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Who Do You Love?

Scripture - Matthew 22:34-46

The requirement that we love God & our neighbor has become so prominent a feature of Christianity that we are apt to take it as automatic. If a superficial application is to be avoided, however, we must struggle to discover what this association of Deuteronomy 6:5 & Leviticus 19:18 meant to early Christians like Matthew. Here it is especially important to remember that what is implied is as significant as what is explicit.

Although Matthew places the passage in the same location in the series of temple disputes as Mark does, it can be said that Matthew’s context is different. In Mark, the passage carries less weight simply because Mark’s Gospel as a whole gives less prominence to Jesus’ teaching. While the story itself is told with much more detail in Mark, in that version the focus is on the wisdom with which Jesus answers the scribe’s question, not on the significance of the answer as a summary of Jesus’ teaching. By adding v. 40, all the Law & the Prophets depend on these 2 commands, Matthew takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry, to the opening statement in chapter 5, which begins with the words, don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law & the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, especially the expansion of the commandments in 5:21-48, illustrated how Jesus fulfilled the law in the spirit of the prophets. Just as the Golden Rule served as a summary of the Sermon on the Mount, so now the double commandment to love, coming at the end of the final series of disputes with his opponents, summarizes Jesus’ teaching ministry as a whole.

Unfortunately, Matthew does not develop the theological issues that are of greatest interest to us: the meaning of ‘love,’ the meaning of ‘neighbor,’ & the importance of Jesus responding with 2 commands.

What is love? The word used here for ‘love’ is agapao, the verbal form of agape. Let me begin by making clear that there is no magic in the meaning of the Greek word agape. There is certainly something special about the Christian understanding of love for God, our neighbor, & the world as expressed in the New Testament. But this understanding is not bound up with the meaning of a particular Greek word. The author who composed in Greek was in about the same situation as our interpretation into English, having several words for ‘love’ that overlap in meaning.

In Greek as in English there was & is no single Greek word with an inherent meaning that refers exclusively to the kind of love with which God loves the world & with which Christians are commanded to love God, each other, & ourselves. Let me say it clearly: agape is not such a word. Neither Jesus nor Christians invented this word, found in the Greek Oid Testament in a variety of places: love of God in Deuteronomy 6:5, & of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), of course, but also of adulterous lust (Jeremiah 2:25), & the love of money (Ecclesiastes 5:9).

The New Testament then takes over this wide usage of agape. It is used in 2 Peter 2:15 for Balaam’s love of money. In Luke 6:32 it is used for sinners’ love for each other. In John 3:19 it is used for the love of evil people for the darkness. Agape & agapao are used as synonyms for phileo & philia. Phileo, supposedly used to express mutual love as in friendship, inferior to the self-giving love of agape, is in fact used for the deepest self-sacrificing love of both human beings & God (Matthew 10:37, John 5:20, for example).

When Christians use the word love with reference to God, to our deepest human relationships, & of the position we are to take toward the world, the content of the word is not to be filled in from the supposed meaning of a special Greek word, but rather from the understanding of God’s nature made known in Jesus Christ. It is from this revelation that we come to know love as unmotivated & unmanipulated, unconditional & unlimited. Such love is not a matter of feeling, which cannot be commanded, but of commitment & action. It is at the farthest pole from sentimentality & is related to the Old Testament Hebrew word for ‘steadfast love’ – hesed.

Who is our neighbor? In the Old Testament context, a neighbor was one’s fellow Israelite. Matthew’s understanding has already extended the love to which a disciple is called to embrace even our enemy. So, in fact, this is a command to love all people.

It is interesting that Jesus is asked for one command but responds with 2. Matthew alone specifically adds that the second is like the first. This does not mean merely that it is similar, but that it is of equal importance & inseparable from the first. The great command to love God has as its inseparable counterpart the command to love our neighbor. One cannot first love God & then, as a second task, love one’s neighbor. To love God is to love our neighbor, & vice versa.

The Pharisees huddle again to try to trap Jesus with another question, but he beats them to the punch & asks them a question: Now as the Pharisees were gathering, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”

“David’s son,” they replied.

He said, “Then how is it that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called him Lord when he said, The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool’?”

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:1. How could David call his son his Lord? The Pharisees would have to say that the son would have to be supernaturally born for David to call him my Lord.

If David calls him Lord, how can he be David’s son? This is the question which our Lord put to the Pharisees.

There are several implications in this question which are important. Our Lord said that David wrote Psalm 110, that he wrote it by the Holy Spirit, & that he wrote it about the Messiah. If David calls him Lord, how can he be David’s son? How could David call his son superior unless he was? The only logical answer to this question is the Virgin Birth. Jesus is David’s son, but he is greater than David. A son of David cannot be greater than David unless there is something greater introduced into the family line to make a greater son. The records of the supernatural birth of Jesus provide the only satisfactory answer. The Lord of David got into David’s line, as we read in Luke’s gospel: The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you & the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son (1:35). He is greater than David because he is the Lord from heaven.

Jesus was forcing the Pharisees to face up to the real issue & to acknowledge him as David’s son & as David’s Lord.

This ended the verbal clashes with the religious leaders. Nobody was able to answer him. And from that day forward nobody dared to ask him anything.

A friend of mine lamented on the state of news today. Another friend responded that we do not need better news sources, but “a fundamentally different way of telling stories about what is important on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, & whole life basis.” In our Scripture reading, we see that our lives of discipleship require a similar ongoing interpretation – one in which God’s commands are not rules & regulations, but a way of living that invites the followers of Jesus, the son of David, to love God & our neighbor & thereby embody & witness to the whole Law & the Prophets in the face of the problems & challenges we face. That is a fundamentally different way of telling the world what matters, what is important, & what makes our lives compelling so that others are drawn into God’s kingdom.

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