Sermon for High Mass – Last after Trinity Sunday 29 October 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Lev. 19.1-2.15-18; Psalm 1; I Thess. 2.1-8; Matt. 22.34-46
“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the days before Passover, what we now call Holy Week. These are the last days of his earthly life. As we have heard over the last couple of Sundays, his enemies put a series of questions to him, about paying taxes to Caesar and about the resurrection. They have done this not in a common pursuit of wisdom and learning but in order to catch him out and discredit him.
This question from a lawyer is the last of them. It was one debated among Jewish religious figures. There were and are 613 commandments in the law and some rigorists argued that each was of equal weight since whatever God commands, however insignificant it might seem, is great. Break one and you have broken them all. We should not think that the Pharisees held a monopoly on this way of thinking; it’s not too hard to find kindred spirits in other faiths – including our own.
The lawyer’s challenge may be intended to imply that Jesus is unschooled in the law, a mere country bumpkin in comparison with the learned teachers of the city. Or, if Jesus lifts up one commandment over another, he will be exposed as a dangerous liberal undermining the faith; as a small but noisy minority in the Roman Catholic Church is trying to do at the moment by accusing Pope Francis of heresy over his more pastoral approach to the divorced and remarried.
Just as he had done in the threefold temptation in wilderness, which this section of the Gospel with its three questions consciously echoes, Jesus responds to this test by quoting scripture.
He begins with something from the heart of Jewish piety, something which devout Jews recite every day: the Shema or creed of Israel, “Hear of Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) an expression of utter devotion to God and the Law. It serves as the preface to the commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Jesus goes on to quote Leviticus 19.18 that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. In our first reading, we heard the passage in which that commandment is set. People are enjoined to reprove their neighbour for wrongdoing, (which the lawyer might have thought he was doing) – but they are also forbidden to take vengeance or to bear grudges. They are not to steal, to deal falsely, to lie or swear falsely by God’s name, to defraud, to revile the deaf or put stumbling blocks before the blind, or to render unjust judgement.
To love our neighbour as ourselves then does not mean that we get to decide what such love means. Rather to love well is made up by practices such as those in Leviticus which provide an alternative to mistrust and vengeance.
On these two commandments, Jesus tells the lawyer, hang all the law and the prophets. In making the love commandment supreme, Jesus opens the hearts of believers to a life of love. We were made to love; one meaning of being created in the image of God. The double commandment gives us a direction to face, a way to be.
First, we are to look Godward. The atmosphere of practical atheism in which we live and breathe, which assumes that even if God exists he is not actively present or even much concerned with what goes on in our world, affects the habits of even believers. Jesus commands us to love the God who has first loved us; the God who has a history. The word “your” in “You shall love the Lord your God,” has a gospel in it. We are not commanded to love a distant great being – but the God who has already done great things for his people. As the First Letter of John reminds us, “We love because God first loved us.” We know what it means to love God only because of God’s love for us through the law and the prophets.
Most of our neighbours, even those who do not believe, would agree with the sentiment that we should love one another. It is tempting for us, when in company with them, or sometimes with believers who make strident demands in God’s name, to downplay the first commandment and emphasize the second; it’s something we can all agree on.
As believers, we know that we cannot love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the neighbour we have seen – even if we may be better at that in theory than the practice. We know that our love of neighbour keeps our love of God honest; rescuing it from a self-absorbed spiritual escapism.
Jesus tells us that we are to love God with heart and soul and mind. In an age like ours which has sentimentalized love – its icon is the heart of an Valentine’s Day Card – the need to use our minds in understanding what the double command of love means is crucial.
Someone once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
The answer to that question for us is provided by God who loves all his children; so all of his children are our neighbours. Now there is a pitfall here; there are lots of people, often well-intentioned, who love the world or the poor disadvantaged in the abstract, but find not in the particular examples they encounter. It is easier to work up a head of zealous steam for people far away than to do something practical and face to face. Karl Marx wanted to raise up the poor, but didn’t much like individual members of the working classes. He never killed anyone but his political heirs would soon enough find justifications for shooting and imprisoning countless inconvenient members of the poor – all in the cause of the greater good: “The end justifies the means.”
We are to love our neighbour as ourself. Psychology has taught us much about the tragic sadness of those who feel unable to love themselves; who have a low sense of self-esteem; who have internalized and made their own the contempt that others have of them – because of their gender or class, race or sexuality. Theology should teach us that the true root of a proper self-love lies in God’s love for us.
We know from human experience that children who are loved, and know that they are, have a better chance of growing up being able to love and relate to others. Knowing that God loves us liberates us to love others who have, like us, been created in God’s image and likeness – which means not least having the capacity to be loved and to love in return. Jesus does not say that we will learn to love our neighbour only when we have learned to love ourselves; he says that we will be able to love ourselves only when we learn to love ourselves as God loves both us and our neighbour.
But we do not love just with our minds: our parents and grandparents, our spouses or partners, our children and grandchildren, our friends and companions, are not abstract ideas but real people, made of flesh and blood. We relate to them from our hearts – meaning the centre of our being – our will as well as our feelings.
And that is how we are to love God – and here we do part company from our non-believing neighbours. We love God as the real and living, loving and self-giving being we encounter in Jesus Christ -not simply as an idea or even as a teacher from the past, but as a living and active presence in our lives.
The heart of that love for Jesus was in his worship and the God of the scriptures, the God whom he knew profoundly in his life of prayer. The heart of our love is found there too.
There will be times when that love wells up naturally and spontaneously. There will be other times, as in any relationship, when we have to apply our will to persevering in love; to doing the things which lovers do for those whom they love.
The challenge that Jesus presents by joining these two commandments so that they mutually support each other, is to learn that we are loved by God so we are able to love God and our neighbour; that the purpose of our living is the adoration of God and the cherishing of human beings.
We must recognize that to learn to love ourselves truthfully, not selfishly, is no easy matter because we usually want to love ourselves on our own terms. Such a love requires a lifetime of training in which we are given the opportunity to have our self-centredness uncovered and overwhelmed by love; a love in which we find our true selves.