This appointed text could be broken into two parts, each shaped by a fundamental question. Verses 34-40 center around a question posed to Jesus about God’s Law. Verses 41-46 revolve around a question posed by Jesus about the identity of the Messiah. While it might be possible to preach a coherent sermon that addresses both, it is probably a better idea to limit your sermon to one or the other. I recommend the first.
The question in verse 36 was a test. This continues a pattern of Holy Week attempts to trap Jesus (see 21:2; 22:15-16; and 22:24-27). But once again, Jesus sidestepped the scheme by teaching about life under God. The question was simple: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” According to Jewish tradition, there were 613 distinct commands in the Torah. Of them, Jesus responded be recalling Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God.” Love Him with everything; everything you have and everything you are. Heart, soul, mind. No loopholes. No holding back. Nothing exempt. But that is not all, Jesus said. There is another command like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commands, said Jesus, hangs the entire Law and the Prophets.
Love God and love your neighbor. This is probably not a new message for your hearers. Most of them have heard sermons on this text. They have noticed the connection between these two commands and the two tables of the Ten Commandments, which is part of the problem. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. Familiarity also turns profound truths into platitudes.
The goal for your sermon, then, is not to introduce your hearers to this two-fold command. It is to unpack it afresh with concrete reference to their present situation. Such a sermon will go back to the basics, but it will do so in a way that is engaging to the particular lives of your specific hearers. To help you do this, I suggest three general ideas for your consideration. Any one of them could provide direction for the sermon as a whole, but do not let any of them remain general in your sermon. Take these abstract ideas and make them tangible and concrete for your hearers.
1. Love entails relationship. This seems obvious, but we should not take it for granted. Much talk about love remains internal to the individual, as if love was comprised primarily of preferences and inner longings. Relationship, however, is fundamental to a Christian conception of love. Mark Allan Powell emphasizes this point in his thought-provoking book, Loving Jesus. Of the relational nature of love he says: “When this basic point is missed the Christian religion becomes hollow and staid” (2).
God’s love for His creation is seen as He relates to it. When the relationship between God and humankind was ruptured by sin, He took the initiative to bring restoration. He did so through concrete action (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 7:6-8 and Isaiah 43:1-4). The relational nature of God’s love is most clearly manifest, of course, in the incarnation. Love came down at Christmas, as the poet Christina Rossetti put it, and made itself known through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The potential New Testament connections are many (for a sampling see John 3:16 and 17:23; 2 Th 2:16; Rom 5:8, 8:35-39; Gal 2:20; Eph 2:4; 1 John 3:1, 4:9, 16).
God’s love for His creation is seen as He relates to it. When the relationship between God and humankind was ruptured by sin, He took the initiative to bring restoration.
2. Love the “near one.” Jesus will not affirm the command to love God without also emphasizing the command to love the neighbor. Literally, the Greek says to, “Love the one nearby you” (Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου). I find “the one nearby” more concrete than “neighbor.” It invites the hearers to consider all the people who happen to be nearby (in the pew, in the family, in the workplace, in the school, in the neighborhood). This would be a good time to invite your hearers to consider those God has positioned nearby them in their vocational arenas.
For several reasons, the command to love those nearby is as challenging as it is simple. First, each nearby one needs to be loved, but differently (you do not love your co-workers in the same way you love your children). Second, we often have a history with nearby ones. This history might involve past hurts and lingering complications. It might be helpful to remind your hearers that Jesus took the initiative to come near to us in loving sacrifice.
3. Love is something you do, and also feel. It is common (and justified) for preachers to insist that love is an action. This is particularly necessary when a culture like ours has reduced love to a feeling. But we should not swing the pendulum too far to the other extreme. Love is action, yes, but not action devoid of emotion. In addition to obedience, love for God entails devotion, adoration, and delight. Likewise, love for the nearby one. We do not love them merely in a mechanical or robotic way. We love by sharing our life with them, which means joining them in their struggles and celebrating with them in their successes.
This combination of action and feeling in love for someone is captured well by Tevye and Golde’s wonderings about their marital love in the classic film, Fiddler on the Roof. “Do you love me?” he asks. Their ensuing musical conversation is worth revisiting, and perhaps even rehearsing in your sermon. It offers an image of God’s active and personal love for us and the love He calls us to share with one another.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 22:34-36.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 22:34-36.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Walter A. Maier III of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 22:34-36.