Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
25th of October, 2020
We are (still!) in the series of controversies and arguments between Jesus and his opponents in the Temple on the day following his entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus has told three parables against them; the chief priests and elders have asked Jesus whence comes his authority; the Pharisees and Herodians have asked him about paying taxes to the Emperor; and the Sadducees have asked him about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33). (The lectionary for the Year of Matthew skips over that last controversy, and we only hear it in the Year of Luke, which I think is a pity because I love Jesus’ reassurance that the woman in question will not be confronted with seven husbands in the afterlife.) Now we come to the final controversy and, finally, to Jesus turning the tables on his interlocutors and asking them a question. We are getting close to the end of the gospel, to the moment when Jesus’ opponents will move from reasonably civilised controversies in the Temple to betrayal and execution.
All the synoptic gospels tell today’s story of Jesus’ declaration of the greatest two commandments. In the gospels according to Mark and Luke the questioner is much more sympathetic. Mark tells us that it is a scribe of whom Jesus says, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. In Luke’s version the questioner is a lawyer who does try to justify himself by asking ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and in response Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Matthew’s version the questioner is a Pharisee seeking to catch Jesus out. This is one of the reasons that Matthew has Jesus add at the end of his answer: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Jesus is justifying himself to his enemies, showing them that he is not rejecting the Law. It is also a reminder for us that we cannot use Jesus’ emphasis on these two greatest commandments to argue that Jews have the Law and Christians have Love.
Throughout the Gospel according to Matthew we have seen the importance Matthew places on following the Law and on doing, rather than merely believing. I have always found Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,’ (Matthew 5:17-18) quite terrifying, but in today’s controversy we see what this means, and it is exactly the same thing that we hear from Jesus in his ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ in the Gospel according to Luke (Luke 4:16-21) and in the New Commandment that he gives the disciples on his last night with them in the Gospel according to John (John 15:12-17). No matter how each gospel writer puts it, the core of Jesus’ message is the same. It is all, always, about love.
Matthew’s telling of this story differs from those of Mark and Luke in the way Jesus joins the two commandments together. While both Mark and Luke agree that Jesus taught that these two are the greatest, only Matthew has Jesus say that the command ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is like the command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. The question of which of the Torah’s 613 commandments was the greatest was a common debating point among scholars of the law. Jesus’ answer that the command to love God is the greatest would not have surprised any of his hearers. It is a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5) and pious Jews would recite it several times a day. There would have been nothing challenging in Jesus naming it as the most important. The second commandment, to love your neighbour, comes from Leviticus (19:18), and it is probable that some people would have argued that it was the greatest commandment. What Jesus does that is new is link the two together. Challenged to name the one, greatest, commandment Jesus instead gives two, refusing to separate them, arguing that they are alike in being of equal weight, equally important, equally necessary. Love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour; love of neighbour cannot be separated from love of God. To love God with all our heart and soul and mind is inseparable from an active love for those whom God loves in the way that God loves them, with a love that is compassionate and extends even to those who are hostile. Loving God enables us to imitate God, which enables us to love even our enemies. Loving our neighbour teaches us how to love God.
I have had arguments on Twitter with philosopher Damon Young about the nature of ‘love,’ and whether it is either virtuous or even possible to ‘love our enemies,’ which Jesus commanded his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:44) It does, after all, seem ridiculous to command a feeling. We cannot control how we feel; only how we act in response to those feelings. And, anyway, feeling warmly towards people who have done great evil, those we would consider enemies, would seem to deny the reality of their evil. But here, as always when Jesus talks about love including love for enemies, he is talking about actions, not feelings. This is clearer in Luke’s telling, which adds the parable about the Samaritan who cares for the man who falls among thieves as an explanation of ‘who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29-37) In that story we are told that the Samaritan was ‘moved with pity’ for the man, but the emphasis is not on the Samaritan’s feelings but on what the Samaritan does. The lawyer testing Jesus agrees that the neighbour to the man was ‘the one who showed him mercy,’ and Jesus then tells him, ‘Go and do likewise’. ‘Love’ as Jesus means it is an action. The song says, ‘They will know we are Christians by our love,’ and that love is seen in what we do rather than in what we feel. Damon Young, despite the passionate arguments we have had about the nature of ‘love’ on Twitter, agrees; he says that ‘loving our neighbour’ is about witnessing to our basic needs as human beings and how easily they are denied and forgotten. Humans are, Damon says, fragile creatures who depend on other fragile creatures, and loving our neighbour recognises and respects that fragility.
There is one final point I would like to make about the way Jesus describes these two greatest commandments. The first commandment, from Deuteronomy, is that ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’. Jesus quotes this as, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. Mind, not might. This might be a simple matter of translation from the Hebrew to the Greek, but as someone who if anything has been over-educated, I appreciate the reminder that my faith does not demand that I turn my mind off. For me, loving God with all my mind means wrestling with the biblical text, reading theology, arguing vehemently with other Christians, and occasionally yelling at God in prayer when I do not think that God is living up to God’s responsibilities as Creator. It means using every single part of me in worship, including the part of me that gets excited about things like the way in which the biblical text has been translated.
We are at the very end of this series of controversies in the Temple, and Jesus now turns the tables and initiates a discussion by asking his opponents a question. ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ Jesus’ trap for the Pharisees depends on them agreeing that David wrote all of the Psalms, that he wrote them while under divine inspiration ‘by the Spirit,’ and that royal psalms like Psalm 110 are referring to the future messiah. We do not necessarily think any of those things, but the point Jesus is making is that the messiah is not simply the son of David. In the gospel according to Matthew Jesus is referred to as the son of David eight times, including in the very first verse, in which Matthew says he is giving ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. But Jesus is referred to nearly as often as the ‘Son of God’ and when the disciples are commanded at the end of the gospel to baptize ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ it is ‘Son of God,’ not ‘son of David’ that is meant. This is what Jesus is hinting at here, and it silences all the opponents who have been arguing with him, ‘No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions’. For us, that Jesus is the Son of God means that if we want to know what God is like, we can look to Jesus. It means that when Jesus says that the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbours, we know that that is what God wants us to do.
At the absolute heart of Christianity is love; the love of God shown for us in Jesus’ willingness to die for us, and the love we are commanded to show God and all other human beings in return. There are often attempts to make Christianity about something else: about believing in a physical resurrection; or seeking to be ‘blessed’ by becoming rich; or rejecting LGBTIQ people. Christianity is about none of these things. It is about love, and love demonstrated in action. So, as Jesus told that lawyer in the Gospel according to Luke, ‘Go and do likewise’. Amen.
 Written by Catholic priest Peter Raymond Scholtes (1938-2009) for an ecumenical event in the 1960s.