When I was in college I had a philosophy professor who was one of the most brilliant and also one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever met. The tricky thing is that he was both lighthearted and also relentlessly piercing. One moment he could be laughing and joking with you, and the next moment he'd completely dismantle your argument and leave you utterly humiliated. He spoke with a thick accent but he did not mince words. He also had this air of mystery that added to his legend. Our class didn’t start until after 1:00pm, but on more than one occasion he arrived late and groggy for class because he said he’d overslept. Who was this guy? And what did he do in the wee hours of the morning...?
The most terrifying part of the class was our midterm test - because it was an oral examination. There was nowhere to hide. We were simply called into his office for a 30 minute face-to-face inquisition. To this day, more than fifteen years later, I can only remember the final question. He said, “So, Eric, how do you think you did? What grade should I give you.” And if I hadn’t already been sweating bullets, that question put me over the top. It’s almost like he wanted to watch me squirm. And what should have been the easiest question of the entire test (Give me an A!) turned out to be the most difficult. I lost all of my eloquence and I could only stammer through a weak defense of my performance. (If you really want to know my grade, talk to me after church.)
They gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Not so different from the end of my philosophy exam, It’s the kind of question that’s supposed to make Jesus squirm. It’s supposed to make him lose all of his eloquence and stammer through a weak defense. All of God’s law - all 613 commandments - were holy and perfect. How do you rank something like that?
As usual, Jesus outsmarts his challengers. He’s a clever guy. We already know that. In fact, he’s so clever that he shuts them up. Jesus knew the right way to push back when he was shoved. He comes right back with his own challenge - and no one dared to ask him another question. It was Jesus’ way of saying to those Pharisees, “Look guys, don’t start barking at me unless you’re ready to run with the big dogs. Don’t try trapping me with these silly questions unless you’ve already done business with the bigger questions.”
So yeah, he’s clever. But please hear this: cleverness is not why Jesus passed this test. That’s important for us to hear. Because in our world sometimes you’d think the only thing we care about is how clever, how witty, or just how shocking people can be. How many times have you said to yourself - in just the past few weeks - something like, “I can’t believe that person has their own show / movie / album (whatever)”. Or since it’s election season, how many times have you thought - either this year or past elections - “I can’t believe that person is running for public office”? Right? We seem to value cleverness more than thoughtfulness.
In our world, where journalists spend lots of time trying to ask the most piercing or questions; and where celebrities and politicians spend lots of time trying to avoid them - it’s easy to be impressed by people who are quick on their feet. No doubt, Jesus was clever too. But “testing” in the Scriptures isn’t about cleverness. It’s about faithfulness.
Remember earlier in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus was “tested” in the wilderness after wandering 40 days and 40 nights without food (Matt. 4.1-11). And even though Jesus and the Tempter have a debate over the words of Scripture - it’s not a Bible quiz; it’s a test about faithfulness to God. “Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ Then the devil left him” (Matt 4.10–11).
It had nothing to do with cleverness, and everything to do with faithfulness: “Worship God, serve God.” That’s the test, and Jesus passed with flying colors. It’s the test that others had failed long before. Even some of the greatest heroes in Scripture had failed this test of putting God first. Think about Moses in our first reading today: “Never has there been a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform… and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power…” (Deut. 34.10-12).
Moses was a bonafide hero. And yet, these are the final words that God speaks to Moses. God says, “Moses, you're sitting on top of this mountain. Take a look. Look far and wide, because this is the land that I swore to give your ancestors. You're sitting right on the edge of the Promised Land. You can see it with your eyes, but you shall not enter.” And we ask, “Why not?! This is Moses! Why?” Moses had lead God’s people heroically in the desert for 40 years - but he’d been tested by those stubborn people and when he was provoked by anger he put himself ahead of God (Num. 20.12). Anger was one of his tests. And his anger got the better of him.
They gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to them, ‘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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It’s one of those moments where Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. It’s challenging - not because it’s clever or new - but because it’s so simple. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it’s quacks and cranks [clever people] who do that… People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed… like bringing a horse back and back to the fence it has refused to jump or bringing a child back and back to the… lesson that it wants to [avoid],” (Mere Christianity, 82).
Jesus reminds us of this great commandment: loving God, loving neighbor. And we need to be reminded not just by words, but also by seeing these words in action. It’s been said that loving one’s neighbor is the only practical proof on earth of God’s love (cf. Adolf Harnack). And that may be a bit of an exaggeration - but not much. There are moments when seeing really is believing, and seeing love in action is one of those moments.
That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just think of Jesus as a great moral teacher. It’s why the heart of Christian faith has always claimed that Jesus is the living, breathing action of God’s own love. I’ve joked with some of you about this, but seriously it’s one of the reasons I have two Jesus action figures hanging in my office. I’m not trying to be flippant - although, I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to have a plastic Jesus with glow-in-the-dark hands. Maybe it’s a bit lighthearted but not offensive because Jesus is an action figure. God’s love in action. John’s Gospel puts it this way, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). This is why the teachings of Jesus without the cross of Jesus always falls short.
Loving God and loving our neighbor - just like Jesus - is our greatest calling. We need constant reminders, and thankfully we’re not short of reminders. In fact this week, in this church, our cup runneth over. This week one of our own parishioners: husband, father, and Boston Fire Lt. Glenn McGillivray helped remind not just us, but people across the entire country what this kind of love looks like in action.
As you may have heard Glenn was one of the first responders at a Six Alarm fire in Roxbury in the early hours of Monday morning. Flames were shooting from windows and panicked residents were screaming for help. As firefighters are trained to do, Glenn ran toward the danger - not from it. He helped save three of the 15 people rescued, most dramatically a 6-year-old boy and his grandmother. As the grandmother was screaming for help from a third floor window and dangling her grandson with one arm, Glenn put his body between the boy and the ground. And when that boy fell three floors, Glenn was right there to catch him.
And for a story that’s impressive on so many levels, I mean really, as Christians we can also thank Glenn for reminding us and for showing us a picture of the active, self-giving, Christ-like love that all of us are called to. And whether people know it or not, I believe that’s at least one of the reasons why Glenn’s story is still such big news and why people across the country are still hungry to hear this story (I think we’ve heard he’s going to be on the Ellen show tomorrow morning). Because Glenn’s story reminds us at the deepest level about what it means to be made in God’s image, and about our greatest calling to love. It’s living, it’s active, it’s powerful.
And it’s not that we’re all going to find ourselves in the same situation. After 22 years on the job, Glenn was pretty honest: this was the first time he’s ever had a rescue like that, and he hopes it’s the last. Yes, may it be, but let’s never stop thanking Glenn for this incredible reminder, and let’s never stop asking ourselves what it means for us to answer the same call from Jesus and to live our lives as pictures of God’s active, giving love. And in the end, maybe the greatest compliment of all, is if people actually started describing each of us as little Jesus action figures. Amen.