Math isn’t my favorite. For some of you it is and I love every single one of you. It is truly a beautiful thing that our minds and passions all play out differently. It’s what makes life interesting! My daughter, Morgan, is in the 5th grade and she’s doing advanced math right now. She’ll often ask for my assistance and I’m glad she still thinks her dad knows the answers to everything. I’ll hold onto that as long as I can. Not only was math not my favorite subject, it is not taught the same way either which complicates things a bit. She’ll often ask for my help and I’ll have to read the whole chapter and try to figure it out or I’ll counter with a question, “Morgan, how would you approach this problem?” like I’m trying to pull a teacher move or something – she’ll catch onto me soon that such a question means, “I have no clue how to do that problem.”
I have often been advised, and in turn advise others, “Don’t do the math.” This turn of phrase is most widely used as a way of saying, “It’s complicated – don’t try to figure it out.” What a relief to be told not to worry about the math! Jesus offers a spiritual equation in today’s foundational text that doesn’t seem to compute. “Jesus Math” is a totally different class than algebra, calculus or trigonometry. In some ways, it’s much simpler. In other ways, it brings us to the hardest equation we’ll ever have to face. Jesus says, “All the law and the prophets” hang on this one equation that we’ve come to call “The Great Commandment.”
We’re considering some of the foundational texts of our faith this month, starting with “Love your enemy” two weeks ago, the simplistic beauty of the 23rd Psalm last week and today the Greatest Commandment as far as Jesus is concerned. What does it have to do with math? We’ll get there in just a minute. First – the set up. Jesus has quite a rep by now and the religious sects don’t really appreciate the disturbance he’s causing. An agitator is nobody’s favorite person in the world, even though we need them. Jesus provokes less than he is probed by others and such is the case here. Jesus is in the middle of a series of rapid-fire questioning from the religious authorities. The Pharisees maintained huge libraries of commentaries on the Torah, or Jewish law, and touted themselves as experts in this regard — and they truly were. They hear that another religious literate group – the Sadducees – a rival religious gang so to speak – was shut down by Jesus when they questioned him extensively. So, like any good debate team, they huddle and lean on the lawyer of the group to test Jesus with some Jeopardy-like grilling. You’ve got to remember, there is no freedom of speech clauses holding space for everyone in this time. Catch a guy in a twisted response and you might get him flogged, imprisoned, or even executed. But they think they’ve got the golden question to trip him up. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And they maybe even snicker in the pride of their clever question. It is a smart question. Most of us knew of Jesus’ response so it may seem like, “Of course, we know which commandment is greatest. Isn’t it obvious?” Not so much. So many to choose from. The rabbis of that time counted 613 commands in the law, 248 positive commands and 365 negative commands. Every day of your life, you’ve got somebody hollering at you, “Don’t do that!” The accepted point of view was that all the commandments were equal. Any ranking of them would have been seen as the height of human arrogance. The lawyer’s plan may have been to get Jesus to say that the moral laws were more important than the ceremonial laws. The word Matthew uses here for “test” is the same word used to describe what Satan was doing to Jesus in the wilderness. Can you say, “Trap!” ?
Jesus seemingly pipes right up with his response. There’s no stammering like Eric Gordon in the movie Billy Madison when he’s asked about ethics. “You see the thing about ethics is…” No. Jesus basically says, “You’re wearing the answer on your forehead.” That’s one way to roast somebody. What do I mean? Jesus recites the The Shema from Deuteronomy; words that would have been familiar to every Jew – those are the words, even still today, that are recited every morning and evening as a prayer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” A faithful Jew took literally the command to fix this word as an emblem on their foreheads. They would put these words in what are called phylacteries – little boxes that held little scrolls with the Shema on it – and wear it on their foreheads. This command was not only to be read and heard, but felt, touched, lived out – fully embodied.
If that wasn’t enough, he drops this: “A second is like it…” Jesus is on a roll so why not? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He pulls this from Leviticus 19:18 – it was another law that wasn’t just to be worn on the forehead but kept close to the heart and obeyed through the hands. For Jesus, love of God, naturally works its way outward in love for neighbor and love for neighbor can be an expression of love for God. Put these two commands together and what, you boil down all the words of “the law and the prophets.” You do a little Jesus math and discover 1+1 = 613. Love God, Love Neighbor are the two pegs from which everything else hangs. Isn’t that great? The Pharisees tried to re-group but essentially decided, “Let’s not ask Jesus any more questions.” It seems like a nice and neat little way to order your life. After all, it’s quite the relief to think, “Two commands are easier to get my head wrapped around than 613.” But, in its simplicity, we begin to find its greatest challenge.
