The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment

Last week we spoke of how shattering it was to hear of the 38m people worldwide who had been infected by this awful Covid-19 virus.  In one week that number has swelled by some 3million to over 41m infections – that’s almost 500,000 infections every day. Canada is very much part of that. We have now been removed from the list of countries allowed to fly into the European Union. Even here in BC where we had been doing so well: at 274 we’ve seen the greatest number of daily infections this past week, and still with absolutely no sign of anything slowing down as we move into winter and the dreaded flu season. This truly is no time to relax. People are understandably nervous about our in-person worship gatherings at Trinity. We will be moving to just one service for the month of November – at 10.00am. We will continue to maintain the highest possible safety standards for those who register to come, as well as continuing to offer these online services via our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

Matthew 22:34-45

If you Google Ron Heifetz, you’ll read of how he is ‘among the world’s foremost authorities on the practice and teaching of leadership. He speaks extensively and advises heads of governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations across the globe’. Formerly a teacher of Clinical Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School he is now a global opinion-leader on adaptive leadership – leading communities through times of change. And he was the keynote speaker at our online Pacific Mountain Region’s General Meeting last weekend. I was challenged. I was blessed.

Dr Heifetz took us back to the year 70AD when the Jewish world was forever changed not by a pandemic but as their temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. For a 1000 years it had been at the very center of all of Jewish life, with all its priests, festivals and rituals.

What were they to do now that it was gone?

Some Zealots chose to fight back, resulting ultimately in their very heroic last stand on

Mt Masada where over 800 committed suicide. But there was another reaction, less known but with profound effects. Rabbi Ben Zakkai was able to escape the siege of Jerusalem by hiding in a coffin. Somehow, he got permission from the Roman authorities to start a school in Yavneh, a small town just south of modern day Tel Aviv, where he gathered rabbis to begin working out answers to 3 questions: Now that Judaism as they knew it had been obliterated, what were they to give to the Jewish diaspora now scattered throughout the world as being most essential to their faith? Three questions: What is most essential to us about our faith as God-fearing Jewish believers? What is of less importance and should probably just be released? What new innovation is being called for?

After some 100 years something very beautiful began to emerge – the result of their difficult, but deeply faithful wrestling. What they came up with had to do with the temple, scripture, and prayer. They no longer needed a building with priests to worship God. Their family units and not some architecture – however impressive – would become the center of their faith, with Jewish moms and dads serving as the priests to preside over all their feasts and festivals – in the homes. They were going to have to draw together into one place all their scattered sacred writings – with Rabbi Ben Zakkai insisting that the love-poems of Song of Songs take central place, the sense of how deeply they understood they were loved and in love with GOD. And prayer. Prayer was absolutely essential – not just the formal ritualized prayer as before but something much more intimate, personal, heartfelt prayer

They used the cataclysmic event of their temple being sacked/destroyed to bring them right back to basics, and as a result they were able to reclaim what I understand is now still absolutely foundational to all Jewish life & faith.

In today’s reading we see the religious authorities who had been exposed to Jesus’ teachings and ministry already experiencing something of the same thing. Jesus was challenging so much of what they understood their religious living was all about! We heard last week of how the Herodians and the Pharisees collaborated to trick him, dismiss him, expose him as a fool, undermine his popularity, and how it just wasn’t working. Every time they put a question to him to try to challenge him, he’d confound them by throwing it straight back at them! All of which brings us to today’s reading, where once again the Pharisees are confronting him – this time, with a lawyer.

We are currently living through COVID – what Dr Anthony Fauci[i] is calling ‘the worst global pandemic for over 100 years’. Everything and everyone has been deeply affected by this awful virus. As a people of faith who are used to a certain way of being, living, mixing, worshipping, Covid has shaken our worlds in so many ways. Are we ever going to come back to those wonderfully full sanctuaries of 100s of worshippers gathering to worship on Sundays?

