Scripture Readings: Leviticus 19:1–2, 15–18 | Psalm 1 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1–8 | Matthew 22:34–46
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
Like a pretty logical basis for society. Not to mention a pretty grounded religious way of life. You know, just treat each other well. Be kind. Play nice. If this is all that’s asked of us, we could handle it, right?
Now I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but our neighbours South of the boarder, the United States of America, are about to hold an election. For what seems like forever, we have been hearing all about how much is at stake in their political competition, and just how divided their country is today. Torn between powerful factions locked in bitter rivalry, each vying for power by pitting their people against the ‘other side’. Wild claims and accusations are being bandied about, making it harder and harder for the people to know what is really going on in their own communities… eroding their ability to trust in those around them. Aggression, intimidation, violence, and hate… all aimed at each other… at their fellow Americans. This is not their whole story, of course. Not everyone there is caught up in this wave of division, but it sure seems many are finding it hard these days to ‘be kind’ and ‘play nice’.
Of course, we have plenty of problems a lot closer to home too; examples of where ‘loving our neighbours’ is brutal on this side of the boarder. Take a minute to think about some of the issues in our communities that could easily make us turn on each other… to turn our backs on each other. What about the intimidation and destruction happening in Nova Scotia, as Indigenous fishermen face violent anger from those upset by their treaty rights? What about the political and cultural tensions in our own Province? What about the clashes that split up Churches, or workplaces, or homes?
No matter who we are, or what community we belong to, loving our neighbours is hard. It can be really, really hard! We may try our best to be nice, at least most of the time… but sharing our life with other people, with real, flesh and blood neighbours, is truly challenging. Good for us, a gift to us, but challenging nonetheless.
This has been true since the beginning. All throughout our human story, we people have consistently struggled to love our neighbours well. We can see this, even in Jesus’ day. In our reading from Matthew this morning we jump right into a controversy: into a community deeply divided by bitter rivalries. Our Gospel reading itself mentions two of the factions that were themselves vying for influence and power at that time in Jerusalem: the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These two factions of Judaism did not see eye to eye. Though both claimed to be faithful to the Law God had given through Moses, they had very different visions of what God wanted of them.
The Pharisees were very strict about obeying the Law, and also the religious traditions handed down by the elders, often going beyond what the Law itself required, striving hard to keep themselves as pure as possible. They followed both the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as well as the rest of what we call the Old Testament. They believed in angels, spirits, and the resurrection of the righteous, and were fairly popular among the common people.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were more in favour with the ruling elites of the day. They did not believe in the spiritual realm, or in any form of resurrection. They focused mostly on the first five books of the Bible, and seemed to have had a less strict approach to following the Law.
Both of these two groups were competing for the hearts of their neighbours… for the influence and power that comes with being seen as the spiritual authority. Like many rival parties in our own time and day, both the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to be in control. In control of their community’s vision, and hopes, and future. And so it’s no surprise that they both saw Jesus of Nazareth as a threat. Despite their own differences, they saw Jesus and His project as a serious problem that needed to be stopped.
Our reading today, from the Gospel of Matthew is taken from the end of Chapter 22. But to understand what’s going on in this exchange, we should go back a bit to the beginning of Chapter 21… to the moment Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and upsets everything.
First, He rides into the city surrounded by a massive crowd who were waving palms and calling Him the ‘Son of David’… a title for the Messiah, God’s chosen royal rescuer. Next, He rides right to the Temple, to the most sacred place on earth, and starts cleaning house, and calling out the corruption that He sees. Matthew 21:13 “He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”” Jesus was messing around with both the political and spiritual status quo… in many ways He comes to Jerusalem to pick a fight.
And so, all sorts of factions start trying to stop Him. To question His right to say and do all these divisive things. And the rest of Matthew 21 and 22 moves through this building conflict, as again and again, Jesus is challenged, and yet comes out on top. Every group that was vying for influence in Jerusalem, the Chief priests and Elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herodians, all try to undermine Jesus, to cut Him down to size. But Jesus keeps on tripping them up, and calls out their hypocrisy. Publicly exposing the fact that despite their pious appearances, they were play-acting with God and His people… they were not faithfully following the ways of the LORD.
Then in today’s reading, which comes in the middle of this extended confrontation, Jesus responds to a final question, meant to test and trip Him up: When asked what is the single greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus responds with two: 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. 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 the LORD, love your neighbour. Simple enough, right?. Only…
One question we might be tempted to ask is: How was Jesus loving His neighbours in Jerusalem? Knowing full well how disruptive His words and actions would be, Jesus repeatedly, and publicly, called out, not just the policies of these leaders, but their character as well. What about this extended conflict seemed all that kind or nice? If Jesus thinks loving our neighbours is so important, why would He be so harsh? What is going on here? What is Jesus doing?
As strange as it sounds, I think He is showing us what loving our neighbours really looks like. But to explain why, let’s turn back to our reading from Leviticus, a book meant to help Israel live as God’s own holy people. Located right after Exodus in the story of the Bible, the book of Leviticus, John Sailhamer maintains, “intends to show how Israel was to fulfill its covenant responsibility to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” set apart to reflect God’s character and goodness out into the world. They were to have their whole lives shaped after and transformed by God’s own life; they were to be holy, for the LORD their God is holy.
Just from our passage this morning, we are given a glimpse of how God called His people to live: upholding justice, regardless of someone’s status or wealth; not being slanderous, but instead speaking the truth; not profiting from someone’s bloodshed, or filling your heart with hate… but being willing to correct and reprove others when necessary. Never seeking vengeance, or bearing a grudge, but instead loving your neighbour as yourself.
For God, loving our neighbour is not simply being kind or playing nice. It always entails protecting the vulnerable, defending truth, and what is right, not giving in to our destructive impulses when we are hurt… not dehumanizing our neighbours, but rather, doing our best to protect them. Sometimes this means saying ‘no’. Sometimes love leads to conflict, or challenging the status quo, not simply to cause division, but to set things right again.
In calling out the hypocrisy of Jerusalem’s divisive leaders, Jesus was embodying the holy love of God: As the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, sent to rescue His people, Jesus was refusing to ignore the deadly games they were playing (not only with their own lives, but with their neighbours’ lives as well), and He was calling them to turn around and go another way. To follow Him, and find in Him the holy love of God: to learn from Him how to love the LORD, and love their neighbours.
As we know, most of these leaders did not turn from their destructive path. They rejected Jesus, plotted and schemed to have Him crucified. And as we know, this too is how Jesus offers them God’s love: dying for them, and for us all, as the ultimate act of love… laying down His own sinless life to forgive and rescue sinners, and rising again to share with us God’s holy love forever.
As we seek to follow Jesus in the year 2020, we too are called to love our neighbours, with God’s own holy love. But in order to love like God does, we need our eyes to be fixed on Jesus: to trust in Him, and receive from Him God’s gift of holy love poured out for us all on the cross, where our hypocrisy and sin is exposed, and where we’re graciously forgiven, and invited to be God’s holy people, reflecting His goodness out into our world: Standing up for the vulnerable, speaking and acting truthfully, not giving in to hated and fear, but striving for the good of all.
May we not settle for simply being kind, and playing nice. With the Spirit’s help, let us share God’s life-giving, holy love with our neighbours. Living each day, as those shaped by the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Herodians were Jews that were politically allied with the Roman appointed ruler or Judea, Herod Antipas. The Herodians were not on friendly terms with the Pharisees in particular, but in Matt. 22:15-16 we see them cooperating to try and trap Jesus.
 John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 323.