Collect for Trinity XXIII
LORD God our redeemer, who heard the cry of your people and sent your servant Moses to lead them out of slavery,
free us from the tyranny of sin and death, and by the leading of your Spirit bring us to our promised land;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Deuteronomy 34, Vv 1 – 12
1 Thessolonians 2, Vv 1 – 8
St Matthew 22, Vv 34 – 46
Our gospel proclamation was the passage of scripture that, according to Saint Matthew, dealt with the question posed to Jesus immediately after he had answered some Sadducees who debated with him about resurrection and the widow of seven husbands. Despite what was suggested last Sunday by Bishop Mark, this latter episode is not today’s gospel – for reasons known only to the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary, this part of the overall questioning narrative to which Jesus was subjected has been omitted from our consecutive readings. If you came to church this morning with the expectation of hearing a disquisition on the widow and her seven husbands, then I am sorry to disappoint you.
We are never sure from our scriptural readings of the exact nature of these question-and-answer sessions. Were the questioners in need of some understanding of the ways of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught, or were they merely, as Bishop Mark suggested, trying to catch him out so that they could report him to the authorities? The words of the text suggest the latter. If he was not careful he could be accused of disobedience to the Mosaic Law, where a conviction led to excommunication or execution by stoning. On the plus side, Jesus was not only surrounded by his band of trusted disciples but also by crowds of devoted followers who hung on to his every word and watched him for every sign and miracle. He also spent much of his early ministry in the northern province of Galilee where he was well away from Jewish headquarters in Jerusalem. Galileans were always considered a bit suspect by their neighbours in the south, so distant appearances of what might be described as questionable, religious thinking could be excused. Of course, this all changed when Jesus went to Jerusalem for his final meetings with the High Priests and other officials; meetings that led ultimately to his trials and crucifixion.
The Pharisees had seen the Sadducees silenced on their question about resurrection. This would have pleased them because they believed in resurrection. However, it is probably true to say that they would rather have seen Jesus’ arguments with the Sadducees defeated; they were more favourable to the arcane beliefs of the Sadducees than they were to the teachings of Jesus. The Pharisees put one of their smart lawyers into the fray. Those versed in the law are usually referred to in the gospels as ‘scribes’ but in this context Matthew used a less familiar word for a lawyer. I don’t know what that word was in the original Aramaic language that Matthew probably used for his autograph but the word that appears in Greek translations is nomikos. This could well indicate that the questioner, this lawyer, was a cut above the average protagonist; he was an expert among experts. The Greek word grammateus was usually employed, but, with the use of this less common, technical word, the Pharisees were resorting to one of the nomikoi; they were bringing out one of their ‘big guns’.
What question was Jesus asked? ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ The enquiry might be more precisely translated as, ‘What kind of a commandment is great in the Law’? This was not a new question; it was one that rabbis had been debating for centuries. We might be led to believe that there were, and are, only Ten Commandments in the Law given by God, the so-called Decalogue. But, just as there are 613 identifiable, lexical, Hebrew characters contained in the text of the Decalogue, so those who had studied the law had defined 613 separate commandments within that Law. Furthermore, they had divided that law into 248 that were expressed positively, that is, in the affirmative: the remaining 365 were in the negative. Thus the Jews had one negative commandment for every day of the year. It had been determined that not all were of equal importance; some were of greater or lesser significance. There is little doubt that they argued and debated interminably among themselves as to which of the commandments was the greatest.
As Bishop Mark suggested, the Pharisees were hoping to entangle Jesus in theological hair-splitting with the questions that they asked him. He could decide, by way of answer, that his own words were more important than the Law of Moses; he could have spoken against the Law; he could have elevated one of the more trivial pieces of the Law to a place of pre-eminence. If Jesus had taken any one of these stances, then accusations would have been made against him. At the very least these keen, legal minds would have questioned his scholarship and teaching. Instead of ignoring the question, or answering one that wasn’t actually asked, as we saw lat Sunday, Jesus did just the opposite of what was expected of him. He quoted from the Mosaic writings directly, word-for-word from the Hebrew texts. Not only did he quote accurately from Moses, but he quoted the most familiar passage of the Torah. This passage, called the Shema, from the sixth chapter of the book called Deuteronomy, was recited twice a day by every Jew. The commandments that Jesus chose had nothing to say about outward conduct, but dealt with the inner character, which is the source of all behaviour. He spoke about a person’s heart and soul and mind. The Pharisees were only interested in outward, ostentatious, religious rituals, but Jesus insisted that these are no substitute for being right with God on the inside. We may assume that those who questioned him were equally unhappy with the answer that Jesus gave them. So which commandments did Jesus offer as the greatest?