I mentioned Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber a couple of weeks ago and don’t mean to mention her again so soon but she has a way of truth-telling that is important. She was on a speaking tour a while back following the release of one of her books and an eager seminary student stepped up to the mic and asked innocently, “How do you get close to God?” Not exactly, “Which commandment is the greatest?” but not totally dissimilar either. Nadia shoots back quickly, “Get close to God? Are you kidding? Every time I get close to God, God expects me to love someone I hate, give money away to people who need it more than me and forgive people I don’t really want to forgive. Frankly, I don’t want to be too close to God.” She was kind of kidding and she was kind of telling the truth. Do you know how that feels? And love – what do we do with that? Some of us feel like we’re not very good at love. Is it a feeling? Boston says, “It’s more than a feeling!” The Beatles say “It’s all we need.” But how do you measure love? Is it an ability? What?
And we certainly don’t love perfectly. Why is that the greatest, Jesus? I was laying with my youngest son, Hayes, one night this week as he was getting ready for bed. Nothing like crawling into the bottom bunk with your kid – takes me back to my own childhood. We were reviewing the day before our prayers and he started right in, “I love mom and dad and sister and brother and everyone and everything in the whole world… except for gross stuff. I don’t love gross stuff.” No matter our intentions, there’s always some gross stuff that will challenge our commitment to love. I wish Jesus would have picked one of the commandments that was just something I could believe – something I could give verbal assent to. That wouldn’t require a whole lot and it wouldn’t be all that messy. It would be clean and clear and, well, easy. But “When faith,” says Len Sweet, “becomes all about beliefs and works instead of relationships, then what we’re really in love with is our own thoughts and opinions and doings — not an image of God, but an image of ourselves.”
We really do ‘rule’ ourselves to death. And rules and laws can be beautiful. They can shape and mold our sense of discipline and give us a healthy approach to living. Any parenting-tip book will tell you to be firm in your boundaries with your children – they need to know the boundaries and they’ll always test them. Thus, 613 commands, seems like plenty to busy ourselves with. And some of you will be quick to point to the verse that says, “Jesus came not to abolish the law but fulfill it.” Maybe, however, we see this move of Jesus as one that says, “I’ve absorbed all of value of the law, all the helpful words of the prophets into my very being so that you can focus on a relationship with me.” We all can understand this. If you are, or have ever been, in a relationship built around love, you understand that there are certain laws, or expectations, that come with honoring that relationship. It’s not an ‘anything goes’ situation. There is mutual respect. There are honored boundaries. True love honors those things out of desire to build up another, not to keep a check-list of ‘do-nots’ that squelch the very nature of a loving, and alive, relationship with another being.
After this encounter with the Sadducees and Pharisees, Jesus turns to the disciples for a little follow-up lesson. He says, “Look – these religious scholars are not bad people. They are competent teachers and you won’t go wrong following their teachings on Moses, but be cautious about following them too far. They talk a good line but they don’t live much of it.” It was Shane Claiborne – author and activist who said – “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.” Jesus says something similar next. Here’s The Message version of Mathew 23.
4-7 “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’
8-10 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
11-12 “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.
Then he calls the religious scholars out saying, “Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.” Is there a tougher word to swallow? These people have given their lives to understanding the laws and commands of their faith and Jesus calls them a roadblock to God’s kingdom? And maybe worse, he then says, “You refuse to enter” [into relationship perhaps] and you won’t lead anyone else into a relationship with God and each other either.”
What is holding you back from this loving relationship with God and each other? What is your hang up? Why do you not let yourself fully connect with God? Or why do you spend so much of your time trying to tell your neighbor how to get it all right – texting them constantly, posting on social media constantly, law number 467, for example, because you’ve deemed it the greatest commandment of the moment? We all get lost in this sometimes. It’s easier to focus on somebody else’s shortcomings than doing the hard work of living out of the loving relationship Christ says is to be our focus.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” Whew… I know this is hard. We think, “No. I’m not going to love them because they don’t believe the right things or vote for the right people. They don’t have a pure faith and I can prove it… and I’m going to spend all my time proving they are wrong.” Claiborne said something else that I think is helpful here. He said, “We can see that the closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people.” If we are throwing stones all day, we’ve got to look inside ourselves and wonder, “Is it me, Lord?” This is where I love the line that I heard once which I’ve shared before. “If you run into a jerk more than twice in a day, you may be the jerk!”
Love is to be lived out, even when it’s hard… maybe especially when it’s hard. Take a look at this story…
Why did he forgive? Not just for his sake, or their sake, even, but for “our sake”. That’s the communal sake. That includes us. Reminds me of another Jesus equation. How many times should we forgive? Peter says, “Seven times” feeling generous with his answer. Jesus says, “Try 70 x 7.” I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to admit I’ve got my fair share of Jesus Math homework ahead of me. Not just for my sake, or for your sake, but for our sake… for the sake of the world that God so loves.
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 This information and other exegetical components of this message are attributed to Eugene Boring’s corresponding textual work in “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 8. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.
 –Leonard Sweet, The Well-Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work (Tyndale, 2014), 43.