Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:34-46
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today marks the five hundredth anniversary of the event we think of as sparking the Reformation. Martin Luther is said to have nailed a list of forty-nine theses- discussion points, if you like- the door of the church in Wittenberg. In doing so, he provoked arguments which continue to resonate in the Church to this day.
We’ll be thinking more about the Protestant Reformation next Sunday. But I mention now because the Reformation began with an argument, and it reminds us that Christians are prone do to get into arguments. You might think that we shouldn’t- are we not supposed to love one another? Well, perhaps. But turn to a passage like today’s Gospel reading, and you’ll find that Jesus always seemed to be arguing.
For the life of Jesus of Nazareth was filled with controversy. Today’s reading comes from a section of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus facing controversial questions- and giving controversial answers. He has arrived in Jerusalem- the seat of religious and secular power in Israel- riding on a donkey, with people praising and blessing him with palm branches, causing a commotion. He has gone to the Temple and thrown out the moneychangers. He has been asked pointed questions about his authority. He has said that the first to enter the Kingdom of God will be tax collectors and prostitutes, not the respectable religious people. His opponents have tried to catch him out, with controversial questions about paying taxes to the Romans, and about beliefs about life after death. And in the passage Ross read to us today- more questions, argument controversy.
The first question comes from a Pharisee- and it’s a cracker! It might sound to us like an innocent enough question, but it is one of those questions which gets to the heart of the matter. A Teacher of the Jewish religious law asks Jesus a question about when he thinks is important in that Law- ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’ It’s a brilliant question, because it’s meant to lay bare what the centre of the Jesus’ message is.
Jesus, as usual, does not give a straightforward answer. Asked for one commandment, he says there are two.
Firstly he give the answer any good Jew would give. Jesus says that the most important commandment is
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind
He says ‘this is the greatest and the most important commandment’.
No Jew, back then or today, would disagree with that answer. It’s a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy. These are the words which every Jewish child learns by heart, words with which every Jewish service of worship begins (we began today’s service with those words).
We’ve all heard of the Ten Commandments- but this isn’t one of them.
The Book of Exodus tells the famous story of how, at Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of stone. A later book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, retells that story, but then gives us something like a sermon by Moses, drawing out their meaning for the people of Israel.
The first two commandments say ‘Worship no god but me’ and do not worship idols and false gods (Deuteronomy 5.7 and 8-10). Those are duties for the people of Israel- dos and don’ts. Reflecting on those commandments, Deuteronomy has Moses say the words Jesus will one day quote:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6.4-9).
This is not a commandment about duty. This is saying about love. ‘Love the Lord your God’ is not telling us about what we are to do for God. It is about our relationship with God. There are three extra clauses which are worth paying attention to, for they are clues as to how we might be able to love God:
You shall love God with all your heart. There is nothing worse than religion that is less than wholehearted. We are not to love God as an abstract idea, or to make our religion just a list of rules and rituals to be carried out. In Jesus, Christians experience God as a person, not an idea. And that Jesus lived among us as a human being helps us grasp that we are called into a personal relationship with God. Think of the passion you put into loving your children, or your spouse, or your best friend. And then ask yourself: ‘Is there something of that passion in my love for God?’ If there is, you perhaps understand to love God with all your heart.
God is to be the one you love more than anyone, more than anything. God is the one you would entrust with your immortal soul. So love God with all your soul. It is not an accident that one of the most emotional of all popular music styles came from the Black church in the United States- Gospel music, often called soul music. What stirs your soul? music? art? some cause that you feel strongly about? God should do that for you, too. We are to love God deeply, passionately, exceptionally. Soul, I think, is about passionately caring about someone- we should all put some soul into our relationship with God.
So you are to love God with heart and soul- but also with all your might. In the New Testament, the Hebrew word for translated as might in our English Old Testaments shifts meaning a bit, so it comes out as ‘all your mind’. The original word meant something like our life force, our psyche. In any case, being told to love God with all our mind reminds us to love God with our brains as well.
Someone told me once that she had once unexpectedly met up with a retired schoolteacher, who had taught her as a child. The teacher wanted to know what my friend was doing now. Unfortunately, my friend had a very complicated, technical job, and she found it hard to explain to the teacher, who eventually said he didn’t really understand my friend’s job, but he was pleased that she had such an interesting life. My friend was not at all disappointed that she couldn’t explain her job to him. Instead, she said to me, ‘I always felt that he took an interest in his pupils, and tried to understand us. I was just delighted that, even in retirement, he was still taking an interest in me, still wanting to understand me!’