‘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.’ To a Jew, heart, soul and mind were not separate parts of the body, but different ways of thinking of the whole person in relation to God. The reference to ‘mind’ perhaps suggests a more intellectual commitment to God than just a simple and passionate yearning for him in the heart. The three phrases are used together to indicate the totality of the human nature, offering to God an ultimate and fundamental loyalty, not just a superficial allegiance. It is interesting to record that different evangelists employ different numbers of statements in this context. Mark and Luke include ‘strength’; you may recall that the Summary of the Law contained within this liturgy includes ‘strength’. Equally, different versions of Old Testament texts contain different numbers of attributes. Matthew, in opting for the familiar three quoted in Deuteronomy, has produced a text that concentrates more on an inward consistency of a love of God than on more practical applications. Regardless of the number of modifying phrases used, it is clear that all the authors are bent on reinforcing the concept of a comprehensive love of God, in every particular and detail.
When they had attained this all-inclusive and all-embracing love of God then they could consider the second, great commandment. Jesus continued, ‘and a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’. This commandment was also much loved by the Jews and its source was to be found in the nineteenth chapter of the book called Leviticus. Although both of the commandments quoted by Jesus have their sources in the ancient Mosaic Law, there seems to be no evidence that they were ever quoted together or seen in relation to one another. But, in the eyes of Jesus these two commandments are of equal rank, neither is to be raised above the other and each requires reference to the other to explain its true meaning and status. In his gospel, Saint Luke gives a somewhat different account of the identification of the greatest commandments. In chapter ten, a lawyer questioned Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what is written in the law. Despite the fact, as we have observed, there is no evidence to link these two commandments in the Jewish mind, this lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ After being told, ‘Go, and do thou likewise,’ and wishing to justify himself and, as a lawyer, no doubt wanting to defend his legal arguments, he asked, ‘and who is my neighbour?’ This led to that wonderful parable, only given us by Saint Luke, of the Good Samaritan. The Levitical text from which the second great commandment comes sees a neighbour as a fellow Israelite. As Saint Luke makes quite clear, a neighbour is anyone with whom we have any sort of social contact; Saint John, in his gospel assures us that this includes our enemies as well as our friends.
Jesus, in his reply to the Pharisaic lawyer had to make it quite clear that, in selecting these two as the first and great commandments, he was not dispensing with the others. The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments of Moses, was sacrosanct in Jewish thinking. Had Jesus suggested that only the two laws he quoted had any importance he would have faced accusations of bringing the law into disrepute and met with serious charges from the authorities. He carefully avoided that circumstance by concluding his answer with the words, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’. The word ‘hang’ is used here in a quasi-legal, technical sense and refers to laws that are derived from others. All the commandments, Jesus implied, depend on these two for their validity and meaning. They remain the commandments of God but they find their coherence in the overriding principle of this double commandment of love. We are to understand and apply the other commandments of the law within the context of our obligation to love both God and man. Not only do the other commandments ‘hang’ on these two greatest ones about love, but all that has been revealed by God to mankind rests similarly. Hence Jesus’ reference to, ‘the law and the prophets’.
The conclusion to our consideration of this short passage of Saint Matthew’s Gospel must lead to the following questions. ‘Do I love God with all my heart, and my soul, and my mind, and my strength, and do you?’ ‘Do I love others as much as I love myself, and do you?’ ‘When I come into contact with my neighbours, and that is everyone I meet, do I seek to satisfy their needs as if they were my own, and do you?’ ‘Am I making my love of God and my love of my neighbour the top priorities of my life, and are you?’ They are all difficult questions and it’s a hard assignment trying to fulfil these unforgiving demands, but no one ever said that living the Christian life would be easy. We are taught to try to perform these near-impossible obligations, but we know that we cannot begin to contemplate the enormity of these tasks of love on our own. We need help and that help comes in the form of our Saviour who has shown by his death and resurrection that he does love us more than he loves himself, or that we love him. We shall meet with that Saviour here this morning in the sacramental forms of bread and wine. Let us ask him for his help in our attempts to keep these two great commandments.
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