But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great 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.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
I don’t know if you’ve been following the series of interviews I’ve been doing on the Internet-based TV show, “Lock In”, but in the most recent episode (that went to air last week) I was asked about my codes of ethics, and whether I thought it was important that everybody had a code of ethics.
I thought it was an odd sort of question, particularly given the nature of the show.
If you haven’t seen the show, picture me sitting on a bar stool alongside two young men who are very casually dressed, in front of a backdrop of brightly-flashing pinball machines, each of us with a bottle of beer in one hand.
You might have expected me to be asked about my favourite rock band (which is the sort of question they asked other guests on the show), and I wondered at the time whether they asked me about ethics because they felt that this was a question that you should ask a priest (along with asking about how sales of the Bible are going).
Jesus was asked this sort of question all the time too. Was it for the same reason? “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:360).
In the incident recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter twenty-two, we’re told that it was a lawyer who asked Jesus this question, and that should make us immediately suspicious! I’ve had lawyers ask me questions, and when a lawyer asks you a question, you take your time and answer very slowly and carefully, lest you find yourself entangled in some terrible legal quagmire.
What was behind this lawyer’s question? Was he trying to entrap Jesus? According to the Gospel account, his was in fact the third attempt at entrapment in succession!
Earlier in this chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that the Pharisees asked Jesus, “should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17) It wasn’t a genuine question. It was a trick question, designed to get Jesus into trouble, either with the crowd or with the law, and Jesus says, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”, which is a clever answer, but still leaves us wondering, ‘so should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
Immediately after that, we’re told that some Sadducees tried their luck with Jesus, telling Him a bizarre story about a woman who had seven husbands die on her. It wasn’t a serious story, and it ended with a trick question that was designed to make Jesus look like a fool, but Jesus avoided getting entangled in their trick question.
And then we come to round three, which turns out to be the final round. Indeed, Matthew tells us that after this question, nobody dared ask Jesus any more questions (Matthew 22:46). “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
As I say, it may not be immediately obvious to us what lay behind this question. What is obvious to us though is the answer:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great 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.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
We know this answer – we Anglicans especially – as we hear these words every week! We read them every single time we meet for worship on a Sunday. If you’re like me, you lost count long ago as to how many times you’ve heard these words:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the great 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”
“Lord, have mercy upon us and write your law in our hearts by your Holy Spirit”
Forgive me if that final response is from an older form of the liturgy, but some of us know these words so well we could say them backwards if we were pushed!
The original source of these words (or at least the first half of them) is Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – the Shema Israel. The part about the neighbour is found in Leviticus 19:18. These are very ancient Jewish texts, thousands of years old. We know them off by heart, even though we’re not thousands of years old and not we’re Jewish (or at least I’m not, as far as I know).
The point is that we know these words so well that it makes you wonder why anybody would even ask such a question. Isn’t it obvious that there are two great commandments? What did you expect Jesus to say?
And maybe that’s the important question that we need to ask – the one that will unlock this passage for us. What did Jesus’ interrogators really expect Him to say?
My guess is that our familiarity with this passage probably blinds us to the fact that Jesus’ questioners weren’t expecting Him to answer their question in the way He did. There are other possible responses!
One response that they may have been anticipating is what I’d call “The Reverend Lovejoy response” – namely, “It’s all good!”
You’ll have to forgive me if you’re not a Simpsons fan, but I’m thinking of that scene where Lisa asks her pastor, the Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, whether there is any particular section of the Bible she should be reading to help her with her struggles, to which he replies “Oh, it’s all good”.
I suspect that many people would have expected Jesus to reply along similar lines. ‘Which command is the most important?’ ‘Oh, they’re all good!’
When you think about it, this is the obvious approach for someone who takes the Scriptures seriously as a revelation from God. God has spoken to us through these texts. God has given us His laws. Each law is a law from God, and so every law is equally good and equally demanding of our obedience.
I’m sure we all know people who do approach the Scriptures exactly this way. It doesn’t matter how ancient or remote the text seems to be. If God commanded it, it’s a law, and if God makes a law, God surely doesn’t change His mind!
Of course, I’m not thinking here about those laws that govern human sexuality or that assign women to their proper gender roles, but rather some of those classic laws such as “never eat an owl”.
