Sermon - 26th October 2014
The Greatest Commandment
Scripture - Leviticus 19:1-18, Matthew 22:34-40
Revd Andy Braunston
Last week we looked at Jesus’ view on government, whether we thought government itself was good. We also looked at some of the tensions between our citizenship of earthly realms and our citizenship of the coming Kingdom of God. Today’s readings make us think a little about Law, or, more properly, the Jewish Law.
Christians often have rather odd views of the Jewish Law and seem to think that Jews are weighed down with them. Many years ago I asked a Reform Rabbi to come and preach for us and he started his sermon “there are 613 Laws in the Bible that Jews follow…and the first…” which made the congregation look terrified as they thought he was going to preach on all of them. However, many of us think that having to obey all those laws must be really difficult and, if we come from evangelical backgrounds, we may be suspicious of all that Law and look today’s Gospel reading to help our thinking.
Yet before we get too smug at not having to follow all that Law, let’s consider a different question. Who drove to church today? Did you feel burdened by the weight of the laws and rules in the Highway Code? Why not? There are 307 rules in the Highway Code that we have to obey. Isn’t that hard?
I suspect that most of us who drive do so with a mixture of care and attention and a sense of being on autopilot. I’ve never worked out if the autopilot bit is good or bad! When I first learned to drive I found it really difficult to steer, change gear, indicate, check my speed and be aware of what is around me. But now it all comes, more or less, naturally. I’m not aware of all the Laws that I have to obey – some are more obvious than others – red lights and speed limits for example. Others are more automatic - I know I have to drive on the left, I know I have to go round not over roundabouts etc.
So, for a Jewish person who is brought up to obey the Law there is much that will be automatic, some that will require some thought and, I’m sure, a few that will be really hard – just like driving.
The Greatest Commandments
Clearly in Jesus’ age the Rabbis and scholars discussed whether any Laws were greater than any others. It seems that a special place has always been given to the 10 Commandments – we heard a version of them from Leviticus. I’m not sure we think in the same way about our Laws, if we rank them in important – clearly there are some crimes which are worse than others and the recent debate over the Human Rights Act might be a sign that many people think that Act is greater than many others. Of course, in our age we don’t see Laws as anything other than human constructs. In Jesus’ age the Law was seen to be given by God, not humanity, and so all the laws were important as they all came from God. There were, however, 613 of them so it was natural to wonder if some were more important, greater, than others.
Jesus manages to find a way to condense all the Laws into just two simple sentences: “’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 neighbour as yourself.’
The Greatest Commandment
It’s easy to see these as two commandments. To think about loving God and loving our neighbours as separate things. One concerns our inner spiritual life and the other our life in the world. However, I think this is a false division and betrays Jesus’ words “the second is like the first.” We can only love God through expressing love to our neighbours. We will only truly love our neighbours if we love God.
The whole thrust of Jesus’ ministry is about expressing one’s love of God, one’s spirituality in the concrete experience of living justly. He had hard words to say to those who expressed their love of God through right worship at the Temple, the chanting of Psalms and prayers, the giving of the tithe but who mistreated their neighbours.
For Jesus, the love of God is seen in how others are treated – and love has to be practical and, sometimes, can be tough. Yesterday I was given St Mark’s account of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple when he overturned the money lenders tables and the seats of those who sold the doves. His actions were incredibly provocative – and probably sealed his fate with the authorities. However, it’s possible to see His actions as being loving – but tough love. Through his word and deed he called people to repentance; through word and deed he showed what was right; through word and deed he exposed wrong doing and called people to be just. Yet this tough love would have been very frightening to those who watched; it would have been appalling to those wedded to the status quo.
Loving God through Our Neighbours
So where does this leave us? It’s easy to see how we can love our neighbours – or at least it’s easy in some ways. We know we should be loving; we know we should give of our time and our talents and our money without counting the cost; we know that loving someone is often about being nice to them – even if we don’t like them. It can be a challenge to us to help someone we find unpleasant but our personal feelings are irrelevant to the command to love. Yet the challenge is to oppose injustice and stand up to evil and still be loving. That’s hard in a climate where political debates can be full of invective, when challenging the status quo can mean we get singled out and labelled as lunatics. When Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the Temple there is no record that he hit anyone. He overthrew the tables, one Gospel account says he fashioned a whip so there may have been a threat of violence but there may not have been. He named the traders as “robbers” or “thieves” depending on which version you read.
I think Jesus’ understanding of the greatest commandment leads us to various conclusions – and some concrete steps for action.
- First, the love of God is seen in the love of our neighbours.
- Second, that we can only love our neighbours if we truly love God. These two are interlinked.
- Third, love is not the same as liking someone. We are commanded to love whether or not we like the other person. Of course it’s easier to love those we like, but not essential!
- Fourth, love has to be practical and expressed through service. That service can be an offer of a listening ear, practical help, simply spending time with someone, befriending them.
- Finally, love can be tough. It’s hard to tell the truth sometimes – and goes against our cultural norms where we prefer to be “nice” and avoid telling the truth. Sometimes we have to tell the truth about the state our society is in, sometimes we have to tell the truth to the government about how their policies affect people, sometimes we have to tell the truth about how another’s behaviour is affecting themselves and others. The challenge is to do this in loving ways which are not narrow, legalistic or judgemental, but full of love.
We show our love of God through the ways in which we love our neighbours. The way we love our neighbours shows how much we really love God.