Isidor Isaac Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics, and one of the developers of the atom bomb, was once asked how he became a scientist. Rabi replied that every evening at the dinner table his mother would ask him about his day at school. She was less interested in what he had learned that day than in how he approached his studies. For that to her was what really mattered. So she always asked: “Did you ask a good question today?”
“Asking good questions, Rabi said, “is what made me become a scientist.”
In order to ask a good question, one has to be genuinely interested in the truth. The Pharisees, the Herodians, and later the Sadducees, plied Jesus with questions, as we have already seen.
But they cared nothing for the truth. The asked Jesus questions to trap him. Their aim was to lure him into giving an answer that would compromise him in the eyes of the people. They wanted to ruin his public reputation. They were not trying to learn; they were trying to injure.
Today the Pharisees again conspire together to damage the reputation of Jesus. They send one of their own, a lawyer, that is to say, an expert in God’s law, to test him.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Did he realize the weight of his question? For the Jew during the time of Jesus, for the Jew even today, there is no greater question to be asked.
The Law is the self-revelation of God. The revelation at Mount Sinai is one of the most significant events in Jewish tradition. Indeed, it is the event that launched the Jewish tradition. It was there that God’s will, distilled in the Torah, was expressly communicated to human beings.
Let us be clear here. What the lawyer is really asking is this: Which commandment most fully discloses the heart of God? And, by implication, which commandment, when followed, most delights the heart of God?
Parenthetically, let us realize that genuine faith begins with asking good questions. To put it otherwise, genuine faith begins with asking the right questions.
Rabi was the beneficiary of a long tradition of teaching and learning that holds this: that the proper role of the teacher is guiding students in discerning and asking the right questions. Rabi could never have become the Nobel Prize winning physicist without good teachers.
Could we not say the same thing about the preacher, the minister of the gospel? His role should be to help his people in asking the right questions, so that, with their desire for the truth awakened, they go in search of answers to those questions of their own accord, at their own initiative. Arguably, if the preacher is failing here, then he’s not fulfilling his role.
I sometimes wonder: are young people asking the right questions today? By right questions I mean the big questions. Youth is that stage in life when we naturally ask the big questions: “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What will give me lasting fulfillment?
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when I talked with a young woman who was in her first year at Grand Rapids Community College. She confided to me that she desperately wants guidance in deciding on a major because she wants to know what she should do with her life. She wants to know her purpose.
These questions are inescapable. All young people ask them. Indeed, we probably keep asking these questions throughout our lives, especially in moments of personal crisis, or in times of transition.
But these are the big questions, and big questions can only be satisfied by big answers. Our problem, maybe especially today, is that we look for partial answers to our big questions, and then wonder why we are still restless and dissatisfied.
Jesus realizes that the expert in the law is asking a big question, regardless of the insincere motive that is prompting it. That is why he gives a big answer.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
To love God is to embrace our greatest good. It is to fulfill our deepest desire. It is to satisfy our profoundest longing.
Jesus does not invent this answer. He is referring the expert in the law to scripture. The command to love God is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6:
“Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words I am commanding you today in your heart.”
This unit of text is known as the Shema, which the devout Jew recites twice daily, each morning and evening. And it’s traditionally a Jew’s last words on earth.
The Shema is recited in view of the covenant relationship between God and Israel, established at Mount Sinai.
It is important to note that God initiates the relationship. Love comes from God. God’s love for Israel makes Israel’s love for God possible.
The word most often used for God’s covenant love is hesed. It’s a word rich in meaning, a word that embraces faithfulness, kindness, mercy, among other things.
In the Bible, God’s hesed finds expression in providing for his people’s needs, rescuing them from their enemies, and forgiving them for their violations of the terms of the covenant.
The love of God’s people is an answering love. It finds expression in obedience to God’s commandments, serving God, fearing God, and being loyal to God alone.
God’s love embraces all reality. To love God is to be caught up in God’s all-embracing love. This means that to love God entails loving the human beings around us as well as our own selves. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. They belong together, as we learn from Jesus.
