October 25th, 2020 — Sermon by Rachel Snack, InterVarsity Campus Minister at McDaniel and Hood Colleges; Matthew 22:34-46
I am a big fan of a show on Netflix called “The Great British Baking Show”, especially in quarantine, I’ve loved watching it and getting inspired to try some of the recipes at home. And for a lot of each episode, it’s like any other baking show where the contestants are competing to make the most impressive, beautiful cakes that really stand out, and are really unique, but there’s this round in this middle, that sometimes goes under the radar called the Technical Challenge. Rather than being all-out, spectacular, complicated bakes, the Technical Challenge has all the bakers make exactly the same recipe with exactly the same ingredients to demonstrate that they can do the basics well. One of the judges will give them one of their recipes for pineapple upside-down cake or chocolate babka, and they’ll just omit one or two details, like how much flour is in the recipe, or how long it goes into the oven for, and they have to use their knowledge of baking to fill in the rest.
If you’re a fan of the show – you know that this is often where contestants have the most trouble – sometimes the most simple instructions are the most difficult to follow! Even a difference of what temperature you bake something at or how long you knead the dough for creates totally different results – and even when they were all given the same ingredients, and the same instructions, often times the results were super different from baker to baker. Whether it’s how much they rose, or whether they came out darker or lighter – each baker had had a different interpretation of the same commands, and unfortunately for the Baking Show Contestants, the finished product was often a far cry from what the creator of the recipe had intended.
When we look at the two commandments that Jesus says are the most important: Love the Lord Your God, and love your neighbor as yourself – they kind of remind me of a technical challenge. These are two seemingly simple commands, but the ways that Christians have interpreted them differently have resulted in hundreds of different denominations, with so much division and tension between different sects. How did we get here? Isn’t Jesus straightforward in his word? Very few Christians would disagree about the importance of these commands – but somehow, the ways that we interpret them in practice look incredibly different, and sometimes we can get so far from God’s intention in the name of doing what we think is right.
The obvious case study in seeing how people can make a mess out of God’s simple commands for us are the Pharisees, who Jesus is addressing in this passage. They considered themselves to be the most righteous, and felt justified to ask Jesus this question to test him – likely knowing what answer to expect because they knew the law so well. And maybe, upon hearing the first half of what Jesus had to say, they would have felt really good about themselves. Loving God with all our heart, and our mind and our soul often just looks like obedience. It means seeking to know God, to learn more about Him, and to strive towards righteousness in the way that God commands it. To have a high value for God’s word, for personal accountability and for moral behavior is vital to Christian life, and I think it’s possible that the Pharisees, with very good intentions set out to care about those things.
So the problem is not the desire to be morally upright, but the way that they’ve gone about it. The Pharisees were notorious for adding onto the laws of Scripture, and making them very complicated and specific. One example of this is in keeping the Sabbath. While God’s command for us to follow the Sabbath is a good one, the Pharisees added hundreds of rules onto the definition of Sabbath – detailing exactly what was considered work in every imaginable task, even down to how many steps you were allowed to take before it was considered work. The Pharisees would enforce these rules within their communities – so that rather than people obeying out of love for God and a desire to be holy, they were obeying out of fear of punishment. It became a way that they could classify who was the most Holy by who could keep track of and follow the rules the best, so that instead of glorifying God, it could uplift some people, and disqualify others. So while the command of Sabbath is a holy one, which was meant to cultivate trust in God and appreciation of being present with Him, instead the Sabbath became a means for Pharisees to feel superior and exert power – sometimes over people who were doing something as simple as picking grain when they were hungry. In doing what they thought was loving God, they actually lost the whole meaning of what He had commanded them to do.
I think it’s easy to get caught up in feeling that way – like you’re keeping score or trying to measure up, when you’re insecure. I think we see Pharisees often as judgemental, and callous and holier-than-thou when we read Scripture, but I really do wonder if under the surface, they’re really nervous. I wonder if they’re kind of sweating that if they don’t get it perfect, that God’s favor would be revoked from them. If I had that many rules, I would definitely be worried I was going to mess up, and that then I would be no different than the people who I considered to be unclean or beneath me. What that really demonstrates, though is that they don’t do their works out of love of God, but fear of God – fear of not being good enough, or being just like the other sinners. This posture depicts a God who is cold and demanding, who holds His creation at arms’ length until they’ve done enough to earn his love. That cannot be the God that we serve.
To truly love God, we have to know who He is, and His nature, and how He calls us to follow Him. In contrast to the Pharisee’s strict guidelines, God gives us freedom, in worshipping Him in all kinds of ways. It is through being set free from the expectations that we would get everything right that we learn to instead love and worship God out of a desire to be like Him, to be near Him, and out of gratitude for what He’s already done. This is such a beautiful picture of who God is as compared to the Pharisee’s view of God.
