:8-9).
In the end, God’s will for us comes down to love: love of God and love of neighbor. That’s it. If we act without love, we violate God’s will. We turn from God’s way. We fail God’s mission. Period. Nothing we do, no matter how apparently good it might be, fulfills the law unless we do it in love.
It is a deceptively simple standard that turns out to be a radical challenge if we take it seriously.
But too often we minimize the challenge by sentimentalizing love. We think of love as a warm and fuzzy feeling that translates into being nice. I like people, and I am a nice guy, so if that is all Jesus meant then I might be OK. But that is not what Jesus meant at all.
Look at Jesus’ own example. Jesus is in the middle of a bitter fight with the religious leadership, a fight that will end with his brutal death. These chapters in Matthew are not nice at all.
But Jesus continued to love his enemies. As he died, Jesus prayed that God would forgive those who executed him. In his death, Jesus opened the way of life for all of us, beginning with his enemies.
There is nothing emotional and nothing sentimental in that. There is only a stubborn love that overcomes hate by refusing to give in to it even in the worst circumstances imaginable.
Then Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, to love like he loved, to love when it is hard, to love in the face of hatred, to love when it is not fair and hardly seems possible. By that standard, being nice and feeling warm and fuzzy seems pretty insipid.
The other thing people do to get around the radical challenge of the love commandment is to privatize it, as if Jesus is telling us each individually to be loving in our personal lives without saying much of anything about our life together.
But love is supposed to define us as the people of God, as a community, as a nation.
God first gave the law of love to the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness, before they reached the Promised Land. God told them to follow the law of love when they created a new nation in the Promised Land. The law of love—love of God and love of neighbor—was supposed to shape them into a nation of justice and peace.
They failed, as every nation does. But God refuses to give up on love.
So Jesus came to form a new people as his body in the world, a community that would do God’s will, a community that would be faithful to their calling as God’s people, a community defined by love. That’s us.
Just after the events of our Gospel reading, on the night before his arrest, Jesus offered his final instructions to his disciples. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this,” he adds, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Love defines us not simply as individuals but as a community of faith, the community of Jesus Christ. Love should define us so completely that outsiders recognize it for what it is and see Jesus Christ in us.
Then Jesus commands his followers to go out and “make disciples of all nations,… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
God’s love in us should be so powerfully contagious that others catch it and it comes to define every nation on earth.
That is the challenge. To love each other as Jesus loves us. To love our world as Jesus loves our world. To love our enemies as Jesus loves our enemies. To share God’s love with all people.
The Church is supposed to be a school that teaches us how to love. The Church is supposed to be a laboratory where we experiment with new ways to love.
And like our predecessors, we routinely fail by that standard. But because God doesn’t give up on love, we don’t either.
And so we come together, week after week, hoping to get a little better at loving God and neighbor. We come to experience ourselves as God’s beloved children, called together in God’s love. We come to share the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, to be united in the sacrament to Christ and to each other. And in some mysterious way, God’s grace and love seeps into us, forgiving our failings, remaking us in God’s image, empowering us to love a little better.
And until the kingdom of God finally comes, we will never be perfect in love. But I thank God for the forgiveness we know in Jesus Christ, and for the grace to love, however imperfectly, following the command and the example of our Lord.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.