Worthy of Love - 18th Sunday after Trinity
September 25, 2016 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
Verse: Matthew 22:34–22:46
Nobody wants to be a hypocrite, yet everyone lives life on different levels, as many levels as an onion has skins. In Jesus' day there were names for all these levels, but after the onion was peeled away, what was left was the center, the real stuff of the person, which they called the heart. Today we think of hearts as organs which can be transplanted without changing the person. In the first century, no one thought that way. To the lawyer in today's Gospel, the heart was the innermost layer. When Jesus said to love the Lord with all his heart, he knew that Jesus was penetrating to the very center of life.
Hard as that may be, Jesus did not let it go at that. He added the second Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus impressed this on the Twelve. Years later John, in his first letter, write that no one can love God whom he has not seen, unless he loves his brother whom he sees every day. Should a conflict ever arise between God's interests and our neighbor's, then God should have priority. Most of the time the choice is between choosing my neighbor's good and choosing my own. Jesus does not set us up to judge whether or not our neighbor is worthy of love. If you have to ask, "Why should I love my neighbor," Jesus does not give any of the stock answers we have come to expect. Most of us don't even ask why we should love God, the answer is so obvious. But why my neighbor? Some philosophers say when you love your neighbor you are really loving yourself, trading your good attitude and good deeds for his. Other philosophers say that people are intrinsically good. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He is not talking about appreciating some value in your fellow men. He is talking about His kind of love, divine love that stoops to the unworthy, that loves the unlovable, that lays down its life for its enemies. Jesus is talking about I Corinthians 13 kind of love. It never thinks about itself, but only seeks to help. One thing the Bible is very certain about, we do not love our neighbor because of what he is, we love him because of what we are.
Jesus is saying these things to a lawyer. He wanted to know the sort of thing lawyers always want to know -- which commandment takes precedence? He was examining behavior. Jesus was looking deeper. He did not command us to behave as if we loved the Lord. Nor did He say, "Agree that loving the Lord and your neighbor is a good thing." He makes a far more absolute demand, "Love the Lord … and your neighbor." Feelings, knowledge, and will are all outer layers. Love puts you on the spot. It might be easy to talk about, but it is so hard to give! Some have said we need to try harder, but Jesus does not command us to try harder. He commands us to succeed. If the story ended here we would have little hope. The Great Commandment has become the great accusation. In place of commandments, we can only hear the accusing voice calling, "Adam, where are you?"
But Jesus did not just demand love, He gave it. Therefore, His question is more important than the lawyer's. He asks, "What do you think of the Christ?" The lawyer gave the wrong answer. Jesus was looking for the answer of faith, the one Simon Peter gave Him when He said, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." All the questions about love are dangerous quicksand for the conscience. But the faith of the Fisherman is a Rock. Jesus' demand for love stabs through all the onion skins, revealing the hypocrisy of our hearts. But Christian faith is able to say, "My heart belongs to the One who bought it with His blood."
God loved us with His whole heart. He did not ask whether or not we were worthy of love. He gave us Jesus, was worthy beyond any doubt. He took for Himself the hatred of the world and the devil, remaining righteous through and through. Upon Him was laid all the retribution demanded by the Law for sins which others committed. Although He always resisted the temptations of Satan, He fell under all of the accusations. Jesus did not demand love; He gave it. At great cost to Himself, He gave it to us to buy us back to God. He has done all that is necessary to claim our hearts for Himself. We do not give Him our hearts. He buys them and owns them. He gives us faith through the Gospel which we preach, so that we believe He is our Savior.
This good news, so complete, so firm, so certain, is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. And with this faith comes the Holy Spirit who sets about redeeming the outer layers of the onion as well. By His power we love our neighbors, not because we see anything in them, but because we belong to Jesus. We become like the Savior who owns us. He does not ask whether or not we are worthy of love, so we don't ask it either. We are washed in God's laundry, and therefore are a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, ready to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
And yet, we remain flesh and blood. We are free from the Law, but flesh and blood continue to sin. On the level on which we can examine ourselves, we will always find mixed motives, dubious behavior, and unloving language. Confess whatever is wrong, because Jesus waits to forgive it. His victory over sin and death is a fact of history. Your behavior does not take it away. The One who is worthy of love has loved us into being His own. AMEN.