“Keeping It Simple!”
Matthew 22: 34-40
October 29th, 2017
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now the words from Jesus regarding the greatest commandments. This reading comes from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 22 thru 40.”
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“May our hearing of these ancient words remind us of the simplicity of Jesus’ words. May our hearts hear the depth of meaning contained within.”
“Keeping It Simple!”
Many of you may recall that my last sermon, before Lois and I went on vacation, was regarding the Ten Commandments, as written in the Old Testament within the book of Exodus. This morning we move forward in history, to the words of Jesus, as contained in our New Testament reading from the gospel according to Matthew. Here we find Jesus being cross examined, questioned by some skeptical religious leaders asking him which of the Commandments is the greatest. Jesus, knowing they were testing him, simplifies his answer… but, also giving it ‘deep’ meaning. Which would genuinely test and challenge those religious leaders whom saw Jesus as a threat to their personal comforts and status, within the social order of things at that point in history. Keeping it simple, Jesus lifts-up only two Commandments. The first, as one would expect, he lifts-up the commandment placing God at the top of the list. Jesus said unto them: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” /Matthew 22:37/
As Jesus continues with his answer, he catches the Pharisees whom asked the question – off guard. You see, Jesus knew the heart of the religious leaders that opposed him. He knew they did not put the needs of the people ahead of themselves, or even equal to themselves. Therefore, when Jesus went on to tell them of the second most important commandment, they were disarmed, and unable to criticize him. For to have done so would have exposed their own wickedness and self-centeredness. And Jesus said unto them: “And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” /Matthew 22:39/ “…when Jesus explains that the law and the prophets all hang on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors, he is inviting his hearers to see that those around them were created in God’s image.” /Michael Anthony Howard/ Therefore, we are called to love our neighbors. Not just a little bit, but, rather to love them as we love ourselves! The “love” Jesus is talking about here is trust, loyalty, enduring devotion, being attached to. You may actually-hate your neighbor, but you will still love them in the Biblical sense if you continue to act for their well-being.” /Fr. Rick Morley/ This is not how the religious leaders were conducting themselves. The scriptures speak about their wealth and power, and how they traded off the rights and freedoms of the people for favors and preferential treatment, favoritism for themselves from their Roman oppressors!
Many of you groaned when I brought up the Ten Commandments a few weeks ago. And some of you simply looked stunned when I lifted-up the fact that there are 613 Commandments, rules actual, contained within the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. Yet, Jesus has just simplified the list down to two. Two very compelling and profound statements. His simplicity makes it easier for willing listeners to prioritize their day-to-day lives based on his answer. And yet, at the same time, Jesus turned ‘upside down’ the lives of those whom did not truly love God, and their neighbors, as they so extravagantly loved themselves. And yes, there are still many within our social structure who are stuck with this dilemma. Herein lies the challenge for us modern Christian leaders and believers. We are called to examine ourselves, just as Jesus was challenging the Sadducees and Pharisees of his era, the time-period of Jesus’ personal ministry in the region of Palestine.
When we talk about loving our neighbors this encompasses all of them, including those whom come to this our church and those we hope to welcome into our church home. It also means those who go to other churches, and even those whom disagree with our understanding of God and the teachings of Jesus. We all need to remember and keep in our minds and in our hearts, that “Regardless of one’s theological stance, the question becomes whether – church leaders and church members – can develop a language of love and a culture of compassion in the church where people can receive help, hope, and healing.” /Delman Coates/ In these words are the broader definitions by which we can begin to broaden our understandings of who our neighbors are. When we push ourselves, we must recognize that the folks in Las Vegas, whom were murdered in the street as they gathered to hear some music, these were our neighbors. The women and children that stand in limbo because of the confusion about our immigration policies are our neighbors. The citizens of both North and South Korea, whom tremble with fear, because of the dangerous conversations and threats, of ‘devastating war’ being openly spoken of by world leaders. Yes, even our enemies are our neighbors.
