But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus 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 depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
We’re in Matthew 22, and Jesus is brawling!
To be exact, we’re in the last round of a three-round brawl, where over the chapter in Matthew’s Gospel we’ve seen Jesus do battle with a group known as ‘the Herodians’, followed by a round with the Sadducees, followed by this week’s third and deciding round with the Pharisees!
And if you’ve been following the blow-by-blow description that you get in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll know that each round starts with Jesus’ antagonists taking the initiative and trying to trick Him. The Herodians led off with the question that Elias focused on last week – “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” – to which Jesus gave an equally tricky response: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”
In boxing parlance we’d call that a ‘slip’ (allowing the punch to go over your head). In other words, Jesus doesn’t really respond directly to the question. “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God‘s”. OK, so … do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Round two was with the Sadducees – those who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, if you remember, told Jesus a long and twisted story about a woman who was married to seven different men who all died on her, after which the question was posed, “whose wife will she be at the resurrection of the dead?”
It’s what’s referred to in philosophy as a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ – a question that leads to such ridiculous conclusions that you are forced to concede that something must be wrong with the question – in this case, that the very idea of a resurrection of the dead is itself ridiculous.
Jesus responds to this trick question very directly. He tells the Sadducees that they are a bunch of wankers, that they don’t know their Bibles and they don’t know God – that there is a resurrection of the dead, and … that there is no marriage in Heaven!
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my enduring memories of being lectured to by our current Archbishop while I was at seminary, was his commentary on this dialogue about there being no marriage in Heaven. He said that when he and his wife, Christine, were first married, she used to cry whenever she’d hear that text read, but that over the years, she’d stopped having that reaction.
At any rate, Jesus gives a direct and aggressive response to the Sadducees’ question (in boxing parlance, he counter-punches).
And so we enter the third and final round, where the Pharisees take their turn in sizing up to Jesus, and they, we are told, come with their own trick question, and if you know how these things work, you can bet that this will be the most mind-bending, gut-wrenching, complex and all-round tricky question of them all.
If you’ve ever seen a Bruce Lee movie, where wave after wave of thugs attack him, one after the other, you know that the final attack is going to be the most difficult to deal with. If you haven’t seen one of those sorts of movies for a while, you might have played a video game, where you have to fight your way through various levels, and you know that at the end of each level you have to fight ‘the Boss’ who is always the toughest guy to fight.
And so as we come to round three – the Herodians and the Sadducees having been knocked out of the ring, where they sit, nursing their wounds – and the Pharisees make their entrance. They come to succeed where their theological peers have failed. They come to deliver the knockout blow with what we suspect must be the most devastating of all questions. And so they ask Jesus, “Teacher, tell us, which is the greatest commandment?”
Now, I hope I haven’t over-dramatised the story, but I must confess that when I read through this passage again yesterday, and read it in the context of the series of confrontations that Jesus was engaged in, I couldn’t help sensing the way in which this confrontation seems like an enormous anti-climax!
This is the third and final round of a three-round stoush. This is indeed the confrontation which will prove the be the last stand-up entanglement that Jesus ever has with his theological contemporaries. At the conclusion of this encounter we are told that “from that day forward nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions.” And yet, the question appears to be so lame!
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” It doesn’t seem like a trick question at all, and Jesus’ response doesn’t seem particularly clever either!
“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.”
Isn’t this exactly what we would have expected Jesus to say? Isn’t this indeed just a repeat of what Jesus had already said? In Matthew 7, near the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said then, “Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
OK. The wording is not identical but the idea is the same. And indeed, this idea that the whole law and the prophets are all derived from one simple law of love is something we find Jesus mentioning on a number of occasions spread throughout the Gospels, which makes me think that these Pharisees, who, we are told quite explicitly, desired to ‘trick’ Jesus, must have already known what answer Jesus was going to give to this question, which I think leads us to the inevitable conclusion that these Pharisees must have believed that Jesus’ line about all the Law and the Prophets going back to simple commandments to love, was something that was bound to get him into trouble! They must have believed that this teaching of Jesus – that it’s all about love – was highly contentious; indeed, that by repeating this teaching again publicly he would be bound to lose significant support!
Could this be true? Could the law of love really be that unpopular? Well … Jesus had the crowds turn against Him not long after this and they had Him crucified, and it’s possible this had something to do with it. However we look at it though, the Pharisees evidently considered this a very controversial question and Jesus’ response a very controversial answer. Why?
A few weeks ago when I spoke on this law of love (via the text from Romans 9, where St Paul says, “Anyone who loves fulfils the law” [vs.8]) I suggested that maybe the reason so many religious leaders find this idea so distasteful is because we professional clerics have a vested interest in keeping the whole business of religion complicated. Could that be the issue at stake here? I suspect not, as the Pharisees were hoping to see Jesus alienate the crowd and not His religious peers.
Could it be perhaps that by reducing all the Law and the Prophets to the law of love that this opens the door to moral liberalism?
This is a more plausible explanation, I think, as most of the people I know who take exception to any reduction of the Biblical laws down to a simple command to love do so because they see this as the thin edge of the wedge. If it’s all about love, they say, you can justify anything!
I don’t think that’s true, of course, but I do appreciate that reducing all the commandments to love does make life a lot more complicated, and indeed Jesus formula could be used as an excuse for trivialising some of the more traditional commandments of Scripture.
Indeed, it’s worth noting, I think, that after my aforementioned sermon on Romans 13, we had a fairly vibrant debate on our online forum, and I was disturbed to find that some of the members of our online community whom I respected most were the ones who radically disagreed with me, and that conversely, one of the girls who most vocally supported the ‘no law’ position was someone who also ran an ‘adult’ site of sorts!
Is that how it works? Does reducing all the law and the prophets to a command to love really open the door to a society without rules where everybody can simply do as they please? Truly, I don’t think so. In fact, I genuinely believe that it makes things a lot more difficult.
Loving people is hard! And I’m not suggesting that living your life according to the intricate commands of the Torah (or the Koran for that matter) is easy, but I think loving people is harder.
And it doesn’t give you any ground for feeling superior to other people. If your goal is to keep to a disciplined set of rules, and you can keep them, you’ve got an excuse for considering yourself morally superior to those who don’t. If your goal is simply to love … well, you can never love enough?
It’s easy enough to hide behind the law, I think. You can say confidently, “I don’t covet my neighbour’s donkey” (or his ass [which is also forbidden]), and that’s not too hard to do. But if the command is to love – to truly love, to truly share your possessions and your wealth and your life and your heart, not only with those you naturally warm to, but with all your neighbours, that’s really demanding, and it’s not something, I think, that we really want to hear.
It’s hard, isn’t it, because Jesus’ law of love seems so not-radical, and I think that’s just because we’re so familiar with it. It’s like an old coin that we were given in our youth in Sunday School. And over the years we’ve kept it in our pocket, turning it over and over, and over time the sharp edges have worn off and now it just seems like a familiar, innocuous lump of metal. But in truth, I suspect, this was the most radical and controversial thing Jesus ever taught and lived – that we’ve got to learn to love one another as He has loved us.
So take that Pharisees! Take that crowd! This was Jesus knockout punch! What is all the law and the prophets about? What is the Biblical lifestyle all about? Like it or lump it, it’s all about love, and that indeed is all it is about!
“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.”
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.