The Greatest Commandment

Greatest Commandment1

+ May I speak in the name…

500 Years ago a young monk in the German town of Wittenberg left his lodgings. It was a cool, calm but crispy evening, and there was a chill in the air. He walked through the market square up to the imposing doors of the large dominating church and nailed a piece of manuscript which contained his ‘95 thesis’, 95 criticisms against the Roman Catholic Church. Little did he know that his act was to begin a revolution which changed the church, society, Europe and the world…

The Monk’s name, as I’m sure you know, was Martin Luther. He wasn’t trying to start a new religion but just to clear the air of religious abuse and arrogance. He was a good Catholic, and intended to stay as such… but his questions, opened up a way for all to question the church, government, society, assumed positions. Everything. Everything was changed.

I was hoping this morning to find something clever or insightful to say about this passage.. something novel, something different, maybe provocative or intriguing. Looking for something new in the text… But I couldn’t find anything…

It’s not that this text is not deep and rich already… it certainly is! It’s just that there is—in many ways—nothing more to say about it… Jesus has said all that needs to be said… his case is made simply and eloquently.. and he leaves the Pharisees and Sadducees silent and beguiled… (lets face it – and probably us too).. because when all is said and done.. when all the theology has been read and digested, when all the prayers have been said, when we strip Christianity to it’s basic fundamental level.. we are left in no doubt of what Jesus is saying… love God, love others.

Except that’s the problem we all face and generation and generation before have also faced.. what are we going to do about it? The question leaps off the page and into our lives, (a bit like the question earlier in Matthew (ch16) ‘Who do you say I am?’)

Some interpreters suggest that the Pharisees by this point had actually worked out who Jesus was… they had played him (so they thought) with many questions about his authority.. and each time Jesus had responded in deep love, but in a thorough and rigorous exposure to their own hypocrisy. His understanding of the Torah showed knowledge – but crucially wisdom too. A God-authorised interpreter of the tradition.

The Pharisees might have realised who Jesus really was.. but the same deeply uncomfortable question too; what are they going to do about it?

Today is one of those days when a whole set of events combine; it is the end of our creation season, which began with the Dazzle festival… it is also the feast of all saints and all souls – where we remember the lives of all who go before us, and in whose company – during our Eucharist prayer we join and sing ‘holy, holy, holy’; it …. So there’s a lot to pack in and I’m looking for a way to combine these events, our gospel reading and the final glimpse of Moses… atop Mt Nebo realising he would not see the promised land himself..

Well I wonder if there might be some link here? Something in the way that Jesus sums up of all he was about in these two commandments, and by drawing on the imagination and faith of his fellow Jews. He evokes Moses laws..

The sh’ma (“Hear O’ Israel”) is so desperately important to Jewish faith it sums up everything.. it is the centre piece of morning and evening prayer, recited every Sabbath, at every festival. It is the first thing a Jewish baby hears and the last words on the lips of the dying. Jesus was being tested.. he knew this, the debate at the time was over whether any Jewish laws (613 – not 10) were more important than others.. but Jesus once again subverts the question. Though this time, not with a parable, or even an illustration. He simply speaks.. simply,

Love God – wholly, love others – wholly. This is what it’s ALL about.

But Jesus goes further.. the ‘golden rule’ from Leviticus ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ had long been recognised as important in Torah, but Jesus is countering a notion that that love of God and love of neighbour are two parallel but separate spheres of human responsibility. Rather, ‘the second is like it’ they are the same thing (like – homoios ὅμοιος,).

The Jewish laws are not important in themselves.. that’s a distraction; they were ways to express the deeper wisdom of Sh’ma, ‘Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind’ – all of your selves. Similarly today; religion, statements of faith, worship services, christian socks (I’ve seen them)… even great works of charity and care.. are not worth anything; (echoes of 1 Corinth 13) if they are not about a deeper love for God.. real love, deep, rigorous and evolving; Christianity can seem like a set of rules, or self-righteous holier than thou behaviour.. when all it really needs to be is a simple open-hearted ‘yes’ to God. We call this grace.

So we may sometimes struggle to know what ‘loving’ might mean here, and ‘loving God’ is even harder… but Jesus gives a clue; with your heart, your soul/life, your mind… and your neighbour as yourself… to love God is about desire; it’s not brash, proud or boastful, it does not even adhere to the 39 articles – it is instead an exuberant love which goes beyond borders, a love which cries, delights, questions, doubts, argues, hopes, gives, cares, desires and desires and desires.

