Matthew 22: 34-46
Much of the news in September and October each year is dominated by the Party Conference Season. One by one the Party Leaders appear on our screens making promises of what they will do to make this country a better place, and one by one the political commentators and the leaders of the other parties do their best to trip them up with difficult questions.
Challenging others by asking difficult questions is a recurring theme in chapters 21 to 22 of Matthew’s gospel which we have been listening to over the last four weeks. Following the description of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 21, the gospel records several difficult questions, some addressed to Jesus and some by Jesus to others.
In Chapter 21 verse 23 the chief priests and elders asked Jesus: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus dealt with this by a ploy that any politician today would be proud of: he asked them a question about an unrelated subject that they simply could not answer.
Following this neat deflection Jesus posed a number of difficult questions through his favoured device of telling stories to which his listeners could relate in the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet. He also fended off a question on tax with that memorable line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” When reading these verses I can’t help but wonder how Jeremy Paxman would have coped with Jesus if time had not separated them by 2000 years!
The opening line of today’s Gospel reading refers to the one difficult question in chapter 22 that is not included in the table of Lectionary readings, a complex question about resurrection posed by the Sadducees to Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Judaism who traced their origins back to the family of Zadok, David’s High Priest. Tom Wright describes them as the ‘let’s keep things as they are party’ who felt threatened by the Pharisees, an unofficial but powerful pressure group of Jewish legal experts who were intent on imposing their very precise interpretation of ‘The Law’ on the whole of Israel.
It is against this background that a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus with the question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
So, how difficult a question is that? How many commandments were there in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus to choose from? Any offers?
It makes a good Quiz question this as it all depends upon how we define the word ‘commandment.’ If we consider any time that God speaks and says either ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ to be a commandment then there really are quite a lot. Even with this broad definition there are still plenty of debates to be had about what is a commandment and what is not so there is no absolute answer to the question. However, many Jews consider the answer to be 613 of which 248 are positive (thou shalt) and 365 are negative (thou shalt not).
What we know as the Ten Commandments actually account for 14 of the 613 commandments. The total comes to 14 rather than 10 because the statement about not worshipping idols includes 4 separate commandments: not to worship other gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them and not to serve them. Similarly, the statement about the Sabbath includes 2 separate commandments: one to keep the Sabbath holy and the other not to work on it.
So, after that little diversion, back to the Gospel reading: how did Jesus answer the question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This time there was no side-stepping: he gave the perfect Jewish answer that not even the Pharisees could question:
‘ “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.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
We hear these words expressed as a Summary of the Law every week as we prepare to make our confession. We tend to think of them as the words of Jesus but they are not, for he was quoting from the Hebrew Bible. The first, or Great Commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second, sometimes called the Golden Rule, from Leviticus 19: 18. Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of these two commandments put into practice.
The importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity. We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and (in Mark) with all our strength. When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past. To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives. In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few. Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few if any of us here could exist without money or personal possessions at all. It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the Great Commandment.
One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children. Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred. Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant. By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls. We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.
Whereas the importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity, the importance of the Golden Rule is in its inclusivity. When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves, that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence. We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.
The word ‘love’ in both the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule is translated from the Greek word agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that God has for us. It is with this same love that we are commanded to love both God and our neighbours. Furthermore, as if the command to love our neighbours with this type of love were not demanding enough, the Golden Rule goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as yourself.’
This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours. Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share. Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.
So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise? Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other? The answer is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere and celebrate today / next week. We can also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people such as Alan Henning, who would describe themselves as very ordinary, often do quite extraordinary things. From their actions we know that such love is possible, but what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?
One possible answer can be found in the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians from which we heard this morning:
We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
“To be as gentle to others as a nurse caring for her own children.” Can we do that for all our neighbours ... ... ...
or is that too difficult a question?