This past season was the first time that college football used a playoff format to decide the national champion. For years people complained about the way the football national champion was crowned, and pointed to the NCAA college basketball tournament as a much better model. That tournament which begins tomorrow includes a large field of teams. The crowning of a national champion is decided on the court by the players, not by media or coaches voting.
NCAA March Madness is a fun way to decide who is number one. Each conference gets to send their champion – their number one team – to play in the NCAA tournament. However, because of the manner in which this is decided, every year an injustice takes place, and this year it impacted a school nearby.
Every conference has a regular season in which the conference champion is decided. Yet that team is not the one that has an automatic bid to the tournament. Instead, when the regular season is done, the teams play a conference tournament and the winner of the tournament gets the bid. The regular season determines the seeding in the tournament, but nothing else.
And so every year it happens that some team that has been dominant over the course of the entire conference season – the best team in the conference – gets upset in the tournament. Since the small conferences will only get their champion into the tournament, this means that one loss prevents the number one team in the conference from playing in the NCAA tournament.
It happened this year to Murray State. The team finished with a 27 and 5 record. They were the undefeated regular season Ohio Valley Conference champion. In the conference tournament championship game they played Belmont – a team that had easily beaten by fifteen points during the regular season. Yet in the championship game they suffered a heartbreaking upset by a score of 88 to 87.
For my part, I think that is just wrong. I despise the whole conference tournament development. It’s all just about making more money for the conferences. And since sports reflect culture, it’s just another example of the lack of accountability in our world. So, it doesn’t matter how poorly you did over course of the whole conference season. You still have a shot to make the NCAA tournament if you can just get hot and win a couple of games. In the end, the regular seasons means nothing. That’s no way to decide which team is number one.
In our text for tonight the Pharisees ask Jesus about which commandment is number one – about which one is the great commandment. They want to hear his decision and we are told that they ask in order to test him. They hope that his process for deciding will yield an answer that will open Jesus to accusation.
Our text tonight concludes the running dispute that Jesus has with the Jewish religious leaders during Holy Week. The different groups in Judaism – the Sadducees and the Pharisees – each take their shot at Jesus. The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body, had just asked Jesus a question about the resurrection that was meant to stump him by making the belief seem silly. Jesus answered in a way that stopped them in their tracks.
Our text says, “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’”
Now to be honest, this question seems rather puzzling. It’s not entirely clear why the Pharisee thought it was a test of Jesus. In Jesus’ authoritative teaching that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount he had said repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you….” He rejected much of the interpretation of the Pharisees. He had said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Perhaps because of the character of Jesus’ teaching, the Pharisee thought he might get a controversial answer that could be used against Jesus.
If so, he was certainly disappointed for Jesus replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Our Lord uses two statements from the Old Testament to summarize the Ten Commandments – what we usually describe as the first and second table of the Law. He said that first, we are to love God with all that we are. And second, just like this, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Then he added, that ultimately, all of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament comes down to this.
We don’t hear about a response from the Pharisee. And what could he say? How could one object to this? It sounds like it was one of the moments when a person thinks he or she is being really clever, and then in the way things turn out they just look foolish.
Jesus’ answer is simple: love God with all that you are; love your neighbor as yourself. It’s really easy to understand. It’s also really hard to do. The reality is that you love yourself more than anyone or anything. Martin Luther described fallen man as “curved in on himself.” Our unholy trinity is “me, myself and I.” Oh sure, God and my neighbor are cool when there is something in it for me. Then we are all for loving them.
But when we examine that word “love” we find that its content has often been defined by the world. For the world, “love” is a feeling. It’s a positive feeling that I like. And if at some point I stop feeling good … well, then, the love is gone.
That is not what Jesus means by love. Instead, love is an action that seeks the good of another; that puts another before oneself. Love puts God first, and me second. Love puts my neighbor first, and me second. Love does this even when it doesn’t feel good - when in fact it involves service and sacrifice.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Here in our text he says about loving God and loving the neighbor, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus Christ was in Jerusalem during Holy Week in order to fulfill the Law and the Prophets by loving God the Father with all that he was, and by loving us more than himself. In the garden of Gethsemane he would pray, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus put the Father’s will before himself. He put your forgiveness and salvation before himself as he drank the cup of God’s wrath against your sin. And then on the third day, God the Father raised him from the dead in order to defeat death for you. Because Jesus loved God and you more than himself, you now have forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life as the baptized child of God.
This is the gift that Christ has given to you. And now through his Spirit Jesus prompts you to live as what he has made you to be. The old Adam - the fallen sinful nature – will never allow you to do this perfectly. But Christ enables you to begin to see life in these terms. He opens your eyes to see the choices in life for what they really are – decisions about whether you are going to love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. And his Spirit makes it possible not only to see things clearly, but also to make correct choices as you follow Jesus in the way of service and sacrifice for others.