TEXT: Matthew 22:34-46
Testing … testing … One, two, three, test …
In a congregation I served once, there was a notoriously unreliable sound system. Especially bad were the remote microphones—the wireless ones, that were supposed to let me move around and still be heard. One of them made all kinds of strange noises. And the other one couldn’t be depended on to transmit any kind of sound at all. For a while, I used to do the “1-2-3, test” thing with both of them, trying to determine which one was malfunctioning the least! Eventually, they both stopped working, so there was no point in testing them any more.
We get tested, too … don’t we? Life tests us. Things happen that shake us up. Or shake us down. Things that challenge us to face our deepest questions and doubts and fears. Your marriage breaks down. You lose your job, or your investments, or your health. The kids leave home. Or the kids come back home! Or perhaps it’s that “midlife crisis” that so many of us go through.
Any of these can knock us backwards or sideways, or bring us to a full stop—at a place where we find ourselves asking questions like: Is this all there is? What do I really want? What matters? What doesn’t? What do I want my life to count for?
Sometimes the question gets asked more directly. A new family moves in down the street, and their kids ask your kids what they believe. Or you become friends with a Muslim coworker, and find yourself deeply impressed with the quality of that person’s life. And then you wonder whether your own faith tradition can give you that. Or, somebody lets door-to-door evangelists into your living room—and you wish you could articulate just what it is that you believe!
Moments like that test us. But not so much in the sense of “knowing the answers.” I think it’s more like what we do when we turn on a sound system. We tap each microphone to check whether it’s on; and then we lean in close, and we say, “Test … test … 1-2-3, test …”
We’re trying to find out if the system works—what kind of sound quality and range we get with it, how wide a field of pickup it has. In other words, we want to know how well it’s going to serve us as a communication tool. Do we need to adjust the mike stand? Should we move things around a bit? Or change the settings on the mixing board?
It’s that kind of a test—a test to see what’s working, and what needs adjustment, and maybe even what needs replacing.
In today’s gospel lesson, that is the kind of test to which the Pharisees put Jesus. And there may not be anything sinister about it. Here’s this guy who’s giving profoundly insightful responses to challenging questions, who won’t back down from an argument—who makes people really think about where their lives are headed. They want to know more about him. And so they come up close to Jesus … and tap him!
Testing … testing … One, two, three … “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Of the 613 commandments given in the Torah, and the hundreds more elaborated upon through the years to guide our living, which one is paramount?
One, two, three, test … Haven’t we all felt the tap-tap-tap of challenging, unsettling questions?
Is it more important to be truthful or to be kind? Should I use my God-given talents to advance my career, or should I devote my life to humble service? As a Christian, am I primarily supposed to care for others? Or am I primarily supposed to stand up for my beliefs? How does this Christianity thing work, anyway?
Notice that Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees for asking the question. In fact, I think he welcomes the debate, because—after he answers their question—he asks them one in return, challenging them to re-think one of their favorite messianic texts—to probe what it is they hope for, and ask themselves whether their ideas are big enough.
One, two, three, test … Someone once said that unless we are willing to scrutinize what we already know, our knowledge will never expand. In the same way that testing allows us to fine-tune a sound system, open-minded questioning fine-tunes our understanding—and causes our faith to increase.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Of course, we already “know” the answer Jesus gave. He quoted the Hebrew Scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
However, precisely because we know this answer so well, we may overlook its implications—and its power.
Those of you who are of my vintage may remember growing up in the 1950s and 60s, when atmospheric nuclear testing was still allowed to take place. As stupid as that seems now, few people at the time understood how damaging it would be for human health and the future of our species. I remember hearing about how visitors to Las Vegas would gather on the rooftops of hotels so they could watch the fireballs exploding off in the distance at the Nevada Test Range.
I guess it was a pretty spectacular sight. It even inspired someone to write—of all things—a gospel song about it. Some of you may know it. It’s called “Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb.” (If you’ve never heard this … amazing … piece of music, you can check it out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CC-AL53nmvo)
Anyway, this answer Jesus gives to the Pharisees … it hits like an atom bomb! “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind—and your neighbour as yourself.”
It’s like a time bomb, actually, dropped into chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel. And there it sits, waiting to detonate in our lives—right in the middle of some particular situation we’re in.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to “love” someone—whether it’s God, or our neighbour, or even ourselves. We may think it means having warm and fuzzy feelings toward them 24 hours a day. But we know that’s next to impossible—even with people we deeply and truly love. And God knows full well that there’s no point in commanding us to have the warm fuzzies. But here’s the thing: the kind of love Jesus commends to us is an active love. It’s about doing, not about feeling. It’s not the emotion that matters—it’s the action.
What does that action look like? It surely cannot mean the same thing toward God (who—strictly speaking—needs nothing from us), as toward, say, our children. And the love our children need is different than the sort of love we owe to our spouses, or to our co-workers, or to the homeless person we encounter on the street. Or the driver who just cut us off in traffic.
One, two, three … Another test question: what does it mean to love?
As we consider that question, here’s something to bear in mind: today’s gospel reading leaps quite far ahead in the story—all the way to the last week of Jesus’ life, in fact. In Matthew, this episode is part of a much larger discussion about what it means to love God. The preceding chapters contain a string of parables about the kingdom of God and the last judgment.
Last Sunday, we heard Jesus answer a loaded question about how a faithful Jew should live under a pagan empire. And—reading ahead a bit—we find that Jesus will condemn the Jewish religious leaders for distorting the message of the Torah, turning faithful observance into a petty and burdensome catalogue of regulations—all the while ignoring what it teaches about justice and mercy.
Reading ahead even further, we find Jesus railing against his people’s habitual rejection of God’s messengers—and we hear him warn of impending disaster.
In all of this, Jesus says at least as much about what it means to love and obey God as he says about loving our neighbours. So what does love mean, when it comes to God?
As a wise person once said, one of the most important commitments of love is the commitment to pay attention. We can easily see how that plays out with human beings: you wouldn’t give a homeless person a potted plant—and you wouldn’t give a chess set to a two-year-old. In order to give appropriately, you need to pay attention to the situation and needs of each person.
It’s the same with God. Paying attention to God requires much more than ritual observance. To fulfill the law and the prophets—to rightly love God and neighbour—we have to pay attention. We have to spend meaningful time getting to know who this is that we are worshipping. We need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures and in prayer and in the concerns of the world around us, until our hearts beat in time with God’s heart.
Does that sound like a tall order? I guess it is. But this rabbi whose disciples we are—he stands very tall, and he casts an exceedingly long shadow. He does not hesitate to speak the truth to anybody—or to demand the truth from anybody. He’s the one who tries us out as if we were a finicky sound system … one, two, three, test …
Are we up to the challenge? I hope we are. As we pay attention to situations of testing; as we pay attention to God and to others and to ourselves; as we learn to view the world with honest and attentive compassion … I wonder whether, perhaps, something amazing may happen. Maybe—just maybe—we will find ourselves becoming the love that God is. And maybe—just maybe—that is what we should be striving for above all else.