Sunday, 29 October 2023
John Conway, Provost
In answer to this testing question, Jesus re-presents the heart of the faith he and his contemporaries are steeped in. He offers the common ground of their Jewish understanding, the heart of their faith, their tradition. Love God, and love your neighbour.
Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46
Gregory of Nyssa, in the late 4th century, wrote that ‘to find God is to seek God without end.’
Our readings from St Matthew’s Gospel over the last few weeks, have turned on a series of disputes and arguments between Jesus and his contemporaries. We are approaching the end of Matthew’s telling of his Gospel – Jesus has entered Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power, he has driven the money changers from the temple, and the end is approaching. So it is hardly surprising that he is now engaged in a series of fierce exchanges with his contemporaries, those who will conspire to bring his end: the chief priests and the elders, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians and the Sadducees. This morning’s Gospel brings this series of disputes to a close, as one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asks a question, we are told, to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’
In what sense this is a test is not immediately clear. Perhaps there is a right or wrong answer – a straightforward test of knowledge. Or perhaps it is because they anticipate any answer will be testing, demanding. Whatever the intentions of Jesus' questioners, he answers the question straightforwardly: What is the greatest commandment? " '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."
Jesus’ answer is conventional, does not saying anything startlingly new: he brings together the Shema, the prayer that faithful Jews say morning and night, with a traditional summary of the heart of the Torah, the law – the summary that we heard read from the book of Leviticus this morning: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ In answer to this testing question, Jesus re-presents the heart of the faith he and his contemporaries are steeped in. He offers the common ground of their Jewish understanding, the heart of their faith, their tradition. Love God, and love your neighbour.
Has Jesus passed the test? In one sense, he surely has – he articulates the most fundamental answer to the question posed. And in that other larger sense, of this being a testing question? A question that demands something – that is harder to tell. For that is about whether Jesus’ answer is lived out in life, whether what might be theological cliché (Love God and love neighbour) is actually practised, exerts its demand upon him. As it exerts its demands upon his questioners; and upon us.
For Jesus is not interested in whether he answers the question correctly. He is more interested in the demands the question and its answer makes. And so he goes on to ask them a whole series of questions: ‘What do you think of the Messiah?’ ‘If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ In one sense these questions become steadily more baffling and obscure – that is after all what tends to happen when religious arguments heat up. But perhaps Jesus is insisting that faithfulness to that common ground, that central heartbeat (love of God, love of neighbour) has to be constantly renewed and refreshed as it engages with the challenges and tests of this moment. For both Jesus and the Pharisees agree with that central articulation of their tradition – but for Jesus this moment demands a radical and new understanding of its demand; something that puts even the great King David into perspective.
A tradition is not a static re-statement or even re-enactment of something given for all time; rather a tradition is a living conversation, in word and deed. A conversation marked, as all good conversations are, by the dialogue of searching questions and answers; a tradition lives by offering the resources from its treasure store to answer fresh questions and respond to new challenges. To find God is to seek God for ever.
The insistent heartbeat that our true calling is to love God and love our neighbour, these two loves bound together, that insistent heartbeat echoes through time. It is not enough simply to re-state it, says Jesus; we have to know what it means for us, demands of us; are we prepared to let it re-shape other things that we hold dear.
The summary of the law is an answer that points beyond itself. In matters of faith it is not about getting the right or wrong answer, being doctrinally orthodox, but about knowing something of what loving God and loving neighbour mean for us. And that takes us into the domain of the whole of our lives, our actions – on this hang all the law and the prophets, all of life.
Jesus’ answer, his living out of that question, brings him into further dispute with the religious and legal authorities; it makes him gather his disciples round a table, and share the bread and wine as his body and blood; loving God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, and loving neighbour brings him to a cross and the suffering and solidarity of death.
In insisting that he is not interested in theological cliché, but in the testing demands that that tradition, that faith makes, Jesus reduces his questioners to silence, even as he begins that journey into silence. And it should reduce us too to silence first, to hear again the demand to love God and love neighbour; a demand never fully answered, fully realised. Rather a question to always return to, as that heartbeat of faith echoes down the years.
To find God is to seek God without end.
‘We were gentle among you,’ says Paul as he seeks to answer that question. ‘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.’
Loving God, loving neighbour. And in our own testing times, when faith seems stretched to its limit in rising to new challenges, new demands, how shall we answer and live out that common ground of Jew and Christian? Amen.