That one’s in Leviticus, chapter 11, in case you missed it. The owl – both the little owl and the great owl – are listed there (vs. 18) as being ‘detestable amongst the birds’ (vs. 13), along with birds that you may already find detestable, such as the vulture, the buzzard and the bat!
Don’t eat them! God commanded it. Ours is not to reason why but simply to obey! Well, … that might have been what they were expecting Jesus to say.
Forgive me if I seem to be giving owls a hard time, but …it is written, and there’s not a lot I can do about that, though I suppose I could have focused on other little-known laws, such as “never boil a goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) or “never plant two kinds of seed in the same field” (Deuteronomy 22:9). The point, at any rate, is that they are all laws and they are all written in the law of God, and so surely, they are all equally important? Well … Jesus didn’t agree.
A second response Jesus might have given to the question, “which is the great commandment in the Law?”, is “well … there are ten!”
That would have been a solid Biblical Mosaic response, surely – give them the ten commandments!
I remember once seeing a cartoon of Moses with his great white beard, descending the mountain and addressing the people – “I got him down to ten, but the adultery clause is in. Live with it!”
Yes, there are lots of little laws filling the books of the Torah, but at the heart of all those laws are the ‘ten words’ given by God on Mount Sinai and engraved by the finger of God on to those great stone tablets – the ten commandments. Surely, these ten are the distillation of all the great laws of God. Jesus apparently didn’t think so.
To the lawyer’s question as to what is the greatest law of God, Jesus responds with two, and they’re not simply a subset of the ten either. In fact, the problem is that the two laws Jesus gives us, strictly speaking, aren’t really laws at all!
Jesus commands us to love – to love God and to love our neighbours – and the funny thing about love is that it’s not really something you can command. It’s certainly not something you can legislate, at any rate.
‘Stop hitting your sister!’ – that’s a command that echoes through many a household. Even ‘be kind to your sister’ works as a command, but ‘love your sister’ … it’s not something we can command someone to do, even if it’s what we yearn for.
Now I know that ‘love’, in the Biblical sense, isn’t just a good feeling that you have towards somebody, and it is about practical actions of commitment to someone’s needs. Even so, it’s not just about what you do either. It’s a relationship, and you can’t enforce a loving relationship by law.
This, I think, is the conundrum in Jesus’ great commandments – that what He gives us as His two great laws are aren’t really laws at all, in that they can’t be enforced and that they are in constant need of reinterpretation!
This was not the response that the lawyer who questioned Jesus was looking for. Whatever precise response the lawyer expected, he expected a legal response. He was a lawyer asking about God’s law. He wanted an answer in terms of law, but Jesus spoke to him instead about the law of love, which isn’t really a law.
I’ve come to the realisation after 55 years of life that laws are basically about control. We have laws in society so that we can control people, and there’s obviously a place for that. Some people need to be controlled, or at least reeled in.
Religious laws function like that too. While I don’t deny that every organisation needs certain rules and regulations, the history of the church is that we have, over the centuries, devised rules and laws that have oppressed and controlled people, and where the church has had the opportunity to extend its reach into the broader society, we’ve tried to control what goes on there too.
Laws control people, but Jesus’ law of love is designed to do something else.
The lawyers and their legalistic buddies tried to entrap Jesus by getting him into a legal/religious argument, but Jesus spoke to them instead about love, and I think they realised at that point that they were never going to control Jesus, and so they had to kill Him.
In truth, it’s a lot easier to live life by a clearly defined set of rules.
As I say, perhaps my friends from “Lock In” asked me about ethics because they thought it was an appropriate sort of thing to ask a priest, but perhaps too they were genuinely interested in hearing of some useful rules to live by – some simple code. Surely, we all need guidelines, laws and rules to live by?
My response to the “Lock In” guys was that this was how ISIS worked – a rule for every occasion and, for every occasion, a rule! It was a spirituality of death!
That might sound like a rapid escalation – from ethics to ISIS – but I couldn’t help but think of a man I met in Damascus a few years ago who had fought for these people. He told me that they offered him $100/month and all the cigarettes he could smoke. How could he refuse? Once he joined though he found out what religious legalism and puritanism were all about – namely, violence and death! He said, “I went from poverty and unemployment to beheadings and slavery!”
Laws and Commandments – religious or otherwise – are ultimately about control. My understanding of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is that this God is not ultimately interested in controlling us but in loving us, so that we too can move beyond laws and rules, and to live lives wholly consumed by love – loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves.
sermon preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 29th, 2017