(My goodness, was that just 7 months ago?) How about those grand celebrations of our major festivals: Easter, Christmas, when we needed to bring in extra seating in our enthusiasm to gather! I think of wedding celebration with so much joy, of packed memorial gatherings where we could draw so much comfort through one another just by being together?

It is like our temple – the gatherings we’ve known at the very center of our religious lives – has been destroyed. It’s like there is this new teacher in town challenging and discombobulating everyone and everything! What to do? Do we take some heroic stand like those zealots on Masada until we too come to an end! Or is there something else? Something better? Something so much more creative?

I think that’s what Jesus was putting before those Pharisees who were wanting to trick him with this question of the greatest commandment? As a Christ-follower, what is the greatest commandment – for you? What is it that we believe undergirds everything in our relationship with God?


Quoting the Shema of Dt 6:5 “Hear O Israel, that the Lord your God is one! And that you shall love the Lord your God with all of your Heart, your Being and your Mind! Followed by Lev.19:18, which tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves!

Jesus chose to speak ‘love’ to the passive aggressive hostility of those Pharisees – LOVE in two directions: vertically, and horizontally. Love is intended by God to be the ultimate source & expression of our faith! It’s not about how well we know scripture, all our doctrinal statements. Neither is it about how faithfully we adhere to all the more-expectations of our religious lives. It’s not even about the extent we are prepared to go to the defense of all those faith principals which we hold most dear! IT’S LOVE! And more: not ‘LOVE’ as some generalized principal – it’s love as the concrete expression of these two very particular imperatives!

But, as Will Willimon writes: Loving God with all we’ve got and loving our neighbors as ourselves turns out not to be generic advice so much as a very peculiarly Christian way to live – especially when we see it primarily demonstrated at the cross and empty tomb.

Faced by this COVID VIRUS currently destroying so much of what we have held most dear – we must see ourselves faced with the same question posed by Rabbi Ben Zakkai in 70AD

…and highlighted some 30 years earlier by Jesus Christ: What is most essential to our living as Christ followers? And what is of lesser importance and needing to be released?

I understand that about 100miles into the 1000mile Camino De Santiago there is a little post office that does a roaring trade of sending hiking pilgrims’ parcels back – packed with goods that the pilgrims THOUGHT they needed but had quickly discovered were quite superfluous and just extra & unnecessary weight. That’s such a profound image. We need so much more awareness of what really matters, and of what has just been getting in the way.

Is what others see of us aligned with what we believe we actually ARE most essentially all about – or are they so distracted by other lesser important stuff that we’ve been producing as a kind of religious smoke screen: impressive but not real!

THAT is our challenge! It’s the one put to Christ by the Pharisees!

It’s the one faced by that 1stC Jewish community after the sacking of their temple.

It’s the one facing us all as we deal with the life-stopping challenge of Covid.


Our prayer is that we will continue to do whatever is necessary for us to come back to what Christ considers ESSENTIAL about our faith in him, and that the outcome of all this will be a church that is better, stronger, more rooted in our ability to love God and all of God’s creation with everything that we are!

Dear God[ii], as your Christ followers,
thank you that Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected
is how we know that you love us & how we know what real love actually is.
Thank you too that when we hear that we are to love You,
our neighbors, ourselves,
we understand the kind of love with which we are to love
is the kind that gives everything, receives everything,
it’s the crucified and resurrected love which we see in Jesus Christ.


Thank you how You know that on our own, we can’t.
Thank you too that as Christ-followers, those who’ve been baptized into Christ,
those for whom “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts…
we know we have the Holy Spirit… who has been given to us[iii]

And so we know that by your own Holy Spirit working in and through us,
you make that kind of love possible.
Thank you, may it be so, praying, in Jesus’ Name

Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2020.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon summary with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.

[i] World-respected Head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

[ii] Prayer paraphrased from the writings of Will Willimon’s ‘Ministry Matters’ Commentary on this text.

[iii] Romans 5:5