The expert in the law did not ask for an answer to the question what the second greatest commandment is, but so closely is it bound up with the first and greatest commandment that Jesus cannot omit it. He gives it to him in these words:
“And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The love here envisaged is not merely an emotion; it is not only a warm feeling. It is an action. Pop music artist John Mayer released a song a few years ago titled: “Love is a Verb.” Knowingly or unknowingly, Mayer makes a statement here that is consistent with biblical truth. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” as the Apostle John writes (1 John 3:18).
Love reaches out to the other. Love desires to relate to the other, to get to know the other, to spend time with the other, to experience what it is like to live the other’s life. Sympathy or compassion is an ingredient in Biblical love (Werner G. Jeanrond).
Love is a basic need. Every man, woman and child is motivated by the need for love, for relationship. Or as we so often hear it today: “we are wired for relationship.”
Networks of relationships make our own growth as persons possible. If we have experienced the love of parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, church communities, pastors, teachers and many others, we grow as persons able to give and receive love (Werner G. Jeanrond).
The love we give and receive is inspired and energized by God’s love. Evangelical author and speaker John Piper defines love in these terms: it is the “overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.”
We know and experience this joy in God when we welcome the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom God’s love is most fully and most definitively embodied and expressed.
In our Epistle lesson, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Thessalonians. In the first chapter, he noted that they welcomed this gospel, in spite of suffering, with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s aim in the verses we heard today is to confirm them in the truth of the gospel. They can rest assured in the authenticity of his message because Paul’s motives in bringing it to them are sincere.
We know whether or not someone believes something for himself when there is a personal cost in believing it.
Paul paid this cost. In spite of the mistreatment that he suffered, in spite of the great opposition that he endured, Paul courageously declared to them the gospel of God.
And they could see for themselves: he did not do so for the sake of dishonest gain, for the sake of gratifying his own ego. He did it because of his desire to please God. We may say that the love of God motivated him.
Transformed himself by God’s love, Paul modeled this love among them. “As a nurse tenderly caring for her own children….” Is that not an image of love?
In fact, so deeply did Paul care for them, that he was determined not only to share the gospel of God, but also his very self with them. And why? Because they became very dear to him. That translation obscures the point we are trying to make, because it literally says that they became loved by him.
Returning to our gospel lesson, we see that Jesus reaches out to the Pharisees with a question of his own. This is also a big question, perhaps the biggest question, because it concerns the identity of a figure in whom all the blessings of the covenant are contained, through whom all the blessings of the covenant flow.
Parenthetically, we should not imagine that Jesus wishes to exclude them from the covenantal relationship with God; rather, he wishes them to be included in it, to share in its blessings.
That is why he asks them about the Messiah, the son of David, through whom God effectively perpetuates his covenant with his people forever. He wants them to come to their own conclusions, to discover the answer to the question of the identity of the Messiah for themselves.
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
This must have seemed like a simple question to the Pharisees, who answer with, “The son of David.”
But Jesus presses them further by quoting Psalm 110:1, which is the most quoted Old Testament passage in all the New Testament.
“The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”
The Pharisees would have recognized this psalm as a messianic prophecy penned by David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In this passage David refers to the coming Messiah — his descendant, his “son” as “lord.” Familial respect would not have an older person, such as David, refer to his offspring as “lord”; rather, the offspring, “son,” should refer to David, his “father,” as “lord.”
But the Psalm tells about a greater son of David, about a descendant of David who will be king for all time. His place is at God’s right hand, the place of ultimate authority.
The Messiah is more than what the Pharisees have understood the “son of David” to be. He is more than a human descendant of David. To be sure, he is that. But he stands in a divine relationship to God. This was revealed to Peter, who confessed concerning Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
The Son of the living God stands before the Pharisees now. They can acknowledge his lordship and thereby know and experience for themselves the blessings of the covenant relationship with God. They can know and experience for themselves the covenantal love of God, mediated through the Messiah, Son of David and Son of God.
Sadly, this is not the option they choose. Note that they decide not to ask any more questions. This is not a good place for them to be. It is not a good place for anyone to be.
For genuine faith begins with asking good questions, the right questions, the big questions, as we have already pointed out. No longer to dare ask them is to separate ourselves from the source of our meaning and fulfillment, as we also have already pointed out.
Let us therefore not cease from asking them. Let us always be open to them, so that we may receive from God all that he has to give to us through Jesus the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of David. Amen.