"What is the Point?"
Matthew 22:34-40
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
June 26, 2011


Last Tuesday, Camilla and I returned home after spending several peaceful days on the Jersey shore.  Early the next morning, before the alarm rang, the phone rang.  It was the daughter of good friends in Virginia.

Her panicked voice explained that her mother had been medevacked from Bethany to Christiana Hospital during the night.  Her mother, Jay, was in her early 60s and a picture of health.

As I was struggling to clear the cobwebs, I was thinking, surely she means her father, who had a heart transplant a few years ago.  But, no, it was Jay.

When I arrived at the hospital, I found my way to Room A in the emergency room where Jay lay in a coma.  A neurologist was explaining to the family that the large white spot on the X-ray was the result of a cerebral hemorrhage.  He carefully explained that extensive, irreparable damage had been done.  Her husband and two children were faced with a decision.  Fortunately, Jay had prepared them for such a moment.  She had made it clear that she would never want to be kept alive in such a condition.

For several hours, we sat around Jay's bed remembering what a kind, intelligent, positive person she had always been.  We talked about her love for her family and friends, and her compassion for total strangers.  We talked about the vitality of Jay's faith and how she constantly exuded love, joy and hope.

What we were doing - without ever really saying it - was batting around big questions about the purpose of life.  We were declaring that Jay had understood what is genuinely important and that she had spent her time on earth well and would die surrounded by those who loved her most.

There are moments - gifts, really - that prompt us to ponder basic questions of existence: the death of a loved one, gazing at a wide, pounding ocean, surviving a close call, the birth of a child, Easter.

Wrapped up in our daily routines, we barely acknowledge these questions that hover beneath the surface.  Sitting in the sanctuary on Sunday, it seems safe to allow deep thoughts to emerge.  We wonder: How can I get the most out of life?  How can I build rich relationships?  How can I contribute to the wellbeing of my world with the days I have remaining?

In this morning's passage, a religious leader who taught and interpreted religious law, tossed a question to Jesus to determine how well Jesus understood Jewish law.  "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

Today, many people think of Biblical commandments as a list of irritating dos and don'ts that were created for the purpose of bringing order to society.  A community with no rules will devolve into mayhem, so we must have guidelines.  You cannot murder or steal. But, the Jewish laws were not simply rules to prohibit certain behaviors; they also encouraged specific actions: to love God and to honor your father and mother.

We live in an age when it is popular to rebel against rules and to question authority.  Many believe that commandments will inhibit their growth and creativity, so they have a knee jerk reaction to any authority that sets rules.

However, in the ancient world, the Hebrew people did not see the commandments as handcuffs designed to stifle life, but rather as guideposts that pointed the way to a rich and flourishing existence.  The 119th Psalm declares, "Happy are those who walk in the law of the Lord...(and) Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors." (Verses 1 and 24)

So, when this Pharisee asked, "Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?" he was not simply asking: "How are we supposed to live?"  On a deeper level, he was asking: "What's the point of life?"

Our culture coughs up several answers.  Personal satisfaction is measured in terms of material possessions, meaning is found in politics, and hope is calculated according to the economy.  While possessions, politics and the economy are important, they are not the ultimate means of creating an abundant life.  The heart of the matter, says Jesus, is love.  If you want to get the most out of life and satisfy the deep yearnings of your soul, the answer is love.  Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment."

When Jesus responded with these words, all those within earshot muttered the words along with him.  He was quoting Moses who more than 1,000 years earlier told the Hebrew people to memorize these words, to recite them to their children and to talk about them wherever they were.  Love God with your heart, soul and mind.

However, Jesus did not stop there.  While everyone was nodding and whispering "Yes, he has answered correctly," Jesus kept going.  He said, "And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Wait a minute. The lawyer asked for one commandment. Why did Jesus slip in a second?

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that most people of faith are eager to affirm the first commandment with great enthusiasm, but much less excited about the second.  He says people sign on to the covenant: "I will be your God and you will be my people" without reading the fine print.  The fine print notes that religious faith is not simply focused on the individual's relationship with God.  Both Judaism and Christianity focus on the individual and God PLUS the individual and the neighbor.1

This two-pronged response of Jesus echoes the 10 Commandments where the first four commandments are focused on God - have no other gods, make no idols, do not take the Lord's name in vain and observe the Sabbath - and the last six are focused on one's neighbor - honor your father and mother, do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet.

