1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22: 34-46
In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The readings today seem to underscore the point that it is about relationships – not about possessions.
In the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy we watch as Moses has now led his people to the Promised Land but he is not destined to cross the river to get to it himself. He is denied access. Why? One reason is perhaps that Moses killed one of the Egyptians before leaving when he saw the man abusing another slave. Perhaps a more important one is that God wanted to make the point that life is not about possessions – it is about the journey – it is about relationships!
Two chapters before in Deuteronomy we have the Song of Moses and then the Blessing of Moses. After this we hear about the death of Moses and the transfer of leadership to Joshua, his successor. He commands Moses to “ascend these heights” to survey the Promised Land before his death. From this lofty vantage point it allows Moses to look northward to the Sea of Galilee, south to the Negev desert along the Jordan and south toward Dead Sea. There are unusual details in these chapters that greatly honors Moses. For one he does not die of old age or succumb to physical or intellectual infirmity even though it says he is 120 years old. It says that HE buried him – a clear indication that it is God himself who buried Moses. Instead of Moses’ family assuming this important and legal responsibility of caring for the dead, God undertook it personally. This divine care fits the image of Moses in Deuteronomy. No one knows his burial place. That keeps people from making pilgrimages to it as a shrine. Israel mourns the death of Moses for the full amount of time as is stipulated for a parent burying a child. Deuteronomy stresses and revives earlier traditions that wisdom is the essential qualification for holding an office. Thus, what Joshua received from Moses is the spirit of wisdom. When Moses laid his hands on him in the book of Numbers, he transferred his attributes and blessing upon him.
Let’s fast forward to the Epistle. We heard, “As God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
Have you ever been unfairly criticized by someone else – a family member perhaps or a colleague – or a customer? It happens to all of us – no one is exempt.
The Gettysburg Address is considered the one of the most eloquent orations in United States History. And yet, the editor of the Chicago Times, a prominent newspaper of its day ridiculed that address which had been delivered, of course by President Abraham Lincoln. On November 20, 1863, the day after Lincoln delivered his famous speech, the editor of the Times wrote: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, fat and dis-watery utterances of the man who has been pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
Sooner or later we all have to deal with criticism.
Would you like to live your life impervious to the hurtful or unhelpful opinions of other people? Would you like to live so that you are not fazed either by criticism or flattery? Here is the answer: live to please God. It’s a simple thing. If your primary audience is God, if your primary goals is to have God say at the end of your life, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” then what difference would it make what other people say about you. It would make no difference what so ever.
How do we live to please God? St. Paul gave us the answer both in his words and in his life. First of all, to please God live with integrity. That’s what St. Paul did. Living a life of integrity is more than simply keeping the commandments. There are many people of whom it could be said that they have never killed, never stolen, never committed adultery. We live in a time when prominent and influential people from every walk of life hedge the truth. They don’t steal, not in the classic understanding of the word, they don’t kill, and they don’t overtly disobey God’s law. They simple shade the truth. The use flattery and deceit. Often they are motivated by greed. Perhaps they think it is not good for business to be completely honest about the things they sell or the services they offer. A life of integrity may not make one popular. However, it will make you respected. More importantly there will be an audience of ONE who will be applauding.
The second way is please God is to live a life of Love. Paul writes, “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. The reason that Paul had such an impact on the churches he served was the people knew he genuinely cared about them. As has been often said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Let’s shift now to the gospel. Today is a second in a series of three gospels that reflect upon the teachings of Jesus set in the context of his confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees. His teachings focuses on, and is in direct response to, their attempts to trap him. He seizes this as an opportunity to proclaim the reign of God and enlarge our understanding – and our capacity for love – that is the biblical understanding of love.
The Pharisee who addresses Jesus in today’s gospel is referred to in some manuscripts as a teacher of the law. He has no intention to learn from Jesus – he thinks he knows it all already. He simply wants to test him. The Pharisee questions Jesus about the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus’s response is a summary of his entire teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. The greatest commandment is to love. It is at the heart of the Old and New Testament. The law of love is a summary of God’s plan of salvations for the world since the beginning of time.
The Pharisees cataloged 613 laws in the first five books of the Bible – 248 thou shalts and 365 thou shall nots. . These books are also the Jewish Tora. There was at this time a common practice of summing up all of these laws into smaller summary statements. Jesus’ response was different. He understood both laws – the love of God and love of neighbor to possess equal importance. This was different. When Jesus placed equal importance on both laws, he signaled a breakthrough, a shift in moral teaching, over and above the teaching of the rabbi.
To take this one step further, the Israelite understanding of Neighbor was a brother or sister Israelite. Neighbor did not include outsiders; it only referred to those who shared the covenant. Compassion was to be extended to the outsider, but not necessarily love. Jesus turned that understanding upside down and included the entire human family. This was a radically new concept for ancient Israelites.
Jesus did not discard the other commandments, he simply stated that all the commandments flow from the law of love. At this time to love one’s neighbor as one’s self was to have a sense of belonging to that person or persons as if they were a member of one’s own family.
This week starting right now, let’s put the greatest commandment into practice. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be persistent. If you do, it will eventually become a habit and then a virtue. Go to God every day in prayer. He will shower you with his blessings and his grace. When we realize this it helps us love and bless others. Amen.