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The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22:34-40

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

23 October 2011



Jesus is in the temple, just a few days after he has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on the donkey. The crowds that day gathered along the streets and shouted "Hosanna" and waved palm branches. On this day, the crowds have gathered around to listen to Jesus talk.

You see, the Pharisees and Sadducees have engaged Jesus in conversation. Through a series of questions, they hope to catch him in a mistake or to reveal his ignorance. One can imagine the scene. The various leaders sitting and standing around posing questions, contemplating the answers, all while the crowd hangs about enjoying the conversation, waiting expectantly to see what will happen.

Jesus keeps answering the questions in ways that astound the listening crowd.

One of the lawyers comes forth and asks "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

Jesus quotes from two places in the Torah, from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, in giving his answer. First, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And secondly "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

This little exchange is only part of the conversation that Matthew tells us about. Shortly after this Jesus puzzles them with a question that ends the conversation for that day.

Today, I would like for us to focus in on this little exchange. It is familiar to you. This is one of those stories that most of us have heard, even if we don't have a lot of experience with the Bible and the life of Jesus.

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And secondly "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."


Love is a strange and wonderful thing. Like most abstract concepts, if we are asked to define it, we simply can't. Could you define your love for your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend? No, probably not. It would even be strange to try, wouldn't it?

In the twentieth century it became common place, particularly in Christian pulpits, to talk about different kinds of love and to use the Greek words for love to identify those. Storge is natural affection. Philia is friendship. Eros is erotic or romantic. And agape is unconditional or divine love.

This breakdown was introduced by Anders Nygren and popularized by C. S. Lewis. Though many have found it helpful, most scholars today reject this clear-cut division of love into categories. Though there are shades of meaning in the ancient Greek words, the Greeks themselves would not have divided love into these sorts of categories. They all blur into one another in profound and meaningful ways.

Love is multi-dimensional, a many-splendored thing. I have found helpful an approach presented by the theologian James McClendon. He wrote that love is a feeling, love is a virtue, and love is a gift. Even these are not hard and fast categories; each one is a broad, multi-layered approach to love. We could explore each one of those in their own sermon. So, without getting too in-depth with each one, let me say a little something about each kind of love that can help us to understand today's Gospel.

Love can arise through the delight of our senses. It can have associations of attachment and memory. It can inspire reverence or gratitude toward the person or thing loved. Feelings of compassion, sympathy, or grace can be aroused.

We cannot fully control our emotions and feelings; they can arise spontaneously and overtake us. Though with time and practice we can learn to guide them, interpret them, and transform them into the person we want to become.

Love, then, can become a virtue – a character of habit, a skill we develop, a strength that persists, an excellence we refine. If our feelings are going to continue and develop over time, then love must become a virtue. It is love like this which persists between friends and spouses and in communities of faith. Love that is tested by life, by personality, by circumstances, by suffering.

Love is not so much hard work, though sometimes hard work is called for. Rather, love takes all of who we are, our best self, our heart, soul, and mind, if you will.

And ultimately, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, then we realize that love is also a gift. A gift that we give and a gift that we receive from and to one another. But especially from God. "It is God's gift, the gift that is ever present," McClendon writes. He continues:


The gift that is every present, breaking down our so carefully enacted barriers of race and class and caste, melting our resistance to the ongoing of the generations, overcoming our destructive and self-destructive urges, welding us together in a unity that death itself cannot destroy. . . . God is love, and to the extent that we love, to that extent we abide in God, and [God] in us.


Reading today's gospel, we might encounter the question "What is it to love God with your whole life?" "How do we imagine loving the unseen God?"

'Love as a gift' is a way to understand how we love God. I like how the ancient church father Gregory of Nyssa puts its "To desire God is already to participate in God, to be produced by God's desiring, and so to 'see' God."

    We love God, then, as we participate in God's gift. As we abide in love. As we love ourselves and one another, our neighbors and all that God created.

    Our children today have helped us to understand this gift of love, as they have shared their dreams for all the children of the world. To dream of a better future for our fellow human beings is to share in God's gift and thereby to love God.


    This conversation between Jesus and the lawyer invites us to think about love and how we love God and one another. Listening carefully to the conversation, we hear this wonderful phrase that we are to love God with all our mind. Not only with our heart, our feelings, our soul and spirit, with our strength and our will, but also with our mind, with our intellect.