Near the end of the New Testament in the tiny First Letter of John, we see this connection between love of God and love of neighbor in brusque language that leaves no doubt that the two are inseparable.  The author writes, "Those who say, 'I love God', and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." (1 John 4:20)

Living in an age where people excuse themselves from church by claiming to be spiritual, but not religious, it is vital that we understand Jesus' declaration.  Any spirituality that imagines a life of faith as solely between the individual and God, with no regard for the neighbor, is merely a self-centered, navel-gazing exercise that is at odds with the teachings of Jesus.

But if we seriously desire to live as Jesus taught, a tough question arises.  Who exactly is my neighbor?  Jesus did not call on us to love only those who were much like ourselves.  For Jesus, neighbor could mean someone who lived near or far.  Neighbor could mean someone familiar or it could mean a stranger.  Neighbor could mean friends, but it could even mean an enemy.

Princeton Seminary professor, Nancy Duff, points out that we generally think of love as including an emotional component.  Love is something we feel for another.  But how can we possibly love neighbors we do not know or do not trust or do not like?  Duff points out that loving our neighbor does not require feelings of affection.  Loving our neighbor means that we do what is right for the common good.  We seek what is best for a person as long as it is also just and will not harm others.2 We can have strong disagreements without being hateful or malicious.  If we are seeking what is just and aiming for the common good, then we are likely fulfilling Christ's command to love our    neighbor as ourselves.  Your request to the zoning board should not harm the property values of another.

In most situations, we fulfill the command to love our neighbor as ourselves when we treat others with the same respect, kindness and consideration with which we wish to be treated.

Justin Horner, a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon, was having a string of bad luck.  Over a matter of months, he had serious car trouble three times and they all occurred while he was driving other people's cars.  What bothered him the most was the lack of help he received.  Once he was stuck on the side of the road and a number of tow trucks cruised past him without even bothering to ask if he needed assistance.  Passersby did not use their cell phones to call for help.

One time he ran out of gas and had to walk a long distance to a service station.  The person at the station said he could not lend him a gas can for safety reasons, but he could sell him a poor quality one with no a cap on it, for $15.

However, he will never forget the time a family stopped to help.  He had blown a tire and was stranded on the side of the road because his friend's car did not have a jack.  Justin made a large sign that read: "NEED A JACK" but cars simply whizzed past.  Then, after nearly three hours, when he was ready to give up and start walking, a van pulled over, and a man stepped out.  He was a Latino and he called for his daughter, who spoke English.

The man pulled out his jack and tire iron and Justin began loosing the lug nuts.  Then "Snap!" he broke the man's tire iron.  Justin's heart sank, he felt terrible.  But the man simply ran back to his van and handed it to his wife.  She took off down the road to buy a new one.

It wasn't long before she returned and together, Justin and the man changed the tire.  When they finished, they were dirty and sweaty, but smiling.

The wife pulled out a jug of water so they could wash up.  Justin tried to put a $20 bill in the man's hand, but he wouldn't take it, so Justin walked up to the van and gave it to the wife.  He thanked the family profusely and asked the little girl where they lived, thinking he would send them a gift for rescuing him.  She said they lived in Mexico.  They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for a few weeks.  Next they would pick peaches and then return home.

After saying goodbyes, Justin started walking back to the Jeep.  The girl called out and asked if he had eaten lunch.  When he said had not eaten, she ran up and handed him a tamale.  He thanked them again and walked back to his vehicle.  He was starving so he pulled back the foil on that tamale.  What did he find inside? Not only a tamale, but also his $20 bill!

He dashed back to the van.  The man spotted the money in Justin's hand and just started shaking his head no.  Justin held out the twenty pleading, "Por favor, por favor!"  The man smiled and said in broken English: "Today you, tomorrow me."

Then he rolled up his window and drove away.  Justin plopped down to eat the best tamale he'd ever eaten and tears began to flow.  Out of nowhere immigrant angels had appeared.

Since that moment, Justin has changed a couple of tires, taken people to gas stations and once drove 50 miles to take someone to an airport.  And no matter how hard people try, he will not accept money.


What's the point?  What do you think?



  1. John Buchanan, "To Make a Life and Not Just a Living," October 27, 2002.
  2. Nancy J. Duff, "The Second Great Commandment," Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2011, p.18.
  3. Justin Horner, "The Tire Iron and the Tamale," The New York Times Magazine, March 6, 2011.