Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“How To Be Great”
Rev. Art Ritter
October 25, 2020
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 never been a student of science. Ask my trivia team, science is nowhere close to my strongest category. It probably ranks just ahead of Video Games and Rap Music. When I was in college I was able to fulfill my science and lab requirement with a psychology class. High school however was a different story. I struggled mightily through chemistry and had a slightly better experience with two years of Biology. Actually I only wanted to take one year of Biology but the typing class that I registered for was overbooked so the guidance counselors asked a handful of us sophomores to take an Advanced Biology course with the seniors. My biology teacher was Mr. Myers, and looking back he was one of the better teachers that I had in high school. I will always remember his main teaching technique- the pop quiz. Every single time you entered Mr. Myers’ classroom you had to be prepared for a pop quiz based on the assigned reading. You never knew when it was coming but you always feared that it would be the day that you were unprepared.
Mr. Myers would begin each class the same way. He would ask if we had questions about the homework reading assignment. Right away this gave us students a chance to stall, to learn something that we didn’t know, or to cram in a few minutes of intense study. We desperately looked around pleading for others to ask questions. I recall some of my classmates asking ridiculous questions, all in the hopes of taking up enough class time that Mr. Myers couldn’t fit in his pop quiz. But then I also recall that deadly silence when there were no more questions. Hands stopped going up. And then Mr. Myers said those dreaded words, “All right, take out a sheet of paper then.” Pop quiz. I was on the spot.
As I reflect back upon it, Mr. Myers pop quizzes were actually a good teaching technique. It forced students to prepare. Even if we didn’t prepare, we had the opportunity to ask questions about the material, questions we might not have asked if we didn’t have the motivation of fear. And so we learned, whether we were actually quizzed or not.
The Scripture lesson this morning was kind of a pop quiz for Jesus. Here in the gospel of Matthew, a series of people came to Jesus with difficult questions, questions for which there really was no right answer. First the Pharisees sent some flunkies to trap Jesus with the question about paying tribute in taxes to the emperor. That is the lesson we talked about last week. Then some Sadducees tried to trick Jesus up with a difficult question about resurrection. We skip over that exchange. This morning we read a passage where the best Pharisee scholars encounter Jesus with a question about the greatest commandment of all. They, like Mr. Myers are trying to test his knowledge or perhaps hoping to test his ignorance.
Alyce McKenzie writes that in effect Jesus’ opponents were trying to make him into a reality show contestant. She says that reality shows are really a culture of humiliation, testing people all of the time. The prize is prestige and money. The penalty is being sent home, with your dreams destroyed with millions of people watching. McKenzie concludes that the tests given to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew were equally “ridiculous and disrespectful to Jesus’ mission and identity.” They were pop quizzes given by the privileged to destroy the reputation and authority of the one being tested. Pop quizzes are given by those who hold the power of the answers to destroy those who are not prepared to answer correctly.
“Which commandment is the greatest?” That was the question. Jewish scholars had determined that there were 613 commandments. Applying all 613 to life was impossible. Remembering all 613 was problematic. Determining one as most important would slight others that each carried a great deal of importance. But they believed that they knew the answer and they were in the position of power in testing. And so they asked, “Which commandment is the greatest?” They were trying to trap Jesus into divulging his opinion. Who is obeying the law of greatest importance? What is the easiest and simplest thing for us to do to be found great in the eyes of God? These questioners were trained to think that getting actions right were just a matter of getting your beliefs right and so you believed in the right thing that you were great and that God was on your side.
Theologian and author Marcus Borg tells the story of a small town North Carolina businessman from one of the remote mountain communities who went to Raleigh in the late 1800’s and for the first time in his life saw an ice-making machine. Artificial ice was a recent invention and the man thought it was wonderful because it meant that you could now have ice all summer long. He returned to his small mountain community and told his Baptist church brothers and sisters all about this ice making invention. Within a month the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case was whether or not the ice making machine violated the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. The argument was that if God wanted us to have ice in the summer, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water. Such was the logic of Jesus’ questioners. They were searching for simplicity in God’s intention, rules that were easy to understand and upon which it was easy to make judgments upon others. They were looking for an answer that would confirm the way they knew to be true.
Jesus answered “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.” Here he quoted the words of Deuteronomy 6:5, adding the word “mind” instead of “might.” This was an important change. The addition of the word “mind” implied learning and reinforced that a search for God in life is much more important in building a life of faith than memorizing and following routine commandments. Then Jesus added, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love of God and love of neighbor were not separate laws in Jesus’ teaching. They were mutually interdependent. To love God is to love your neighbor. To love your neighbor is to love God. The written law should not be stronger than desire to meet the needs of others.
Douglas Hare writes that “In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us. Jesus is not talking about warm feelings but stubborn, unwavering commitment. To love your neighbor does not mean to feel affection for them, but to imitate God in taking their needs seriously.”
Jesus linked greatness with the love of God. We are great not by following a set of laws and rules which place us ahead of those around us. We are great not through getting our doctrine right. God does not desire adherence to rules and regulations. It is so much simpler than that. God desires love. We are to love God. And we are to love what God loves. Love is not how we feel. Love is what we do. We are not to limit God’s love. We are not to put boundaries around our commitment to love our neighbor. We are not to build walls to defend ourselves against loving our neighbor. Jesus made it clear that we will be judged by whether we are able to see him, to see God, in every single person we encounter.
In her weekly email devotion The Cottage, our friend Diana Butler Bass writes about the simplicity of Jesus’ answer about how to be great. With the election approaching, with fears of violence looming, with COVID-19 cases rising, and with a “dark winter” threatening, she felt quizzed about how we can stay focused and grounded. She read these verses and reflected on these words from Jesus. “Love God” and “Love you neighbor as yourself.” Bass speaks about these words as simple truths, not overwhelming demands, truths that have sounded forth for centuries- through political crises, pandemic, and darkness. “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” is the way to face the uncertainty. She writes, “when you vote, remember: Love God, love your neighbor. When you don your mask, remember: Love God, love your neighbor. When you listen to the news, remember: Love God, love your neighbor. When you can’t catch your breath, remember: Love God, love your neighbor. Whatever you do, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.