So, the next part of the command Jesus gives us, is to not just love God, but to love our neighbor – and this is the part that the Pharisees really had trouble with. In Luke 10, Jesus discusses the exact same two commands with a Pharisee, and he replies with “And who is my neighbor?” It reads very much like someone looking for a loophole, in fact the text even says that he asked Jesus this to justify himself. We can be like Pharisees here too, in as much as we want to complicate and build more onto what God asks of us in worship, we really want to limit and restrict who we get to share in that with. And to me, that makes sense. The picture of community that Jesus paints is no joke – it’s a big commitment to do with just anyone. We are asked to grieve with our neighbors when they’re hurting, work through commitment humbly and quickly, we are asked to consider their spiritual and physical needs as our own. It’s hard enough to do that with people that I really love, so I could definitely understand wanting to keep that circle really small.
Jesus’ response, however, is intentionally challenging – by using the example of a Samaritan helping a Jew out of mortal danger. Samaritans were descendants of Jews who had had children with Gentiles, so the Jews saw them as fundamentally unclean and inferior. They had such a tense history that Jews would avoid Samaria altogether on their journeys, even if it meant adding days of travel. So what Jesus essentially tells the Pharisees, is that even a sworn enemy becomes a beloved neighbor in the Kingdom of God.
Even though we’ve been talking about how basic loving God and loving others seems, I think the scope of this actually makes it the opposite of simple. These days, with everything in our country the way it is, there’s a lot of reasons to discount someone from being your neighbor! We’re swimming in divisive language, and it’s easy to walk away from the media we’re consuming with a picture in our head of neighbors across the political aisle that nowhere near resembles the image of God that we should see in them. Again, this is not Jesus inviting us to superficial relationship with others that makes nice over deep issues while essentially ignoring the problem. The community of God is meant to mold us and change us. We are called to be radically close, incredibly vulnerable, and wholly accountable to each other – and that has to change everything for us as we think about how to navigate the world with people so different from ourselves.
The Pharisees had a lot of issues in their relationships with others – and this was much of what Jesus drew attention to in who He chose to minister to in his time on Earth. It wasn’t just Samaritans, but they would leave out the disabled, the sick, women, sexual minorities – anyone who challenged their thought that “people who are real followers of God look like me”. It can be hard not to fall into the same thing now, too – especially when the things we pride ourselves on following are good things!! But we are reminded that followers of God do two things, right? Love the Lord and love each other. So we must be persistent in seeing the image of God even in those who it would be more convenient not to.
What Pharisees were ultimately doing in making things so complicated, was making relationship with God far-off for people who weren’t the religious elite. This made it so that the average person had to rely on them instead of having their own relationship with God. Jesus came to break that down, but we also remember others who broke those barriers in observing Reformation Day, and the forming of Protestant denomination. What we celebrate in Martin Luther is the return to what Christianity is really supposed to be about – a love of God and a love for others – but to see that, it took the destruction of a lot of the extra things that had become a distraction.
Some of us have had a similar shift in our lives recently, where a lot of things that filled our time and our minds have been taken away. For many of us, the pandemic forced us to clear our schedules, change our lifestyles, and become content with the ordinary. Before COVID, I made sure that all of my days were packed full with things to do, not always important things, but things that made me feel productive and important. I felt a lot more like being busy meant that I was a success. Even things like choosing what I was going to wear each day used to feel so much more important, and has now become something that I rarely think about.
And my job doing ministry with college students has shifted in a similar way, too! We had such fine-tuned plans for this school year that ended up getting tossed out the window. If I were to describe to you what my job was a year ago – so much of it was hosting meals, and going to conferences, and going to student dorms to do outreach, and event after event after event. And these were good things! They were designed to help students fill the need of loving God and loving others, but those things themselves are not the only way to experience God. We can get so wrapped up in the details, of the elaborate plans and rules and ways that we follow God – and forget the basics. My job description is not “College Event Planner”. And our faith is not based in the acts of service we do, or having the right theology, or being the most disciplined in our prayer life. It is in loving God, and loving our neighbor. When all those extra things are taken away, it can feel really uncomfortable. I’m not a fan of silence, and I get really impatient with simple things like waiting on God, and trusting in God – but I’m learning that this is a place that God meets us, and shows us that it really is all about Him. Breaking down the things we add onto Christianity helps us remember what faith is really about.
So of course, we need to worship God fully, to fully strive to understand His word and apply it to our lives. And of course, we need to be diligent about serving our neighbors well, and looking to their needs. But what would it look like to hold those things freely, knowing that God has grace for us, and that it’s so much more about Him and so much less about us than we could’ve imagined? What would it look like to let go of some of the things we’ve added onto what faith means, and see God for who He truly is? I think that it would be really beautiful. Knowing the freedom in God’s commands allows us to see the beauty of God in people who worship so differently than we do! It allows us to trust what God is doing in us while still being open to the ways that we are challenged to grow, because we don’t have to be afraid of being condemned for our mistakes. Walking with God is really that simple – because even when we get it wrong, God is shaping us and using us for His glory. There really is so much life in the simple things!