Advent Week 4: Love
Matthew 22. 34-38, NRSV
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “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.
I have always understood Jesus’ answer to this lawyer’s question to be the answer that the lawyer expected. Jesus gave the same answer that any first century Jew would have given to the lawyer’s question. After all these years, Jesus’ answer works especially well for us. It provides for us a convenient example of the connection between our Christian faith and its Jewish roots. More than that, it gives us a concise synopsis of the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Loving God with one’s whole self is central to being Christian.
Jesus gives a great answer. Giving great answers is what we expect Jesus to do. Anytime you can answer a question from the lawyer of the Pharisees by quoting the Hebrew Bible you have to be feeling good.
The answer is not what troubles me. The question troubles me. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” I am sure that it was a fine question when the lawyer first asked it with its own motive and purpose. As I read it now, I realize that it all too easily slips through all those years and becomes the kind of question that I would ask. Assuredly, the question is fraught with temptation for me. Asking about the “Greatest” commandment makes me wonder if my concern is one of religious exceptionalism or spiritual direction. Is my religion just one more thing that has to be biggest and the best, the latest and the greatest? Asking for one commandment, the greatest one to be sure, but just one, makes me wonder if I am in a hurry to be finished with my religious duty. Jesus, tell me the one thing that I really need to know so that I can move to the next item on my list of things that I have to do. Sorry, I only have time for one. I am tempted in both of these ways more often than I care to acknowledge.
However, the greatest temptation I face in this text is to think that the answer Jesus gives is just an answer. That it is an answer to a question that settles an issue, resolves a dispute or fills in a blank. Jesus’ answer does not settle anything or a least it should not. Like a plow running through fertile soil, it ought to turn over old perspectives and plant seeds that grow into new questions. What does it mean to love God with heart, soul and mind? What does that look like? Where will that take me? How many borders will I cross getting there? What sort of people will I encounter along the way? Jesus’ answer is something of an incubator. Questions hatch inside of it. Questions that give birth to faith and faithfulness within us, not in the time it takes to answer a question, but in all the days, minutes and moments it takes us to live our lives.
Prayer: O God, thank you for the answers you have provided to me. I am grateful for the words, the people and the situations you have used to speak to me. I am grateful for answers that continue to grow and continue to grow me.
I am grateful for the questions you have answered and the ones you have brought to my mind. What does it mean to serve a God who wants to be loved by me? What does it mean that I am loved by such a God?
Finally, I am grateful that for my most perplexing, difficult and even truly frightening questions, you point me toward a child in a manger—Immanuel—giving me a radical demonstration of what love looks like when it is done with heart, soul and mind. Amen.
Action: The work of Advent involves recognizing the questions that have shaped our lives. It means acknowledging the good and bad ways that we have answered those questions or ignored them. Is there a question that is prominent in your life right now? Consider some ways that you might move toward an answer as you go through the day.
Ed Sunday-Winters is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Phenix City in Alabama.