A sermon preached by the Rev. Adrienne Koch at Cheshire House on Sun., Oct. 29, 2017
It was starting to get cold outside, and that meant that it was time for finals, at the small liberal arts college in Ohio.
While other students scrambled to collect
each professor’s required information and deposit it into their brains,
the night before the big exam, Tony was playing video games on his PlayStation.
“Aren’t you going to study for philosophy tomorrow?”
one of his housemates asked, juggling books and gawking at Tony in disbelief.
“What for?” Tony responded, jabbing a red button with his right thumb.
The next morning, Tony stumbled into class, blurry-eyed from battling dragons, and sat down with his blue-book to respond to the exam question the professor was writing on the board.
The question was composed of one word: “Why?”
When the class read it, a sigh bubbled throughout the room
like a simmering pot of boiling water.
The late-night study groups, the memorization of concept after concept on flashcards,
was any of it worth it? This question hadn’t been on anyone’s radar because the possible answers were endless.
After scanning the room with a long drawn out smile, Tony placed his pen in his hand, scribbled down two words, closed his notebook, handed it to the teacher,
and walked out of the room.
Tony received the only A on that exam; this is a true story, can you guess what the two-word response was to the question, “Why?”
The philosophy exam, at the core, was an invitation to a battle of wits with the professor, and it was not unlike the debates between Jesus and the religious leaders in the Gospels that we’ve been reading for weeks, now.
Ever since Jesus broke Rabbinic law to heal a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees have been questioning him, trying to entrap him in his own words.
They were tired of the people comparing Jesus to the important prophets of old, to Moses and Elijah, insinuating that Jesus is the greatest teacher on the block.
They wanted to outsmart him in front of the crowds and quash this Jesus movement that was messing up their tidy sense of religion and their neat image of what a religious teacher looks like.
This week, the Pharisees launch the first question at Jesus, intended to outsmart him, “What is the greatest commandment?” they ask.
This question is similar to the question “Why” on Tony’s philosophy exam.
It’s the broadest question available in the intellectual world of the Pharisees, who focus more on the minutia, on the distinctions within the law, rather than on its general principles.
The Pharisees asked Jesus to summarize the complicated Jewish law into one precept that they would then use to pull apart his entire philosophy.
Would Jesus decide, they may have wondered, that the greatest law is to “keep the Sabbath Holy”? Perfect, then we can piggyback on our earlier argument with him when we caught him and his disciples working on the day of rest.
Or would Jesus choose “the law of circumcision” as the greatest? Wonderful, then we can bring up those healings of the Gentile centurion’s son, and the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
Their goal was to prove that the actions of Jesus do not line up with his philosophy, and to reveal to the people the meaninglessness of his teachings.
But Jesus surprises them:
What is the greatest commandment? It is to “love God, and then love others as much as you love yourselves” he responds.
And the battle of wits has begun.
Jesus throws the next question at the Pharisees, one rooted in Jewish history. What he essentially asks them is this,
“We all know the Messiah is prophesied to come from the lineage of our ancestor David, but if this is the case, then why does David refer to his grandson as “my Lord,” as though his grandson were his elder?”
The Pharisees are stumped.
Jesus’ “why” question sends their minds into overload, much like the student’s in Tony’s philosophy class, I imagine.
The brains of the Pharisees must have been trying to tie together all that they knew about their own history, about the prophecies of the Messiah, and about great King David.
But what they didn’t realize was that all of the head knowledge in the world wasn’t going to get them the answer that Jesus was looking for.
Jesus already committed himself to the belief that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.
This word, “mind” does not mean, in Greek or Hebrew, an intellectual debate, it means “one’s own depth of understanding.”
Jesus’ why questions are never head questions, alone, they are always gut questions, instinct checks.
Jesus does not want a history lesson, when he throws you a question, it is aimed to strike you in your own life. His questions are invitations to come and meet him for yourself.
And that’s what’s happening in this story, Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to set aside their roles at teachers for just a moment, and instead to be taught. Because the greatest teacher really is standing before them.
We know this, because we know something that they don’t know in the story. We know that Jesus is the Messiah, the one whom he is questioning the Pharisees about. He has come to save them just as he has come to save you and I, and all the rest of us.
The Pharisees could not answer Jesus’ “why” question about David, because if they tried, they would have to come face to face with the question of whether or not Jesus was their Lord.
If they could not love him, then they were not fulfilling the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, for Jesus is both their neighbor and their God. He is the Son of Man, born in the lineage of David, and he is the Son of God.
In this battle of wits, Jesus set out to win the souls of the Pharisees, but the Pharisees just set out to win the battle of wits for themselves.
Jesus’ command was not their greatest commandment—What is your greatest commandment?
Don’t answer the question like the Pharisees who search for the right answer in the scriptures but forget to search the true answer in their hearts, in their souls, in their understanding.
The events that the Pharisees would have pointed to in Jesus’ life to prove his philosophy to be false were the very events that proved his philosophy to be true.
And you will know your greatest commandment by examining your daily life. Where do you focus your energy and attention, what do you give your heart, soul, and mind to?
Jesus broke the rules of his culture around Sabbath and circumcision in order
to cure, to heal, to save human beings,
because Jesus’ greatest commandment is not Sabbath or circumcision, it is love.
The Messiah was sent to heal humankind with the love of God— that is his greatest commandment, what is yours?
What rules do you break because the law written on your heart
is greater than those written on paper?
If your actions reveal your love for God, neighbor, and self, then you are striving to walk as Jesus walked, to live as he lived, to heal the world with love, as he did.
If your actions do not reveal your love of God, neighbor, and self, then use today to learn from the Pharisees: the best response is not to remain silent and walk away from Jesus unchanged; it is to invite Jesus into a dialogue, to a battle of wits with your own soul.
But remember with each question that arises, you are speaking with the Messiah,
with the one who came to save you,
and he is not trying to win this battle for himself,
he is working hard, with every response,
to heal your heart, your soul, and your mind.
Why not [Tony shrug]…let him teach you the greatest commandment of love?