Neighboring

From September 10, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

In the beginning of Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus enters triumphantly into Jerusalem.  The crowds adore him and praise him. This is what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. The day that Jesus had a rock star entrance into Jerusalem.  And then Jesus gets down to business. He goes to the temple, the heart of first century Judaism and he overturns the table of the money changes and vendors there.  He takes on the religious authorities of his own Jewish faith with this bold and defiant act.

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This action begins a series of confrontations and arguments with the Jewish authorities, the Scribes and Pharisees, that take place over the next few chapters of Matthew. After coming into Jerusalem like a king, cleansing the temple, and having his authority challenged by the chief priests, Jesus goes on to tell those leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes will make it into God’s Kingdom before they will. He tells a story of a landlord and some wicked murderous tenants, and tells the Scribes and Pharisees that they are like those evil tenants. Then tells another story of a wedding banquet where those originally invited were judged not worthy to come, and makes it clear that it’s the Jewish authorities who God is uninviting to God’s banquet.

In short, Jesus comes into Jerusalem ready to confront and condemn the Scribes and Pharisees. Ready to take on the powers that be. And in just a few days, Jesus makes so much trouble, so many enemies, that he is arrested, tried, tortured and executed as a criminal.

I wanted to set the stage of these penultimate chapters in Matthew, because it’s where we find a passage of Scripture that many of us are familiar with.  It’s a passage about love, and we often think of love as a beautiful, soft, warm, fuzzy, tingly feeling or emotion. Love makes our hearts swoon. Love lifts us up where we belong. Love is a many splendored thing.

But as we read this passage about love, I want us to remember that this was part of what got Jesus killed.  So as we listen to this passage that you may have heard before, listen for what’s dangerous in what Jesus said. Listen for its subversive nature. Listen and try to figure out what is so offensive about what Jesus says.

Matthew 22:34-40

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As I said a moment ago, in this part of Matthew the religious leaders are trying hard to get at Jesus. He and his movement are becoming a threat to the order of the day, to the powers that be, and they want him stopped. So, they are trying to catch him doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing.  They bring out all these religious experts and all sorts of legal experts, and they try time and time again to get him to convict himself by doing or saying the wrong thing.

Then this lawyer comes to Jesus. Not this is not a lawyer as we think of it, but a person studied and Jewish law and scripture. And he asks Jesus, which is the greatest commandment?  The lawyer knew that there were over 600 different laws in Jewish scripture. And he’s hoping Jesus will pick one, so that the lawyer can accuse Jesus of ignoring the others. Or if Jesus says they are all important, then the lawyer can get on Jesus for the times he broke certain laws like working on the sabbath or hanging out with the wrong kind of people.

Jesus could have avoided answering. He’s done it before. Jesus could have answered the question with another question, putting the lawyer on the spot. But instead he answers straightforwardly. He quotes Deuteronomy 6 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And it’s kind of hard to argue with that. This is the command that God told the Israelites to remember, to teach to their children, to literally wear it on their bodies and post it in their homes.

But Jesus isn’t done. He then goes on to add a second greatest commandment.  The lawyer asked for one commandment, but Jesus goes for extra credit. He quotes Leviticus 19:17-18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Then he adds one more thing for good measure. On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets. So, Jesus answered the trick question by highlighting two commandments that encompassed all 600+ commandments. 

In one answer, Jesus essentially says to this group of religious leaders, who feel they know it all that love of God and love of neighbor aren’t parallel endeavors. They are mutually interdependent. You can’t have one without the other.  If you love God you will love your neighbor. When you love your neighbor, you are loving God.

And I find it very telling that Jesus lays down this profound rule of love in the midst of his confrontations with the authorities. Jesus is confrontational, he is disruptive, he is in your face. Why? Because he likes to make trouble? No. Because he has a chip on his shoulder? No. Jesus is making waves because he is following the greatest commandment. To love God and love neighbor.

Lance Pape, Homiletics professor at Brite Divinity School, writes:

Our definition of “love” is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with “all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous.

The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmaneuver the manipulative, and correct the clueless. 

