Sermon Last After Trinity, 29 October
Readings: Leviticus 19. 1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2. 1-8; Mt. 22. 34-46
Theme: Love of God and Neighbour
Law in the Jewish tradition is much more than simply a set of rules and regulations. It codifies the mission of the Jewish nation to all the other tribes and nations. The mission of the people of Israel was to be a beacon to the other nations, illuminating from them just what it means to embody the Torah, and so to live a just and holy life, honourable to God. This witness is meant to show the other nations that the God of Israel, YHWH, is the one true God who, through his representatives and the just ordering of the community, manifests the reality of what a people living under the rule of God truly looks like. As it says, in the first reading from Leviticus, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy”, and this holiness is meant to be manifested in terms of “love your neighbour as yourself”.
Such an injunction to love both oneself and one’s neighbour is the background context to the great commandment of Jesus declared in the Gospel of Matthew that we hear today of, “loving the Lord your God….and your neighbour as yourself”. To love the Lord is firstly to recognize that there is no other God but the Lord. And this recognition was the result of the experience of the journey that the Israelites had made since their time of exodus and return to the promised land. Whilst the Jews had always recognized their own God, YHWH, they had, in the early days at least, done so in the context of a doctrine of ‘henotheism’—the recognition and worship of one primary deity alongside the recognition of other deities. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) context there were believed to be multiple deities and it took a long process of journeying with YHWH for the Israelites to shift from a henotheistic position to that of monotheism—the belief that there is only one God to be worshipped and that there are no other deities.
So, when Jesus in our Gospel for today replies to the question of the Pharisees concerning the greatest commandment in the law, this is a reminder to the Pharisees of the foundation of the Jewish faith in the recognition that there is only one God. But this recognition is more than simply an assent to a fact of the existence of one God, it is a call to love God, “with all one’s soul, heart, and mind”. In other words, unlike the relationships of the surrounding tribes and nations, the relationship between YHWH and his people was to be based on love, and not simply on fear and anxiety. This interpretation of the meaning of the law was meant to mark out the people of Israel from the other nations. It is what we might call an evolution in the religious consciousness of the ANE that would have universal implications. Religion, the code and practice of life and worship followed by a people, would take on a new perspective in this transformation to become in Israel a religion based on love.
Jesus, as the Jewish messiah, stands in this tradition and reminds the Pharisees that love is at the origin of the law of God’s plan for our salvation. He goes on in the passage to emphasize that even King David was subject to the Lord; the implication being, that as the messiah, Jesus has divine authority to interpret the true meaning of the law for the Jewish community.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of this transformation of the meaning of the law in the Jewish tradition and through missionary expansion of Christianity for the world. It has initiated a process of humanization that has revolutionized the way that human civilization is understood. It would be practically impossible to conceive of the emergence of international law and the human rights tradition without this Judeo-Christian background.
When we hear Jesus link this first and greatest of commandments to the second commandment of “loving one’s neighbour as oneself”, we are invited by Jesus to recognize that loving God and our neighbour represents two sides of the same coin of the law of love: the transcendent and the immanent dimensions, if you will, of the meaning of the law and the prophets. To love God, is to love the one true God who is wholly for us. So, when we love God, this same love returns to us as God’s love for us—the intimate connection between loving God and loving ourselves and our neighbour is based on the fact that the very love which is in this process of circulation is God’s own self in Jesus, mediated to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, to love God is to allow the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with the love of God for ourselves and for our neighbour. Entering into this dynamic circulation of love, we are drawn into the very heart of God as individuals and as a community, and we begin to experience the God of love in the love of ourselves and our neighbours. We are transformed in this process to become a people who manifest the God of love to all the nations. In other words, we become what we are called to be, namely, the church of Christ.
Let us pray that we may recognize ever more deeply this love of God, ourselves and our neighbour, so that others may come to know and love the one true God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.