25 October 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 21 A 25th October 2020

Matthew 22: 34-46

Over these weeks of October we have been dwelling on the passage of Matthew’s gospel which is the summary of the last week of Jesus’ life. After entering Jerusalem in a kind of triumph, and cleansing the temple, Jesus taught and amazed his listeners, sitting in the temple, the place of God’s shekinah or glory. Jesus has told a series of parables about the Kingdom, none of them very flattering to the authorities and then he has faced a barrage of questions from the leaders of the Jewish people, designed to intimidate. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Elders have all in turn tried to entrap Jesus. The questions have largely been about power, directly or obliquely. And here at the end of the questioning Jesus turns the tables and asks a question of his own.

We skipped, last week, the question from the Sadducees about marriage in the resurrection. This was interesting because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection and it made me think about the questions and the groups who asked them. I think that perhaps Matthew has Jesus answer a set of questions that are somehow emblematic of the different groups and their particular emphases. 

The last question is posed by a lawyer and it pertains to the law. It is another test or trap, though I do wonder what they hoped Jesus would say. To answer with anything other than the Shema would be blasphemy. It is interesting that in Mark’s gospel this is not seen as a trap, or trick question, and In Luke, it is  Jesus who asks the question. I don’t quite understand Matthew’s logic here. Jesus answers, predictably, that the greatest commandment is to 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. This commandment is so important to the Jewish people that it has a name: Shema. Jesus changes things up a little by adding the Greek idea of ‘mind’ rather than strength but essentially it is the only possible answer.

Has it ever occurred to you what a strange command this is? It is hard for us, conditioned as we are by repetition from a very young age, to actually examine what it means. 

Why is a command to love the first and greatest command? You can imagine a command to worship, or a command to bring tribute or a command to fear as the first command, but what God demands love? This must have been very confronting to the Greek and Roman auditors, let alone all the other peoples in the long history of contact with the Israelite peoples. And this command requires a whole of being response: love with heart, which in the Jewish schema meant the seat of the will, love with the soul, the eternal bit, the bit that makes you ‘you’, and love with the mind, or indeed strength, is an amazing ask. Love, as we have seen in the latter part of the Trump campaign, is something that can be asked for but unlike power, which can be grasped, can only be freely given not actually commanded. So this God begins by asking for the love which characterises God’s own self. In perichoresis, the dance of relationship within the trinity, God loves God’s-self or perhaps, ‘selves’. And the nation that God calls out is to be characterised by loving, not by fearing. This is the essential part of the relationship between God and humanity. And as I am thinking about this I think that all the evil in the world is caused by not loving God. 

The outworking of loving God is in loving your neighbour as yourself. Jesus is quoting the passage that we read from Leviticus. The thing that struck me when I read it in Leviticus is that you are to love your neighbour as yourself, why, because God has commanded it, because, ‘I am the Lord’. When Jesus says this, it is, again, nothing new. I read in some commentary that Jesus put these two statements together for the first time, but I have since read that this isn’t true. Other Rabbis had noted the connection of the two ideas, but it doesn’t matter. The thing that is interesting here is that Jesus gives the command to love your neighbour the same ‘primacy’ as the command to love God. We read, ‘the second is like it’ and don’t mark the implication, again because we are so familiar with the words. The first commandment is not the first in linear time but the primary or essential first. The fact that Jesus says that the second is ‘like’ the first, means it is the same in essence, and that is a huge statement. They had been commanded to love their neighbours in the midst of a series of complicated laws but Jesus is elevating this command’s status to being the same as Shema. And then he says that the two things together summarise all the rest. All of the law and all of the prophets are held together in these two commands.

Then it is Jesus’ turn to ask a question. Now don’t forget that the questions have been framed by the matter of authority. Jesus has overturned the tables and taught  the people and the powers that be want to know on whose authority he is doing this. And then the question about taxes has been asked and played nicely into Jesus’ hands. He challenges them about the image and the inscription. We don’t hear the resonance with the idea of the Messiah, or anointed one, but they would have. When Jesus asks this question of the Pharisees, who Matthew says, are trying to regroup, it is like launching a hand grenade into the midst of them. Jesus is stating, albeit obliquely, that his authority is that of the Messiah, or in Greek, the Christ. 

The question of the Messiah had been a very hot topic throughout what is called the Intertestamental period. I talked some time ago about the rebellion of Judas Maccabeus, so I won’t go into it again, but the figure of ‘a’ Messiah, had been very much looked for and desired. What Jesus says here is a complex thing. He turns the idea of ‘messiah’, a Son of David, on its head and makes them realise that they are looking too low, in a sense, for their Saviour. Nobody, who comes from the house of David is going to be enough. The Lord is the one who will save, and Jesus is it. He has already revealed himself as the anointed one, as he has gone around healing and saving. I think this is linked to the idea of love. Jesus has loved God by loving his neighbour. And among the neighbours that Jesus has loved are the poor, the needy and the outcast. This ability to love is the recognition of God’s own self. And it is the same for us as we love. As John says, ‘we love because God first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Love is the primary force and the recognition of love points us to God. Love is to be the characteristic that shows people that we belong to Christ (John 13:34-35). Love is to be the way we function in every aspect of our lives and when we love, we fulfil all the law and the prophets.

As we look at our world, through the lens of the pandemic it is easy to see how important love is. We have been focused on relationships when there has been distance physically, and of course where there has been unwonted proximity. But more than that, the way we love has been emphasised as we have been forced to consider the safety and well-being of our neighbours in a way that we are not usually. We wear our masks, not for ourselves but for our neighbours. We stay at home, not for ourselves but for our neighbours and the kind of unselfish behaviour that has been demanded of us has been questioned by many. People have responded with generosity to the hardship of others, while making an increased effort to love those around them. It has been a blessing in disguise. My prayer is that as we emerge the things that we have learnt will stay with us, and that we might all love God by loving our neighbours as ourselves.

You shall love the Lord your God, and your neighbours as yourselves.

Rev. Roberta Hamilton