So let’s pause for a moment. This week we are beginning a series on Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of One Another.  And maybe it seems a bit odd, to talk about loving your neighbor by saying that Jesus’ confrontations and condemnation of the religious authorities are how Jesus showed love.

Am I saying that I want you to love your neighbor by confronting them with hypocrisy or wrongdoing? I can just see it now, some of you are getting some idea. You’re thinking of that neighbor who doesn’t mow their lawn often enough, or who plays loud music late at night, parks in front of your yard.  You’ll be knocking on their door this afternoon, and saying, “I love you neighbor, and my pastor said that I could show it by pointing out what an insensitive jerk you are!”

That’s not quite what I had in mind, and it’s not quite what scripture has in mind.  The point of putting Jesus saying, ‘love God love your neighbor’ in the midst of his religious confrontations is to demonstrate what love is and isn’t.

So often today, we think of love primarily as a feeling. It’s warm and fuzzy, it’s overwhelming. Love makes you do silly and romantic things. Love is cheery and pleasant.  But what we read in scripture about love, specifically the kind of love God practices and calls us to practice, is that love isn’t a feeling. Love is a commitment to act. Love isn’t something we get caught up in, but it’s something we choose to do.

To love our neighbor, is not to have warm feelings for them, it is to act lovingly towards them. To make a conscious choice to put their needs on the same level as our own.  Think about it. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This doesn’t mean, this can’t mean, feel lovingly towards them. That’s not realistic. What it does mean that even if we don’t feel love for someone, especially when we don’t feel love for someone, we have to consciously choose actions of love towards them.

Alyce MacKenzie writes:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Herein is the good news for Christian people. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

God never commands us to feel love, but to do love.

To love the neighbor (including our enemies) does not mean to feel affection for them, but to imitate God in taking their needs seriously.

So, no matter how you feel towards your neighbor, and by neighbor God means your literal neighbor, your family member, your co-worker, your boss, your enemy, a stranger that you see on the road, anyone. No matter how you feel towards your neighbor, if we love ourselves more than our neighbor, then we are not acting as a Christian. We are failing at the greatest commandment.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about what it looks like to love your neighbor, not what it feels like. I will be asking you to do specific things to love your neighbor, get to know your neighbor, to think about what does it look like to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. But we won’t just be talking about loving God through loving your neighbor. We will be choosing to act.

Next week we will be having the Day of Caring. We will be joining Presbyterian churches all over the Indianapolis area in loving acts of service to our neighbors.  We will meet here at 10:00 a.m. Have a very brief service of prayer and then disperse to different places to serve.

On September 24th we will be back for our regular worship service and the sermon will be focused on our literal neighbors, the people that we live next to, and how can we get to know them better so that we can love them better.  You will get some resources to take home with you that day that will help you get to know your neighbors, and get to know your neighborhood. You will take home with you that day a guide for prayer walking. A guide to help you walk through your neighborhood while praying for those who live there, and keeping your eyes and ears open to see what God moves you to see there.

On October 1, at 10:00 a.m. we will gather to do the same sort of prayer walking in Fairview’s neighborhood. The church is called to be a good neighbor, and since you are the church you are an integral part of loving Fairview’s literal neighbors. After we are done walking, we will come back for our regular worship service and hear more in worship about Fairview’s call to love our neighbors, and what that might look like at a congregational level.

Let me close by reminding you of Alyce MacKenzie’s words I read earlier:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.

Our faith is not a romantic comedy or a good love story. We can’t just sit around waiting to feel love for our neighbor. It’s something that we choose, whether we feel it or not.  With that in mind, I want to give you some homework. As you go from here today, as you go about your week. As you are at school, or at work, or at home, or with friends, I want you to consciously observe every chance you have to choose to love your neighbor.

Take note of the times when you could have chosen to say something or do something that would have expressed God’s love for someone. A kind word, a helping hand, a listening ear, a needed gift, anything that someone needed that you could have provided. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, so ask yourself throughout the day: If I was that person what would I need right now? What would make me feel loved?

Choose to love your neighbor throughout the week, and be mindful of the opportunities to choose that present themselves to you.

’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”