We can never totally understand another person, so we can never hope to understand everything about God. But just as my friend was delighted her old teacher was trying to understand her, so we should not try to understand God as much as we can. Some people think faith means that you have to your brain behind at the door. That can’t be true for those of us with a faith in the God of the Bible. Our God wants us to bring our minds- our intellect- as well as our passion to the relationship. Loving God with all our might means loving God with heart, soul and mind. As so, as one commentator says, this Commandment ‘…means that to God we must give total love, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions’ (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Matthew volume 2 p278).
And then Jesus adds something else. He quotes from the Book of Leviticus- not a book many of read very often, for it is full of rather esoteric rules, detailed dos and don’ts, many of which Christians- rightly- don’t pay much attention to. But among all it all, one phrase shines like a diamond in a coal mine- and Jesus picks it up, and sets it alongside the command to love God with our hearts, souls and minds, and says- ‘And another is like it’. It is the command to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
A published survey this week suggests that British people today think that the least important of the Ten Commandments was ‘Honour the Sabbath day, and keep it holy’. I’m not surprised at that, because somehow, when Christians were in charge of a lot of things decades ago, Sundays could be a bit grim. I remember being surprised to discover that stories of swings in parks being locked on Sundays in Inverness so that children couldn’t play on the Sabbath, were, in fact true (see this from Belfast in 1965). The people who made up that grim rule perhaps did so out of love of God- But they didn’t show much love for children. No wonder people in our day have reacted against Sabbatarianism.
But supposing we asked people- do you think it’s right that people should have to go to work every day? Do you think too many people work for too many hours? Do you think it’s important that people get time for things other than work, time to rest, time for their families and friends? Do you think that people should get at least one day off a week? I’m sure most people would agree with those sentiments. Jesus once said that the Sabbath was made for people, and not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2.27). Christians helped to make the idea of the Sabbath irrelevant because we made it loveless. But you know, we really could do with bringing back the meaning of the Sabbath- ensuring that people get the rest we need. That way we would be honouring both the commandment to love our God, and the commandment to love our neighbour
The latter part of today’s Gospel passage is a bit obscure, all that stuff about the Messiah and whether he is the Son of King David, or not. People end up flummoxed: ‘No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions’. But put it briefly- this is a controversy about who Jesus is. If he is the Messiah, he is a different kind of Messiah the people have been waiting for. He is not going to be a kind in the traditional sense, a war leader who will use military might to make Israel great again. In fact, Jesus will die soon like a criminal. But when he rises again at Easter, his followers will take into the world a message of love and peace to all people of all nations. Jesus was not the Messiah the people of his day expected. He is much, much more than they, or we, expect.
For Jesus has taught us loving people follows on from loving God. My faith in God entails that I respect my neighbour, however he or she is. My love for God is why I try to love my neighbour. I know that many people who aren’t Christians are good people, that they also love their neighbours. But I think we should worry about a world which wants to forget that God’s commandments where we learn to be good.
We seem to be living in times when intolerance is making a comeback. Racism and intolerance are becoming fashionable again. People want to retreat back into their clans, and hatred of the foreigner and anyone who is different is becoming acceptable. Perhaps that’s happening because we’ve started to think that people are simply blobs of skin and bone, and not children of God with immortal souls. Perhaps that’s what happens when we are told merely to treat people with tolerance, and not with love. As the First Letter of John tells us, ‘If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen. The command that Christ has given us is this: whoever loves God must love others also’ (1 John 4.20-21).
‘Love is the essence of Christian living’, wrote the theologian Karl Barth(Church Dogmatics I.2 p372). The Gospel- and this Table- remind us of that. At this Table, there is something which goes beyond the platitudes of secular morality. This Table reminds us that God so loved the world- everyone- the whole world- that he gave his only Son (John 3.16). Here at this Table, we remember the love God has for us and for the world, love which was fleshed out in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. At this Table we meet a God whose love ought to engage our hearts, our souls and our minds- a God to be passionate about, and God who makes us think, a God who calls us to love our neighbours. As the First Letter of John puts it, ‘We love, because God first loved us’ (1 John 4.19). As Christ serves us at his Table, as we serve one another at this Table, we are reminded why we love God, why we love our neighbour- because God loved us first (1 John 4.19).
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo