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.”
(Matthew 22:34-39 NRSV)
How’s your “holiness factor?”
Do you measure it on a continuum from one to ten? One is not very holy while ten is totally holy. Perhaps you measure it daily: yesterday I wasn’t very holy, but today was much better.
The first question you might consider is, “What does it mean to be holy?” Good question! Glad you asked!
Holy means sacred. The altar or communion table in a church is holy because it’s where we come to take communion (or Eucharist) with Christ.
Holy means set apart. God repeatedly tells the Hebrews while in the wilderness, “For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”
So, how’s your holiness factor? Still confused? Maybe you don’t consider yourself holy. Perhaps you don’t view yourself as a beloved child of God. Or even beloved. Don’t believe it! God created you and God didn’t create anything that God doesn’t love, completely and totally.
The holiness factor? I made it up. It doesn’t exist. You don’t have a bad holiness today and better one tomorrow. You may feel closer to God tomorrow than you do today, but it has nothing to do with your holiness. You are holy because you belong to God.
Jesus stood in the temple in Jerusalem, discussing scripture with the Sadducees and Pharisees. They tried hard to show him up; to prove to those watching that this upstart young rabbi didn’t really know his stuff. The Sadducees couldn’t trip him up, so the Pharisees took their turn.
One of the experts in the law, asked him a good question. Whether his motivation was to test Jesus, or to show up the Sadducees, we don’t know. Perhaps he was truly trying to discern God’s law. Maybe all three.
There are 613 Jewish laws. Which one is the greatest or most important? Tricky question. Only one out of 613? Definitely a test.
Jesus uses the “Shema” as his first answer. The Shema (pronounced shi-mah’) comes from Deuteronomy 6:4.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when your are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”
This is the heart of the law. When we love God we put God ahead of everything else. The other 612 laws fall into place as support.
Then Jesus adds something else. He recites a passage from Leviticus 19:18:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD”
Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Love God.
You can’t have one without the other.
One of the great rabbis of Judaism is Hillel the Elder. He was born somewhere around 110 BCE and died around 10 CE. The story goes that a Gentile approached him one day and challenged him to explain the Torah (Law) while standing on one foot. His response: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder#The_Golden_Rule)
Loving your neighbor is defined by the Jewish Law. How we treat each other matters to God because it’s an important function in our love for God.
We are holy. We are set apart to serve God. When we answer God’s call to serve, we respond with love for God. We love God by caring for God’s creation. We express this love through song and prayer and poetry and any number of ways.
We express our love for God when we love our neighbor. Jesus explains what that means in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7.) When we are angry with our neighbor or hurt them in any way, we risk a form of murder: murder of their spirit. We risk committing adultery even when we “only” commit it in our hearts. When our word carries no meaning, we are swearing falsely.
Retaliation is no longer limited by, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus commands that we not resist the evildoer; give more than they ask for; go the second mile. Don’t ignore the beggar.
Worse of all, we’re to love our enemies. Yes. Love our enemies. Those who have hurt you with words or lies or physicality. (He didn’t say go back for more, though.) Love those who would hurt us. There’s a lot of that going around today: North Korea and ISIS to name a couple.
Jesus doesn’t make it easy, does he? Loving God and loving neighbor is challenging. It takes so much courage and thought. Old Testament Law states that loving neighbor means not holding a grudge while holding them accountable; to be fair to the rich and poor alike; we don’t put our neighbor’s life in jeopardy.
Love God. Love neighbor. This is the heart of our faith. Love God. Love neighbor. It’s not easy, but we’re called to do it because we’re holy.
We are holy because of God. We are set apart by God because God is holy. That set-apartness doesn’t give us the right or the authority to be a part of an exclusive club. It calls us to model behavior befitting a beloved creation of God. It calls us to see the people who cross our path each day.
We love because God first loved us. (I John 4:19) We aren’t perfect. We fail regularly. But, this isn’t a pass-fail class; it’s life. And we keep working at it while God works with us, perfecting and purifying and convicting and loving.
All glory and honor be to God.