Proper 25A. 26 October 2014.
Alexander D. MacPhail
What I just read for you is the end of a series of lections we have been reading on the conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of the day. The Pharisees are well known to us, though often construed as a caricature of religious fussiness.
In fact, the Pharisees were simply the normal devout Jews. These were the rabbis, and the Jews who went to synagogue each Sabbath and certainly for the major feasts and fasts. The Pharisees in this lesson were leaders, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council.
The tradition of rabbinical teaching was through question and answer, parable and allegory. Rabbis and scribes liked to cite theologians in their teaching to give strength to their sermons. Remember that Jesus did not teach in that way. He spoke, as they said, "as one with authority," meaning that Jesus was able to speak of matters with total confidence and conviction.
Some addressed Jesus affectionately as "Rabbi"—though Jesus was not trained as one. Even more affection, to the point of absolute obedience was implied when they said "Lord." But when someone called him "Teacher" as we have in today's lesson, there is no affection whatsoever. In fact, it's almost impolite.
Yet the question from one of them is an old chesnut among the rabbis. "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" It was a common, though somewhat controversial, question. Rabbis could give summaries of the law. In fact, it's somewhat like preaching. You can talk about this verse or that verse in minute detail, but, "Come on, clergy, give us the view from 10,000 feet. Boil it down for us!"
And a rabbi may opine on that. He may give his own take on law from the perspective of his many years in the rabbinate, giving advice to people over many years of hearing people's problems and giving his thoughts. He may be more strict in his interpretation and want to hold up the standard of the law. "This is our line in the sand. This is the Torah of God. We may not like when it says this or that, but it's God's law, and though it may be difficult to follow, follow we must."
Or a rabbi may be more disposed to the compassionate view of the law—more the spirit than the letter. So his summary of the law may be more about God giving his people a rigorous standard, but we can't always measure up, and that is why we are waiting for a messiah, who will teach us more perfectly how to follow it.
So you see, you have different ways of thought among the rabbinate, just as you would among doctors and judges and any group that would receive a certain amount of education and practice in the real world—and can, therefore, form thoughtful opinions.
The question to Jesus is abrupt, perhaps even aggressive and disrespectful, as indicated by addressing him "Teacher," and then asking a question that would have been common among those who had been more experienced.
It is rather like when an adult asks a 10 year old boy, "Are you married? How's the wife and kids?" Except that there is no humor in the question to Jesus. One can almost hear the other Pharisees in the group stifling their laughter that someone has asked Jesus this question.
But you see, I also said it was a controversial question, and that is because although a rabbi could give a summary of the law, it was understood that all the commandments were equal. They were given by God, so to try to rank them or appraise them was considered a purely human endeavor, which could be considered arrogant, or even blasphemous.
The rabbis had counted a total of 613 commands in the Torah. And that number is the sum of 248 positive commands, meaning "Do this," and 365 negative commands, meaning, "Don't do that." Those numbers had significance. The 248 positive commands correspond with the known parts of the human body; and the 365 negative commands correspond with the days of the year.[*]
So Jesus is on the spot in a culture that rather likes putting rabbis on the spot! He responds with the creedal statement of the Sh'ma, found in Deuteronomy 6, "The Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And then Jesus adds, "This is the greatest and first commandment." Well, it is, literally. It is certainly the first by mere order.
And then he tacks on Leviticus 19.18, saying "And the second is like it, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
It's an interesting response for several reasons. One, Jesus doesn't react to the disrespectful tone with which he was asked the question. Two, he could have stopped with the Sh'ma—with just giving the commandment to love God. It's a no-brainer, as it were. And it would certainly keep him out of trouble.
But the Lord's addition of that next verse is the distinction between what Jesus is on about, and what the Pharisees are on about. We forget that these are people with a common heritage and common sacred texts, but who see the nature of God's relationship with humanity in very different ways.
For the Pharisees it really is all about God—in fact, to the exclusion, if necessary, of compassion for humanity. "God gave us a law, and people need to follow it at all costs. Have we learned nothing from the Exile? We were in bondage for 50 years. People who remembered this land died waiting to return. And when we returned and found Jerusalem in tatters, and the Temple destroyed, what did we do? We said, `This must never happen again.' If the law says that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned, then she should be stoned."
But for Jesus, this way of thinking was ludicrous. Obviously adultery is wrong, but women have no voice in this culture. It isn't her fault that man forced himself on her. And even if she was complicit, look at her—shaking like a leaf, publicly embarrassed in front of everyone. You have to understand that the law is there to remind you what's right, but some allowances have to be made from time to time.
And there you have it. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. You wouldn't hang yourself over your mistakes, so have some compassion. (Pause.)
But before you I let you go I just want to speak briefly about the tension of living with this teaching. To love God and to love one's neighbor is not meant to be onerous, or to pit one against the other; however, it is difficult sometimes to strike a balance.
Usually, devout people find one of those two as their strong suit. They are good at being a compassionate listener, or running the food pantry, but they don't take much time to pray. Or they are given to solitude, and don't really enjoy interacting with people that much.
I think for many years I have understood love of neighbor as an outgrowth of love of God. And it certainly can be. Love of God first, which then provokes love of neighbor. After all, love of God is the first and greatest commandment.
But recently I was talking with Karin about this. And what came to me is that loving God is sometimes very difficult to do. I don't mean that I find God less than loveable, but it can be difficult sometimes to connect. We get distracted, or we feel frustrated that prayer takes so much attentiveness. We all know that there are seasons of the spirit.
If you follow these two commandments only in their order, you may not get around to loving your neighbor, so I have come to the belief that they are meant to enrich each other. That if it seems difficult to love God in your heart, try loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and it may be that loving God is found in that. Likewise, when loving your neighbor is not fruitful, loving God in solitude may help.
There are times I struggle with loving God—not because I don't, but because I'm not sure how to. How do you give love to God? Or how do you receive it?
God is not someone on whom we can lavish physical attention as we might with our spouses or children. God is spirit so the encounter is one of faith. What do you say? How do you bring out the love; or how do you gauge the depth of it? I know what it is from time to time to receive the love of God as a sensation; but giving it back is something of a mystery.
One mystical author wrote that it is enough simply to be in God's presence, and he likened it to sitting with someone you know so well, that you don't have to say anything. You can just be with them. Presence is enough.
I can tell you what sometimes works for me, and that is just to sit still and wait. It may be a few minutes. It may be more than a few. It's as if I forget how to just be, and the time I need is time to remember that I am part of the world around me. That God is fully present, but I am not. My mind is too busy, or I'm absorbed in the transient needs of the day.
But if I can be still, and wait, the Lord will come, and when he does, I don't have to wonder how to give love to him. It just happens. (Pause.)
Some years ago, at another church, there was a woman who started coming who sat at the back. The first couple Sundays she left before I could really follow up with her. She'd shake my hand at the door, but then quickly make her escape. Sometimes people need to do that, you know.
There are people who hang on to their lives by their fingernails. They are interested to see if we really believe what we say we believe, or they've felt something shift inside of them and they don't have language for it. It's too raw, or it's too new, and the vulnerability can make them wonder if they are going crazy. They worry that if a cleric or a church member were to look into their eyes, that we'd see everything, and they would feel terribly exposed.
So, I just played it cool. And whenever she started to talk, I listened. I think it was about a year after she started coming that she told me, "I had the strangest experience one evening." She said, "I was outside after dark, after I had put the children to bed, and I looked up into the night sky and I said, `God, are you really real?'
And she said, "It was then that I heard back. But the voice didn't come from out there." She pointed to her heart, and said, "It came from in here!"
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[*] The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VIII, pg. 424.