    This week I encountered a wonderful sermon by the great 19th century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks. It is entitled "The Mind's Love for God" and was preached on this passage in 1883. The sermon was in a collection of Brooks' sermons that I found and bought in our book sale down in the gym. One thing I enjoy about this congregation is how many of you are avid readers, and how we share our books with one another through the twice annual book sale. Because of it, I found this gem from the 19th century.

    Brooks proclaimed,


God . . . is not satisfied if His children give Him simply gratitude for His mercies or the most loyal obedience to His will; but that He wants also, as the fulfillment of their love to Him, the enthusiastic use of their intellects, intent to know everything that is possible for men to know about their Father and His ways. . . . "Understand me! Understand me!" [God] seems to cry: "I am not wholly loved by you unless your understanding is reaching out after my truth. . . ."


    If we are to love God with our whole lives, then we must take seriously loving God with our intellects. We must pursue the knowledge and wisdom that comes from education.

    We in the United Church of Christ have felt the call of God and have a shining legacy when it comes to education. We founded Harvard and Yale. Following the Civil War, we founded Howard University for the education of newly freed slaves. Throughout this country we have established schools, colleges, seminaries, and universities.

    Our founding pastor, Reuben Gaylord, had previously founded Grinnell College in Iowa. He established a college here that later became part of Doane College.

One of the earliest members of this church, recruited by Rev. Gaylord, was John H. Kellom, a newly arrived pioneer from New York City. Mr. Kellom played a vital role in the founding of Omaha's school system. He served on the first school board, was a high school instructor, was the first superintendent of schools, and was principal of Central High School when it moved into the new building on Capitol Hill in 1872. Kellom elementary is named after him.

    The number of our church members over the years whom God has called to work for better education is quite impressive. B. E. B. Kennedy was chairman of the state board of education in the late 19th century. In 1938 Dr. J. P. Lord opened the school that now bears his name to ensure education for children with physical handicaps. Many members have served on the local school board or as trustees of Doane College. Even now, Marian Fey is a member of the Omaha school board.

    A couple of weeks ago someone left me a copy of The Congregationalist from March 14, 1971. It was devoted to the church's new Head Start program which was being directed by Judy Blazek. Thirteen other First Central members participated as teachers or lunch preparers. The newsletter is filled with images of mostly African-American children enjoying the educational activities here at the church.

    How many of you are active in education? I'd like all the educators to stand. If you are a teacher, administrator, professor, or any sort of educator or have worked as such at some time in your life, please stand. Now that's quite a few people. Children, take note of how many members of this congregation work for you.


    In that 1883 sermon from Phillips Brooks, he proclaims:


There are Christians all about us who fear to bring their minds to bear upon their religion lest their hearts should lose their hold upon it. Surely there is something terrible in that. Surely it implies a terrible misgiving and distrust about their faith. They fear to think lest they should cease to love. But really it ought to be out of the heart of their thinking power that their deepest love is born.


    Sadly, those words are even more true in 2011 than they were in the nineteenth century. Many people of faith, today, shun the pursuits of the mind. But in doing so, they are not loving God with their whole selves. They are not participating fully in God's great gift to us.

    If we are to love God with our whole lives, then we must take seriously loving God with our intellects. We must pursue the knowledge and wisdom that comes from education. And we must be willing to share that with others. We must provide others an opportunity to love God with their minds as well.


    Today is Children's Sabbath at First Central. Children's Sabbath is an annual event during which various faith groups focus on their own children during worship and also raise awareness of some issue facing children in the wider community. The United Church of Christ is one of the two hundred religious groups and denominations that support this annual initiative.

    This year's focus is "closing the achievement gap in education that currently has children in poverty and children of color falling further and further behind." As the Children's Defense Fund, which promotes this day of worship says, "Level of educational achievement is the best predictor of future income; ensuring that every child gets a high quality education is the best poverty-prevention program we have."

    Lack of education is more than an issue of poverty and economic development. It is not just a social justice issue. Children suffering from a lack of education goes to the heart of our Christian story, to this conversation between Jesus and the lawyer that Matthew shares with us in our gospel.

    Because a child deserves the opportunity to love God with all her mind. To have his natural curiosity awakened. To develop the skills and habits that come with a life-time of learning. To participate in God's great gift of love. Children need the chance to love God with all their mind. We here at First Central and in the United Church of Christ have inherited a shining legacy of education. Let us be true to that legacy.

    And children, I appeal to you today – Love God with all your mind. Give your intelligence to God. Know all that you can know.


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