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Sermon: The Two Greatest Commandments in the Kingdom

If the two greatest commandments of the Kingdom of God are love God and love others, the question is How do we do that?  It might mean crossing boundaries that divide us and seeing others differently than we do. 

The Two Greatest Commandments in the Kingdom

Matthew 22:33-40

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Greatest Commandment

The command that takes priority over everything else is to love God.  But running an inseparable second is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

Loving God has some very specific expressions.  If you love God you do not attempt to make God in an image of your own imagination.  You do not worship other gods.  You keep a special day for worshipping God. You shall not use God’s name inappropriately.

Reverence for God’s name and day; faithfulness to God as the only God; refusal to make God in the image of our own imaginations, thereby controlling and limiting God.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves involves action also. But to clarify who our neighbors are, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.  A Jew traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten and robbed.  Another Jew, a priest, passes him by.  Still another, a Levite, also passes him by.  Of all the religious leaders, these two classes should have known what was most important.  The priest administers the sacrifices for sin.  He should have known that people take precedent over piety.  The Levite, also a member of the priestly class, should have known that ceremonial laws of purity did not release a person from aiding another individual.  Neither stopped to help.

Along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were hated by the Jews because of their racial makeup and their religious belief.  Sounds like the 21st century, doesn’t it?  So Jesus picks the most extreme example he can find of someone that no self-respecting Jewish man would be caught dead around.

The Samaritan violates purity laws by being soiled by the blood of the victim as he puts him on his own animal.  He finds help and nursing care for the victim, makes sure he will be taken care of, leaves money for his care, and promises to pay more if that is not enough.

Jesus then asks, “Who was neighbor to the man who was robbed and beaten?”  Not even able to utter the Samaritan’s nationality, the answer is given, “The one who showed mercy to him.”

With that, Jesus radically changed the meaning and boundaries of neighbor.  Neighbor now meant a wider group than just Jews.  Neighbor now meant those whom we were sure were destined for destruction and hell. Neighbor now meant a half-breed race, not our equals, not even worthy to be in our company.

And loving our neighbor meant putting ourselves at risk, giving up our own schedules, resources, time, energy, reputation, and taking not just immediate responsibility, but long-term responsibility for our neighbor.

It meant, as Jesus would say, “laying down your life for your friend.”

In China this week, the world was horrified at the behavior of some Chinese in the city of Foshan.  The internet was buzzing as the video of a little 2-year old girl was viewed over and over.

Two year-old YueYue, which means Little Joy, was with her mother at the market in Foshan.  Like two year-olds can before anyone is aware, she wandered off from her mother.  Video shows her walking down the narrow street of the market, right into the path of an on-coming truck.

The truck hits little YueYue knocking her down.  The driver, aware he has hit something (later he would say he was on his cell phone), slows, then speeds off.

That would be tragic enough, but the next series of events is what brought the nation of China to re-examine its own morality.  As YueYue is lying the the road, 18 people pass by her.  Most are walking, but one man on a motorcycle steers around the little girl.  And then, another vehicle runs over the toddler again.

Finally, a woman pulls the limp body of YueYue to the side of the road.

Perhaps because the whole incident was caught on video, the nation of China, at least for a moment, had to look at its own sense of community.  The question was asked in different ways, “How could we not come to the aid of a small 2 year old child?”

Jesus’ teaching of loving God and loving neighbor has some very important practical applications.

But we also have to look at what else Jesus did to love his neighbors.  We have talked previously about the parable of the banquet.  The king in this parable had prepared a banquet for invited guests, none of whom were able or willing to come.  So the king sends his servants out into the city to invite others.  And then when there is still room, he sends them back to the highways to invite those simply passing through town.

We like that story because it speaks to us about the openness of the King’s banquet.  But what Jesus was doing was changing the meaning of neighbor and community.  Remember that Jesus himself was accused of eating the tax collectors and sinners.  Apparently Jesus’ table fellowship violated the custom of the day, and made everyone uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable that they sought to discredit him, to shame him from continuing that practice.

And, if you think that we are beyond that kind of prejudice today, let me give you an illustration from our own past here in the United States.  Not far from here, in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at the counter in the Woolworth’s department store and ordered coffee.

Their actions, immediately labeled sit-ins by the media, challenged the rules of table fellowship in our southern way of life.  Of course, the north was not any better, with its own ethnic divisions, but one wrong does not justify another.

Violent struggle accompanied sit-in after sit-in in Greensboro, in Nashville, TN where Debbie and I grew up, and at lunch counters across the South.  Why?  Because someone was challenging the rules of acceptable eating partners and practices.

What Jesus did, both in the story of the Good Samaritan, and in the parable of the banquet, and in his own life was to break down the boundaries that separated some of God’s children from others.

Jesus’ message to the Jews was that the Kingdom of God isn’t just for you.  It is for all of God’s creation.  Which is the same message the Old Testament prophets proclaimed when they prophesied that the nations of the world would come to the mountain of God.

That same vision is the vision John sees in the Book of Revelation, where there is not just one, but 12 trees of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, plural.

What we as followers are Jesus are to do as demonstration of our love of God and of our neighbor, is to expand our definition of neighbor.  To break down barriers to the Kingdom of God, to invite as the Gospels say “the good and the bad” to the King’s feast.

A wonderful thing happened in India this week.  Two-hundred and eighty-five little Indian girls got all dressed up in their best dresses, fixed their hair, and carried tiny bouquets of flowers to a very special ceremony.

These girls all had something in common.  They were all named “Nakusa” or “Nakushi” – which in India means “unwanted.”  Their parents, in an act of supreme cruelty, had labeled their own daughters with a name that expressed their own displeasure at having given birth to a girl.

These girls were stigmatized from birth, ridiculed in school, and faced a life of rejection.

But someone in the provincial government in India wanted a better life for these unwanted girls.  So the girls were given the opportunity to change their names.  And, they were allowed to choose their own new names.  As you can imagine, many of them chose the names of the most popular movie stars in India; others chose the names of goddesses; and others chose names descriptive of the life they hoped to lead – names that meant prosperous, or beautiful, or good.

One little girl said, “Now in school, my classmates and friends will be calling me this new name, and that makes me very happy!”

John said in Revelation 22

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

That’s what will happen when the Kingdom of God is fully come.  Everyone receives a new name.  That’s exactly what Jesus was doing.  Changing the names of those who were called sinner, or tax collector, or prostitute, or unclean, or adulteress, or leper, or poor.

To all of those he gave the name “loved by God.”  And that is what it means to love God and to love our neighbors.  Simple words, but life-changing behavior.