But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question:
“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.
A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Then, surrounded by the Pharisees, Jesus asked them a question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “He is the son of David.”
Jesus responded, “Then why does David, speaking under the inspiration of the Spirit, call the Messiah ‘my Lord’?
For David said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit in the place of honour at my right hand until I humble your enemies beneath your feet.’
Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?”
No one could answer him. And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
‘All you need is love,’the Beatles used to sing; and, in effect, so did Jesus – or at least that’s what he taught.
When a religious leader whose life was devoted to obeying the thousands rules and regulations that formed the basis of Judaism, asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, he said:
‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.
A second is equally important: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.’
Jesus here laid down the complete definition of true religion – even though you probably wouldn’t think it when you consider how churches have added their own lists of requirements.
According to Jesus, true faith consists first and foremost in loving God with every fibre of our being. In saying this he was actually quoting the words of Deuteronomy chapter 6 and verse 5.
That verse of the Old Testament is the essential creed of Judaism and is the sentence still used to open every Jewish worship service. It is also the first text that every Jewish child commits to memory.
It means that we give to God a love that not only dominates our emotions but also directs our thoughts and actions.
But it doesn’t end there. The second commandment that Jesus quotes comes from Leviticus chapter 19 verse 18 and says that our love for God must issue in love for other people – not just the ones we like.
The New Testament takes up this truth when it says: ‘whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.’
The great Biblical teaching about humankind is that we are made ‘in the image of God.’ And the nearest thing we get to a definition of God in the New Testament is that ‘God is love.’
True faith, Jesus said, is to love God and to love those whom God made in His own image; and to do so with total devotion to God and unconditional acceptance of others – even if not their actions.
It’s all so simple in comparison to the masses of rules and regulations that always tend to surround religious systems.
That reminds me of a Frank and Ernest cartoon, where they stand in a Law Library facing thousands of books. Frank says: ‘It's frightening when you think that we started out with just Ten Commandments.’
And so it is. America has an estimated 35 million laws on its books. Not all of them make much sense.
For example: in Florida it’s illegal for a single woman to parachute from a plane on Sunday afternoon. In Amarillo it’s against the law to take a bath on the main street during banking hours.
In Portland it’s illegal to wear roller skates in public toilets, and in Halethorpe a kiss lasting more than a second is illegal.
That’s why it’s good to know that God is not a legalist. Jesus reminds us that the whole Law of God consists in just two commands - love God and love people.
The problem for most people is not so much devotion to God (although some do have difficulties in this – but I’ll have to save that for another sermon); rather, it’s to do with loving people.
To be more specific, it’s about loving those who are not nice people, particularly those who have caused us pain. Many of us know we should do it, but don’t know how.
On several occasions Jesus talked about our forgiveness by God being dependant on our willingness to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer he says: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
However, I think there’s a difference between people who deliberately choose not to forgive and those who know they should forgive and wish they could but don't seem unable to.
The issue here, I believe, is primarily emotional rather than spiritual. People with very sensitive natures can sometimes be hurt so deeply that nothing they do seems able to eradicate the pain.
However, forgiveness is a product of love. Part of our problem is that we don’t always understand what Christian love is.
Greek - the original language of the New Testament - had four words for love whereas we only have one.
They are: storge which means family love; eros which means romantic love; philia which means friendship; and agape which means the sort of love that God has for us.
It’s agape that the New Testament uses when referring to what we might call Christian love or the love we are to show to people generally - people who are not sweethearts, family or close friends.
The interesting thing about this word is that whereas storge, philia and eros flow from our feelings, to the Greeks agape is a love that proceeds from the mind and the will.
The nearest word to it in English is magnanimous. It’s a love that expresses itself in what you choose to do and the way you choose to act, even though you don't necessarily feel like it.
For those of us who find ourselves in the situation of believing we need to forgive people who have hurt us badly, Jesus says: ‘Pray for those who mistreat you.’
When you talk to God you have to be honest and tell it like it is. But experience has taught me that there is a power in that sort of honest prayer that frees us to do those things our emotions seem to block.
Furthermore, when we start to act in a generous way towards people we don't like, a gradual and subtle change takes place within us.
This was one of the great insights in the psychology of B.F. Skinner who founded the Behaviourist School of Psychology; our actions don't have to be controlled by our feelings.
We can decide to act and behave as we know we should whether we feel it or not, and the end result of this is that eventually our feelings will change too.
It's a decision not to live our lives on the basis of our feelings, which we can't control, but on the basis of our decisions, which we can.
The essence of true faith is wholehearted love for God and positive regard for other people, no matter who they are. The American preacher, Tony Campolo, tells a wonderful story that illustrates this.
He was in a hotel in Honolulu and couldn’t sleep, so he got up and walked around until looking for a place where he could get a coffee.
The only place he could find in the early hours of the morning was a rather sleazy bar. He ordered his coffee and while waiting for it six girls walked in who were obviously prostitutes.
They sat down near him, making him feel a little uncomfortable, and he overheard their conversation. One of them said, “Hey, guess what! It’s my birthday today.”
The only one to make any response was a girl who said, sarcastically, “So, do you want us to throw a party?”
Tony couldn’t help noticing the look of hurt on the first girl’s face, and after they had departed, he asked the bartender who they were.
The bartender described them as ‘just a group of hookers’ who came in for coffee every morning at about that time. He told him that the girl who had said it was her birthday was named Angie.
So, Tony said to him, “Why don’t we throw a surprise party for Angie tomorrow morning when they arrive?”
The bartender thought he was kidding, but as Tony talked more about it, he warmed to the idea. So, he passed the word around to all his regulars to be there by 2am next morning ready to surprise Angie.
Next morning, just after midnight, Tony arrived to find the place buzzing with people. They put up decorations and then waited.
At 2.30am Angie and the other girls arrived to find the bar decorated and a group of people shouting “Surprise!” Then the bartender came out with the cake and presented it to her.
Angie just stood there staring at it until somebody called out: ‘Well, aren’t you going to cut the cake?’ She replied: ‘Do you mind if I don’t. I want to take it home. I never had a birthday cake before.’
An embarrassed silence fell on the place; no-one knew what to say. So, Tony jumped up and said: ‘Let’s have a prayer for Angie.’ And, wonder of wonders, that motley bunch all bowed their heads.
Tony then offered a simple prayer, asking for God’s blessing for her and that this would be a day she’d remember. And when he’d finished, they all said a hearty ‘Amen’.
Well, the party went on for a while until everyone, including Angie, drifted off into the night. After they’d gone Tony went to the bartender and thanked him for what he’d done.
The bar tender said: ‘If it hadn’t been for you we wouldn’t have done it.’ Then he said: ‘Are you a priest or something?’
Tony said: ‘Something like that.’
The barman said: ‘What church are you from?’
Tony replied: ‘Me? I’m from the church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3am.’
And do you know something? That’s the church Jesus was from. And that’s the church I want to be from; and I bet you do too. Because faith is all about loving God and loving people.
Blessing Our blessing today come from the Epistle to the Colossians, chapter 3.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. Amen.