But Jesus then asks a question of his own.. a question about what kind of Messiah is hoped for? Who were the Scholars and Priests expecting to see?

I asked what are we going to do about it? But is it about what we do? when I say something like ‘the love of God’, we might ask; is that or our love for God – or God’s love for us? We can hear both these commandments and think that we are to respond as if it’s all down to us… the same with loving our neighbour.. as if this is something we are to do to others.. it might do… but what if loving our neighbours also means to allow our neighbours to love us? If we balance doing with being, if we allow God’s love to infiltrate us even as we desire God.

Whenever anyone (me) dares to speak of G-d, I always want to ask about pain and suffering… how does that fit (realistically) in a world as complex as ours?

Maybe there is something in loving God and neighbour which does allow for vulnerability; and what if—on the final Sunday of Creation season—we include the earth and her creatures as our neighbours too? If we allow our neighbour to love us, even as we love our neighbour. We begin to open ourselves to love, to become vulnerable, open, welcoming. Neighbour helps neighbour, gives, shares, discovers their own generosity – fosters ‘community’. Neighbour becomes saint – saint becomes neighbour. The task and challenge ‘what are we going to do about it?’ remains but it’s different now… no longer ‘us and them’, but ‘we together’. This might make sense of pain and sorrow too.. the cries of suffering shared together.

Jesus offered the greatest vulnerability divine vulnerability… Martin Luther and all the saints offered vulnerability and we are aware of ours too. But vulnerability has a strength too.

And that vulnerability is risky – the silence of the departing Pharisees (we realise) means the ‘what are we going to do about it?’ has an answer. (The plot to kill Jesus begins).

We can so easily feel/be led to believe that loving God is getting things all sown up.. but love of God is never complacent – there is always space for new light to break in the apparent darkness of complacent faith… (and yes that does sound challenging!)

Martin Luther found this when his eyes were opened to the abuse and control of the Roman church – his church – which he loved – and things could not be the same again. Like Jesus – in the end – before the Sanhedrin speaking plainly – Martin Luther had to speak, and when the full realisation of the danger hit him – challenged and accused of blasphemy his response ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’

From a small moment of insight, a small moment of doubt and question and challenge a new way of seeing emerged.. From a small life in Galilee some 2000 years ago – a whole new universe emerged.. The world forever changed.. a glimpse of a kingdom, a promised land… a homecoming for our desire…

So … now I’ve made some noise, I’ve spoken words… even tried to sound poetic.. but the question is still there – insistent, irritating, magical and rewarding, for me and for you; what are we going to do about it?

Well maybe one saint that I will invoke today. The early church father Iranaus, (2nd Century) says ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. Can we put this idea of loving god – giving god glory, worship and praise with the task of being human and fully alive? Well maybe – given the second commandment (‘like this’) – loving neighbour, human, housing, situation.. then there is something we can work with;

To love God is to love others – to love others is to love God, to live fully is to love God, to love God – the mystery, the dazzling mystery the hope of the ages, the ancient of days, is to love is to live is to love…

The love of God seems to be often cheapened by the church – over-simplified or made superficial – yet loving is the same as living, (who has a simple life?), love demands everything from us, loving means weeping too, lamenting and grieving.. and gives everything to us.. it is endless mystery, and it is here in our midst… like our collect prayer says, ‘Your unifying love is revealed in the interdependence of relationships in the complex world that you have made. Save us from the illusion that humankind is separate and alone, and join us in communion with all inhabitants of the universe.’

Following Jesus simple, yet profound words, Martin Luther challenged the church.. Reminded her, all of us, that Love is the most important thing.. and that the nature of God’s love is always full of grace. Ironic then that we turned that into an even more judgmental ‘puritanical’ understanding of religion which seems so much to lack that very grace. A fundamentalism which achieves splitting the connection between loving God and loving people.

Yet Jesus words call us again and again to respond.. to love God and to know the love of God as we love and are loved by our neighbours.

But it’s not easy. It really is not easy… the challenge remains always; grace …

It isn’t easy to push aside judgment to make room for grace.

But that is our constant challenge – to open up to love.

What are we going to do about it?


Gary Collins 29 October 2017