A Simple Gospel: Sermon for October, 29

A cardinal principle of historical criticism of Scripture is something called “the principle of dissimilarity.” It is expressed in different ways but basically it means that the more strange, the more weird and unusual verse of Scripture, probably the more authentic that verse.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of the Q&A format that characterizes this section of Matthew and consists of only two parts. The first part of today’s gospel has Jesus quoting from the wisdom of Israel.

When asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answered by quoting Torah …. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus was not being original. These verses are found not only in Mk 12 and Luke 10, but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Is this statement any less authentic, any less valuable because it is not original?

Today’s gospel is yet another of these public examinations of Jesus. One can almost imagine the all-night arguments they must have had over that question! The Bible is so big, so diverse. If you were asked that question, “What is the most important verse in all the Bible?” how would you answer? No doubt it’s a great question to start an argument, or to thrust Jesus into the middle of a theological controversy. Everyone has his or her favorite verse, the greatest verse which ought to be quoted and followed by everyone.

Without blinking an eye, Jesus quoted to them what they already knew by heart. The beloved Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5, the command to love God above everything, joining it to Leviticus 19:18, the command to love our neighbor.

Nothing original or controversial here. The rabbis had long cited these two verses together as a marvelous, concise summary of the whole law of Israel. Of course, we should remember that Jesus’ critics were not seeking new information or spiritual enlightenment. They were seeking how to entrap him, entangle him, provoke him into saying something so outrageous they would be able to get rid of him.

Karl Barth once said: “The Bible gives to every person and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more.” The Pharisees who came to Jesus were not seeking real answers. They were trying to make themselves look good and to make Jesus look bad. And they went away empty… empty in the same way they came.

Curious, does it bother you that Jesus was not a more original thinker? On the university campus, about the worst thing one can say about a book or paper is, “What this author says may be true and accurate, but nothing she says is new.” We value novelty and originality, more than we honor truth. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once called us Americans, “neophiles” “lovers of the new.” Computers, clothes, and cars are enough to prove that thought.

An apocryphal story (aka a “made-up” preacher story) is told about Martin Luther who was lecturing a group of seminarians one day on the creation of the world when one of the seminarians asked, “Doktor Luther, what was God doing before he created the world? What would he have done with himself for all those years?” The seminarians snickered together at the bold “smartness” of the questioner.

“What was God doing before he created the world?” Luther roared, “He was gathering sticks to make switches to beat the devil out of stupid people like you who ask such stupid questions!”

The Pharisees didn’t want to grow in their faith and understanding. What they wanted was to play a little theological ping-pong. They wanted to play a game of theological “one-upmanship.” And Jesus gave them nothing controversial, new, or radical. He merely quoted back to them what they already knew from their days as kids in Jewish Sunday School. “Love the Lord your God with all you have and your neighbor as yourself.”

Maybe it’s always been the nature of the church to endlessly discuss and argue and debate. And most of the time, we get too emotionally involved in our arguments and destroy our fellowship with one another.

Jesus finally cut through all that with his question, the question of all questions, really, the heart of the matter.

In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was asked what was the most distinctive thing about a Methodist. He gave a rather surprising answer: A Methodist was not to be distinguished by any special action, custom, or opinion. A Methodist should hold a belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the only sufficient rule for Christian faith and practice. A Methodist, he said, loved God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind and strength.

Weren’t these simply the common fundamental principles of Christianity? Of course, Wesley remarked. Wesley wanted to be distinguished by his life from a non-believing world and not those living according to the gospel. But with anyone, regardless of the denomination, who was attempting to follow Jesus, he would gladly be identified.

What Wesley would say to all of us this morning is, “Preach the simple gospel, love God (love God with everything you have in your soul) and love your neighbor (just as you would love yourself)!

© Keith D. Herron 2023