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Sunday Worship 29 October | The Greatest Commandment

Updated: Jan 12

Matthew 22:34-46 (NIV)
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Let’s start with a little context, because the passage begins by telling us that Jesus has just silenced the Sadducees, and so now the Pharisees are lining up to take their turn at trying to trap him. The first thing to say is that neither the Sadducees nor the Pharisees should be equated with the Jews. They were Jewish, but they were distinct groups within a wider culture, which neither could claim to fully represent. That should be self-evident, but John's gospel does have a bad habit of referring to Jesus’ enemies as ‘the Jews’, and so it’s easy for us to unwittingly import that language into our reading of other gospels and lose the distinction, mistakenly characterising all Jews as tricksy nonbelievers. Given the long and vicious history of Christian antisemitism, it is important that we consciously steer ourselves away from those patterns of thinking. It is even more vital in this current climate, as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is already leading to an increase in antisemitic attacks. The Israeli government is not the Jewish people, just as Hamas is not the Palestinian people, and condemning the actions of a specific group does not warrant any hostility towards a general population.

The second thing to note is that none of what Jesus says in response to the Pharisees’ question about the greatest commandment is new. He isn’t telling them anything they don’t already know and teach. The call to love God comes from the Shema, the prayer recited by Jews twice a day, taken from passages in Deuteronomy and Numbers. The command to love the neighbour as the self is found in Leviticus 19:18. This is Hebrew scripture, pure and simple. Jesus wasn’t even the first to bring these passages together in this way. The rabbi Hillel, who died six years before Jesus was born, answered the challenge of reciting the entire Torah while standing on one leg by saying: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its commentary. Now go and study.” The call to love God and love neighbour is not unique to Christianity but the foundational demand of faith. It is quite simply what God has always asked of us. We need to keep being reminded of that just as the Pharisees did.

The translation we heard said that “the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”, but I learnt this week that the original verb can also translate as ‘hinge’, and I love that image of these commandments as the two hinges on which a door swings open. They are not a box to tick or a destination to arrive at, but instead they offer an entrance into a way of life shaped entirely by love. Just for a moment, I want you to try and create that image in your head. There is a closed door in front of you. What does it look like? How does it feel to be in a place which hasn’t yet been opened up to love? You reach out and touch the door. How does it open? What do you need to do to obey these commandments to love? The door swings open. Where does it lead to? What does a way of life shaped entirely by love look like?

Let’s look a little more closely at these commandments, beginning with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. This is something of a variation on a theme, as the Shema has 'love God with heart, soul and strength', while Mark and Luke have 'love God with heart, soul, mind and strength'. I’m not sure it matters very much which version you go with, as I think the point is that we are called to love God with our entire authentic integrated self. That becomes clear when you look at the Hebrew words we translate as heart, soul and strength, which are really three different ways of saying ‘everything you are’. Heart is levav, and while we may associate the heart primarily with emotions, for the ancient Hebrews, it was the seat of thought and discernment as well as feeling. Soul is nepesh, and rather than being the immortal essence we might now think of, it referred to a whole physical sentient being. And strength is me’od, which was most commonly used as an intensifier similar to ‘very’ or ‘really’, and so we might say it refers to the fullness or muchness of a person, to their every possibility and capacity. We might think of heart, soul, mind and strength as being four quite different things, and in a way dividing them up can help us recognise that we express love in a variety of different ways, but for the moment I don’t think we need to get too caught up on the distinctions. I think we can simply say that we are called to love God to the fullest extent that we are able.

Having said that, I do just want to note how significant it has been for me that in the gospels Jesus includes ‘mind’, and how helpful it was to realise that the original sense of ‘heart’ also included the intellect. I’m not going to say that I am a brilliant thinker, but I will say that I am a prolific thinker, in as much as I spend a lot of time thinking, probably too much in all honesty. Having grown up in a church tradition which didn’t always encourage independent inquiry or difficult questions, it was important for me to realise that I didn’t have to switch my brain off when I stepped into church. I could interrogate scripture and test doctrine, and that was an expression of my love for God not an abandonment of it. I suspect that a lot of people feel they have to drop something of themselves at the door, but these verses say no to that. They say bring all of you and direct it in faith toward God. The things that are destructive will be transformed, and the things that are holy will be made more beautiful still. You do not need to leave any of yourself behind. So love God with your anger by raging at the injustices that break God’s heart. Love God with your sexuality by expressing it in ways that bring blessing to another and glory to God. And love God with your weird hobbies by using them to create the joy and connection that God made us for.

Let's come now to the command to "Love your neighbour as yourself". We tend to focus on the 'love your neighbour' part, but it depends entirely on the 'as yourself' part, and so that's where I want to start. We often approach this commandment as if it assumes that we love ourselves first and need to be taught to love others likewise, so that it acts as a corrective to our innate selfishness. I'm sure there is an element of that at work, but I think we can also read in it an assurance that just as we are called to love others, so we are also supposed to love ourselves. Some people have been so badly treated by the world, or so soaked in a theology that says there is no good in us, that they have lost any sense of their self worth, but that is not God's word for us and it stops us from loving as well as we ought. To quote Ru Paul's final words at the end of each Drag Race episode, "If you can't love yourself, how are you going to love anybody else?" We are each of us fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and we are all worthy of love. We need to be secure in that knowledge and know and love ourselves, so that we can truly turn that love outwards.

This verse is then about balancing love of self and love of others, resisting the temptation to self centredness on one side and self abasement on the other. I think there is another balance to be found here too, and that is between affection and action, because love encompasses both, although here the balance may not be so even. We do not have such great control over our affections, but we can trick ourselves into feeling more kindly towards someone by acting more kindly towards them. And even where there is little affection, we can still act with love by treating the other with care and respect. Loving a neighbour must then be shown in the way we treat our neighbour. To quote a paraphrase of 1 John 3:17–18, "Love without deeds is dead. Don’t tell me you love if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say." Or even more simply, love is a doing word.

I'm not going to do much with the second half of the passage, except remind us that after what is actually a third consecutive round of questioning by the religious authorities, following questions about paying taxes to Caesar and marriage at the resurrection, Jesus poses a tricky question of his own, asking how the Messiah can be both David's son and David's lord. Perhaps he is trying to suggest that the Messiah is not about traditional power structures or family systems or cultural expectations, but the Pharisees don't know what to say. In fact they are so confounded that not only do they fail to answer Jesus' question, but they give up asking their own questions too. It might seem like a victory for Jesus, but I think it's a shame, because it suggests they were uncomfortable with uncertainty, and yet we need to be open to mystery because so much of faith resides in that space. As a line in the final verse of 'For the Fruits of All Creation' has it, “for the truths that still confound us, thanks be to God”.

There is a tension in this passage that we haven't yet acknowledged, as Jesus speaks about love in the middle of a debate. And we missed the earlier episode in our weeks away from the lectionary, but this encounter with the Pharisees comes shortly after Jesus has turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Presumably these actions are consistent with the law of love, and so it seems that for Jesus love does not mean avoiding disagreement. I want to end then with these thoughts from minister and professor Lance Pape: "If we take Matthew’s testimony seriously, we confront the possibility that our Lord discovered that sometimes in this life there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing about, things that call for those who are able to be both loving and formidable in the cause of righteousness...There is much to learn by seeing the love of Jesus in action. The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmanoeuvre the manipulative, and correct the clueless...Jesus is a lot more complicated than we sometimes pretend, and the love he taught demands that we expand our whole selves for God and neighbour." May we expand our whole selves for God and neighbour. Amen.

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