Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46
In the reading from Deuteronomy, we come to the end of Moses’ life. His decades of trusting in and arguing with God are over. His years of listening to the grumbling of the people are over, too.
From his birth to his death, Moses has been God’s called servant. Moses received the Ten Commandments on two tablets, and spent a lot of time with God learning what they meant for the people. He knew the intent of the Torah – a relationship between God and God’s people in which the people put love of God and love of neighbor first in their lives. And he has passed on these teachings to the people.
Moses has prepared others to take over when he was gone, and the time has now come for Moses to die, and for Joshua to lead the people into the land God promised them long ago. By the time of Jesus, the written commandments number 613. The oral commandments and interpretive materials fill many scrolls.
The prophets repeatedly quote the scriptures, and speak for God, calling the people back to the basics of loving God and neighbor. In the Gospel reading, Jesus, too, quotes scriptures. He is asked to identify the greatest commandment, and he immediately says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The leaders can’t find anything wrong with this. It’s part of the daily ritual prayers for all Jews. But, Jesus isn’t finished. He goes on to summarize the rest of the commandments. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here in Matthew’s story, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question about his identity. He gives them a puzzle to solve. The Messiah is believed to be a descendant of David; Jesus wants them to consider that the Messiah might instead – or also – be the Son of God. They have no answer to his question, and have no more questions for him, ever.
In Luke’s version of this same event, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about what it means to be a neighbor. We know the story as the parable of the Good Samaritan, which shows that a neighbor may be someone we don’t normally think of as a neighbor.
You all have had the experience of being a neighbor to someone else, and experiences when someone was a neighbor to you. You have even told me about some of those experiences: you make sure someone has meals when it’s hard for them to cook; you make sure a recent widow or widower has someone to sit with in church; you bring supplies and write checks when it’s for a good purpose. And so many more stories of good neighbors ....
A good neighbor in my life was literally my next door neighbor. When my boys were about 5 and 2, I had to go to work. I found a job near my mother’s house, so she could watch Danny, the 2-year-old. But Gary needed to be in school. To complicate matters, I had to leave the house about a half hour before Gary went to school. The next door neighbor had a boy about 8 years old, and she offered to take care of Gary and get him on the bus every day. I tried to pay her, but she flatly refused to accept anything. Since I couldn’t pay her, I always look for ways to pass on that good-neighborliness.
At seminary, there was a man from the West African country of Togo. He spoke several languages, French, English, and Eve – his native African language. Eddie was working on a PhD and had many papers to write. I offered to edit them, turning his mixture of languages into good English. This was one small way in which I could be a good neighbor to another student.
I have invited our deacons to share brief stories about times when they have been neighbors, or when others have been neighbors to them. After they have shared their stories, I’ll wrap up the sermon.
Our stories are varied, but they all make the same point. When we put God first in our lives, and love our neighbors – whoever they are – as we love ourselves, we are doing what Jesus wants us to do. It is not always easy; sometimes it means going way out of our way. But it is always worth the effort.
God loves us first, and asks us (commands us!) to return that love by putting God first in our lives – by giving God our whole beings, heart, strength, mind, and soul. And God asks us (commands us!) to love our neighbors with God’s kind of love.
This week, I invite you to remember some good neighbor stories. When was someone a good neighbor to you? When were you a good neighbor to someone else? It may be harder to remember those times when you were a good neighbor because we don’t like to brag about ourselves, but I hope you will try. These stories are part of who we are as God’s faithful people, and just as important to God as the stories we read in the Bible.
Please pray with me. Loving God, you love us first, before we have done anything for you. Help us seek to put you first in our lives, and help us be good neighbors, sharing your love with those around us. Amen