So, just how do we come to terms with these simple, yet profound commands which Jesus raises up in the sight of his enemies, and all of us whom wish to follow in his teachings. Actually-this is quite simple. Don’t over think this. Accept it as written. That’s right! I am suggesting to you we take the words of Jesus, in this context: literally! Love God above everything else and love your neighbor as you love yourself. It really is this simple. But, if you are like me, or you are human and live in the Twenty-First Century, you are going to try and complicate this! Furthermore, the more you study these words, the more research you do, and the more authors you listen to, the more complicated this shall become! I think this is what a great many of us do, and that does include myself! The truth is, when I take off this stole, which I wear around my neck, and step down from this pulpit, I am just a guy trying his best to follow God’s will. And in my case, I am seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. In so doing, I, like most of us here today, am trying to live in the light of God and in the shadow of the teachings of the Son of God. And I am quite capable of tossing these things into conversations with others – until I go home at night confused and frustrated. It is only when I can get back to basics, that I can once again accept the simplicity of this lesson.
For a great many years, I have followed a life style that suggests I ought to keep things simple. Simply do things one at a time. It has come to the attention of most of us, whom own cell phones and ‘also’ drive cars, that we ought not use them both at the same time! This has become a social issue, a safety issue for all of us who travel within our massive transportation system, upon which we are heavily dependent! One would think, that once we all know this we would quickly stop trying to do them both at the same time. Yet, we humans are a childish lot, whom want everything all at the same time; at least a great many of us! Thankfully, not all of you whom are listening to my voice are caught up in this safety issue. Recently, I got a new navigation app on my cell phone. It allows me to ask for directions from one location to another. However, it has a safety feature which will not allow me to ask it to do something new – ‘while I am driving’. The obvious is true, I was driving when I learned this. Sad, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it takes millions of us doing something unsafe before a manufacturer will put in a ‘stop gap’ feature – so will stop being so foolish.
Keep it simple. The first-priority, is to love God, the second priority is to love ourselves, then love our neighbors at the same level we love ourselves. Restructuring that sentence, without changing its meaning helps us to realize we must first love ourselves before we can actually-love our neighbors. Yes, this too is true – and it is this simple! Once we grasp this, we can apply to any given situation. The reason we ought not use our cell phones, while we are driving, is because this is dangerous; both to ourselves and to our neighbors! In this example, by loving ourselves first, we have also shown concern for others by not being foolish and endangering both them and ourselves! There are a great many other examples we could use, to make this even more clear. Sometimes we need to be selfish about caring for ourselves, before we concern ourselves with the needs of others. A perfect example is the instructions given on all commercial airlines. “In the case of a loss in cabin pressure, the oxygen mask will automatically drop from the ceiling.” One of the on-flight stewardess’ will announce this message. Followed by this simple instruction. “Put the mask on yourself before assisting minors or others needing assistance!” To be clear, we are being told to secure our own flow of oxygen – before helping others. Meaning: ‘if’ we do not have oxygen we will not be able to stay conscious long enough to help someone else!
At every step, we need to simplify our thoughts… to go along with our actions. A, leads to B and then comes c. First step one, then step two etc.
Reach out to God first – where we first receive the gift of love. Use this love to praise and worship God out of devotion and respect. Do this with our whole heart, mind and soul. Then use some loving judgement and common sense to care for ourselves, making sure we are ready to share some of our supply of love by reaching out to others, our neighbors, in the broadest definition of this word! Once we have the rhythm of this perpetual cycle of love and care – the lines begin to blur. For by this time: loving God and our neighbors as ourselves, will become second nature. This is what Jesus was saying to us. Set your priorities straight. When you do this the whole list of God’s commandments become less complex and easier to remember.
Keeping things simple in our daily thoughts and actions will simplify our lives. When we do this, we are not down-grading our integrity, nor are we lowering our standards. Years ago, I was working for a high-tech company named Digital Equipment Corporation out of Massachusetts. I was working in the division, the group assigned the marketing responsibility for low end input and output devices: monitors and printers, and ultimately the ‘late entry’ by that company into the Personal Computer market. The prototype of the first spreadsheet calculator was on my desk. Ultimately, it was a crude personal computer, loaded with only this one software capability. That week most of my peers were developing their annual forecasts in dollars and quantities of various equipment types, for their distributors, which we marketed to. I spend those days learning how to use the spreadsheet calculator to predict and display various market forecasts and trends. They worked till seven or eight every night; I went home at five every day. The following Monday afternoon, I was the first to present my forecasts. I did so with an elaborate spreadsheet presentation displayed on an overhead projector. I was given a promotion and put in charge of teaching others how to do what I had done. It was easy. I kept it simple. I followed basic steps and learned to use a tool with more power than my over worked fingers and calculator. No, keeping it simple is not lowering one’s standards. This concept, introduced to us via Jesus, is a gift we all ought to employ!