I have a good friend, someone I have known for many years. I have discovered after many arguments and conversations, that I have a habit which he does not. On most topics, I find myself thinking about God, neighbour and self as I work through the issue we’re debating and either agreeing or disagreeing. My friend does not have this habit. He can begin and end a conversation without moving from self, without thinking of God or neighbour. This is not because he’s selfish or insensitive, but I think he is reflective of our culture and our extreme individualism where we see everything through our own needs. This results in us always weighing up what it means for me personally, asking how will it affect me, and so deciding always to protect myself with no room left for God or neighbour, if the issue disadvantages me.
Thinking differently, taking God, neighbour and self into account is a behaviour which Christians develop, but it has to be learned. We are taught it, we must practice it and make it a habit and we must teach it to others, through the way we speak, think and act.
Its possible for church communities to be the same as my friend. We begin with our needs as a sinner and end with God’s salvation, clearly avoiding the neighbour who is hurting. This recognition of my neighbour should include all of God’s suffering creation, especially those we reject, exclude, demonise, and insult. It is also possible to turn from ourself to our neighbour without consideration of God. Either way, our ethical passion is wasted as self-righteousness or despair and is unsustainable.
Yet, each week we confess the Great Commandment and the second one, which is like it:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your heighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:37-40)
This statement by Jesus is the third in a series of confrontations between Jesus and those challenging him, which we have been exploring over the last two weeks. They are now trying to trap him with an open-ended theological question. They have asked him: ‘Which commandment is the greatest?’ (22:36)
There are apparently, 613 commandments in the Scriptures and religious leaders believed all should be upheld equally. His prosecutors were asking Jesus how he prioritised them, hoping to highlight how he failed in giving equal weight to all laws. Jesus takes the question and goes further, instead using it to reveal who God is and who the son of David is.
Jesus speaks to the pharisees using the Shema (Deut. 6:5), the most prominent prayer in the Hebrew tradition. The Shema is essentially the cornerstone of the Jewish faith and practice. While often used as a prayer, the Shema is basically a statement of who God is. ‘The Lord our God is One’.
Monotheism was and is the defining characteristic of Judaism. The Shema reinforces this truth about God, and commands Israel to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind. This command and this truth about God are inextricably linked. Because the Lord your God is one, you shall love the Lord with the entirety of your being. The Lord is distinct from all pagan deities, in unique Oneness and as a result, you can love the Lord without reservation.
Jesus then expands his response, once again surprising his questioners. He includes a lesser-known command from Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ He prefaces this with the important phrase: ‘a second is like it’. This was a radical step for Jesus’ audience, yet we often overlook its significance. To put this command as equal as the Shema was surprising, particularly to the Pharisees.
Jesus does just that. He equates the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ with the holistic love commands of the Shema. The result is not simply a command to act: it amounts to a fresh statement about God. The God of the Shema is One and unique; God elected the nation of Israel to be God’s one, chosen people. God’s oneness and uniqueness match the uniqueness of the covenant.
Jesus’ addition of the loving-neighbour command in the discussion of the greatest command, even calling it ‘like the first’, reinforces the image of God who loves the neighbour as much as the nation of Israel. Given Jesus’ broad interpretation of ‘neighbour’, this implies God reaches out to all the nations and establishes a covenant with ‘all flesh’ (Gen.9:17).
We hear a reinforcement of the story about the wedding feast where everyone is invited, so the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matt. 22:9-10). God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and seeks all those who are lost (Luke 19:10).
This is an image of the self-giving God who chooses humility and vulnerability dying a criminal’s death to restore a relationship with all humanity. God truly loves all creation. This love is revealed perfectly in God’s Son, who in his very life reveals the self-giving love of God for everyone.
To many of the Pharisees, this image of God is at once unsettling and a stumbling block. It calls into question the basis of their faith and their identity as being special, chosen and privileged by God. No wonder they question Jesus, and where his authority comes from.
I wonder about our own Christian identity, and whether we too have fallen into one of the two traps I outlined earlier. Have I gone from my needs as a sinner straight to God’s forgiveness, or have I forgotten God in my rush to help my neighbour? Either way, the trap is evident as we regularly fall one way or the other as we seek to protect our own status and privilege at the expense of the neighbour who I choose to discount, or God, whom I choose to ignore.
Instead of choosing a single rule to follow, Jesus chooses the motivation behind all of the rules given to us by God. Jesus chooses love. In Jesus’ statement we discover all of us are at the centre of God’s love and attention, grace and mercy, now and forever.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C. A., Johnson, E.E. [Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol.2 Chapters 14-28. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.