The Heart of the Matter

Matthew 22:34-40

During October, we’ve been listening to what the Bible has to say about God’s law, given to us so we may better understand who God is.

We heard how poorly the Israelites responded to the law, despite the powerful revelation they received at Mount Sinai. And last Sunday, we explored how Jesus’ answer to a law-related question puts all of us in a quandary.

The law’s demand that we worship only God and let nothing come between us and God seems to be a hopelessly high hurdle. When faced with God’s high standards, humans throughout history have often chosen one of two options: throwing up their hands in despair and turning from God, or attempting a kind of hyper-obedience, trying to outdo others in observance of the law.

Certainly, turning away doesn’t help. And because sinless perfection is not humanly possible, I’ve never understood how hyper-obedience is supposed to save anyone from the separation from God brought on by sin. I assume that practitioners of extreme legalism think that God will save the best of the bad, like a teacher grading a failing class on a curve so that a few students receive A’s.

There is a better way to understand how we are to relate to God under the law. In fact, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And by listening to Jesus and understanding his story, we can follow this path to reunion with God.

Matthew’s gospel records in chapter 22 a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. (This lawyer also was a Pharisee, one of those groups that strove for hyper-obedience.) The lawyer tested Jesus by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus gave a highly orthodox answer, quoting the Shema,  a Jewish liturgical prayer rooted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

He added that there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting from Leviticus 19:18. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Luke’s version of this conversation, Jesus’ assertion is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that we are to define even our traditional enemies as our neighbors, showing them mercy.

Jesus was affirming that nothing about the law had changed. After all, the law as given to Moses is a revelation of the unchanging God. But Jesus also was clarifying the law’s purpose: to teach humanity that love is the core behavior for those who follow God.

The need for obedience doesn’t go away; Jesus proved that later in Matthew when he was obedient to the point of going to the cross, even after asking God the Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Love, however, shapes everything, even our obedience. Jesus went to the cross to save us from the punishments we are due for our sins, out of love for all of creation.

Love as the primary driver behind everything we do sounds nice. I get visions of a television show from my childhood where a giraffe, a chipmunk and some other puppet critters sang, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love … .”

We should never forget, however, that love complicates a religious life. Legalism is in some ways the easier path to choose, at least if you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to say, “Just tell me the rules so I can follow them.”

Love forces us to think, to analyze our actions, to check our motives.

I’ll give you the toughest example I know right now in the Christian community. It is what many simply call “the homosexual issue,” a catch-all phrase covering debates about the ordination of homosexuals, whether homosexuals should be able to marry each other, and whether pastors should bless such marriages.

Working from the Bible—which I take very seriously as being inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit—I find it nearly impossible to justify homosexual acts. It is possible to contextualize the Old Testament prohibitions, something Christians do all the time with other Old Testament rules. But I cannot get around the first chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

Its author, the Apostle Paul, clearly understood the impact of God’s grace and love being poured out on the world through Jesus Christ. Paul still, however, deliberately linked homosexual acts (and several other sins) to a general turning away from God by humanity.

And yet, I am troubled by my own desire to say to homosexuals, “There’s the rule, get over it.”

I know followers of Christ who struggle with their homosexuality. I care for them. Love forces me to think beyond simple assertions, acknowledging the powerful feelings they live with day after day, their pain, their craving for acceptance and community.

I love God, I trust God’s Word, and I desperately want to better love my neighbors, but love sometimes leaves me a little stumped. All I can do is pray that the love that resulted in the cross and the resurrection will eventually provide complete answers.

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