Jesus, the Son of God whom we follow always speaks of love and is unafraid to call out unkindness, self-righteousness, privilege and greed. Jesus is smart, knowledgeable about the Hebrew Scriptures, up to date on current issues, quick witted and prompt in responding to foolishness and pernicious behaviour.
So if you think you can describe a nice, bland, domesticated Jesus, think again! This is a man who has radical, scandalous and transformational words to say about love and Gospel justice, two of the greatest messages in our lives today.
The exchange between Jesus and the temple authorities is the third in a series of showdowns between them, described by Matthew in Ch. 22:34-46. As in the earlier debates, the questioner calls Jesus ‘Teacher’ but clearly speaks hypocritically.
It is conventional wisdom to claim there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures (Makkot 23b). Faithful Jews also believed all should be upheld with equal vigour and commitment. While rabbis occasionally offered summaries of the laws, an invitation to name a single commandment as the greatest in a possible hierarchy of laws was full of traps for the unwary. Almost any answer, hoped Jesus’ questioners, would put him in the wrong and divide his supporters.
Instead, Jesus responds with a section of The Shema (Hear O Israel), the primary prayer and confession of the Israelites, the proclamation of ‘God as one, the Lord alone’.
Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (Deut. 6:4-6)
Matthew’s Jesus continues by linking this with a quote from Leviticus 19:18 saying: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
So let us be clear, this is not some vague concept of general goodwill and minimal actions, because Leviticus is explicit in what ‘neighbour’ means.
It is a comprehensive and stunningly broad, inclusive social vision. Leviticus 19 requires just human relations, including respect for parents (Lev.19:3), provision of food for the poor and alien (19:9-10), no stealing, lying, false dealing or swearing falsely by God’s name (19:11-12), no defrauding or reviling of the deaf and blind (19:13-14), no biased judgements or slander (19:15-16), no hatred or vengeance (19:17-18). (Warren Carter: Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books 2000:445)
However, while Leviticus’ definition of ‘neighbour’ meant fellow Israelites, Matthew’s Jesus had already reshaped the notion of neighbour:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:43-44)
Jesus’ description of ‘loving our neighbours’ is very specific in how we are expected to treat one another, friend and stranger alike and it is universal in its application. It means everyone! Not just those people we like, but loving our enemies and those we exclude, as ourselves.
Jesus concludes his response by confirming the importance of the commandments he has chosen.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:40)
It was commonly understood the ‘law and the prophets’ meant all the Hebrew Scriptures. The two commandments Jesus lays out are the lens through which we are invited to see and understand the purpose behind all the scriptural instructions and expectations.
Instead of choosing a single law to follow, Jesus chooses the motivation behind all the rules and laws given to us by God: and it is ‘Love’.
Consequently, I am reflecting on what is at the centre of my life as I think about my own motives and desires; and perhaps you could do the same. I know our motives can also change over time: it may be work, family, children, friends, volunteering or something else. Wherever you are in your life, it is a good question to ask yourself.
What is at the centre of your life? What motivates you?
Perhaps another way to think about this question is what are the rules or principles you include in your life to guide yourself? They may be informal, but they point to what is really at the centre of your life. You may say, it is important and critical for me to be home to read to the children each night, but if you count up the times you missed doing this because of work, the intention does not match your real priority.
When Jesus is asked the same question, he gives a very clear answer and we see this in all aspects of his being: it is Love. After all his preaching and teaching, all his travels, ministry and miracles, and just days before his crucifixion and death, Jesus names his motivation, the centre of his ministry and of the kingdom he has been sent to proclaim and build – and it is love!
Love of God and love of neighbour and our care and concern for each other. It is by our actions and words we show our love for God and we reveal God’s love for us.
By naming his motive, Jesus reveals something not only about himself but also about God. God’s law, finally and forever, the beginning and the end, is the law of love. It is that simple and that difficult. I am reminded again of beautiful all-embracing words in Colossians 1:15-20
It is our hearts bringing us to this conclusion, to know and experience what Jesus knows. He has come to help us understand the heart of what God desires for us: to love God with our whole selves by loving our neighbours as ourselves.
In the light of the simplicity of Jesus’ message, the bickering of the malicious temple authorities fades away into silence. In the silence what we have left is a faithful Son, a Messiah, a companion who calls us to love in a life leading to death and then life again.
As you and I stand watching and listening to Jesus arguing and debating with the authorities, your stomach may be a little knotted and queasy like mine.
I try to avoid such debates elsewhere in our world today, done with less intelligence and with the same brutal desire to trap and kill the opponent, and we see some things haven’t changed. However, Jesus is not interested in winning or losing, he’s interested in speaking about and sharing God’s love. Even in such complicated circumstances. Even to death. Even to death on a cross.
Jesus is not a weak, gentle lamb led off to slaughter. This is a warrior like his ancestor David, who doesn’t have arrows or guns as weapons, but Wisdom and the power of the Word. This is God’s Word made flesh, unafraid to enter into the struggle with the powers and principalities of the world. We think we know how the story is going to end as we stand in the Temple courts listening, frightened, anxious and concerned. Are we bystanders, or are we alongside Christ labouring with love in the kingdom?
Jesus could have been quieter, more conciliatory, more accommodating. Wasn’t that what white Christian leaders wanted from Martin Luther King Jr in his fight for justice against racism in the US? And isn’t this still the message to us from the world today? However, like Jesus, just because love and justice are inconvenient, it doesn’t mean we will go away or be quiet. God’s love always disturbs the status quo.
Please do not ever misunderstand the situation. This is God’s Son, anointed to speak truth to power, to tell it like it is. Prophetic preaching, teaching and living as examples of God’s love are also required of us as disciples. Our words and actions continue to turn the world upside down toward justice and love.
Choose your words to speak truth to power and present Christ to a hurting world needing a saviour. Choose your words and act with love in the face of tyranny, racism, discrimination, bigotry and privilege. This is God’s love and God’s justice.
We live in troubled times. We are not here to be respected or comfortable.
God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. May we rekindle the gift of God within us. (2 Tim.1:6-7)