October 26, 2014, 20th Sunday after Pentecost Year A

Year A, Proper 25

October 26, 2014

The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So here is the scene… Jesus is in Jerusalem. He chose to leave the Galilean countryside and go to the capitol where there was bound to be a confrontation with the leaders of the Pharisees and Sadducees as well as the Herodian collaborators and their imperial overseers. You can smell the conflict coming. Jesus is not one to shy from righteous conflict, is he? “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword,” right? And there He is, casting the first and second stones of this conflict. First simply by showing up in the heart of Judea, in Jerusalem. That alone was a challenge. The second stone was making such a scene around his arrival; a procession on an ass, palm fronds laid before him and shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!” Mockery of a royal procession of the first order. The many zombie marches of the Occupy Movement might be a modern day equivalent. Them’s fighting words. And Jesus, not the wilting violet, follows those words with actions. What is the first thing Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem? He drives the money changers out of the temple. “…you are making it (the Temple) a den of robbers!” That’s the first thing He does. (Well, it was the first thing He does in Matthew and Luke, the 2nd thing in Mark’s gospel). Jesus the peacemaker? Not exactly. Make no mistake, Jesus is not violent. The sword was a metaphor for conflict, driving out the money changers was confrontational and disruptive, but not actually violent. He knew that violence in the heart or the hand does not emanate from God. But Jesus Christ did not avoid conflict, heavens no. Evil and injustice rarely loosen their hold because we ask nicely. It is always those with power and privilege that preach, “Be patient.” Not Jesus. Justice demands immediacy. Justice requires conflict. And there He is.

After a big splash on the Jerusalem scene, His opponents line up to challenge Him, to trip Him up, to discredit Him. Last week we heard Mo. Nancy preach on the Herodians’ and Pharisees’ attempt with the question about paying taxes. “render on to Caesar…” was His inspired response. Later that day the Sadducees came with the silly question about the woman who married her way through a family of brothers, with the question, “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (You see, resurrection was a rather contentious issue of the day, with Sadducees not believing in it, while their rivals, the Pharisees, did. They wanted to place Jesus on the spectrum). Remember, the Sadducees were a sect of the upper echelons of Jewish culture and economy, they filled lots of political and social positions and they had the privilege of administering and staffing the Temple. The High Priests were Sadducees.   Well, they came and Jesus swatted them away with His superior knowledge of the text and substance of Scripture.

This brings us today’s lection with the Pharisees lining up a lawyer (a Torah lawyer) to ask a confounding question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, 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 neighbor as your self.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” I have not found a more perfect teaching as to how we are to conduct ourselves in this life. This is the Great Commandment.

In the Torah, the Law, which governed(s) every aspect of the lives of observant Jews, there are 613 precepts, rules. Two hundred forty-eight are positive injunctions (do this), three hundred sixty-five of them were negative injunctions (don’t do that). So this summation of the Law, the Great Commandment, it does some heavy lifting, distilling the spirit of the entirety of the Law in two clauses taken from scripture. The first is the Shema, the prayer from Deuteronomy which is a daily prayer of Jews to this day, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love your the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might…”   it goes on, but it is pretty familiar, right?   The second is from the book of Leviticus, that was our Old testament reading today. After a long list of injunctions given by Moses, it is written, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” A few decades prior to Jesus’ earthly ministry, the venerable Rabbi Hillel was asked a similar question. He was challenged to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot. He did, teaching, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary!”

So, is the rest of it just commentary? Does Jesus sum up all the Law and the Prophets in these two sentences?

As I said a bit ago, this, the Great Commandment, is the perfect teaching. I say that, because what it does is frame for us the entirety of our human experience on the precept of Love. We only exist in relationship. I am not without you, without this. We are, in fact, utterly dependent on the other. Concretely, we are, or were, utterly dependent on our parents who conceived us, our mother who bore and birthed us. Everyone who had a hand in raising you. Those who grow your food, make your clothes, provide security to our society. Our dependency runs deep, and not only on human neighbors. We are at least as utterly dependent on the soil, and air and water and climate that frame and sustain our lives. The plants and animals who, that by giving their very lives we live. Utter dependency. These are our neighbors and neighborhoods, and we are, we have our being in that we exist in relationship. “No man is an island,” is how John Donne and Thomas Merton put it. And we are commanded, by God, to love that which we are in relationship as much as we love our selves. Utter dependency; a much more fruitful theology than utter depravity, but no one asked me. In any case, that’s the “seen” world that we are commended to be in loving relationship with, “seen” as in “maker of Heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.”

Then there is the unseen… The heavenly realms. The numinous, the spirit, to the sarx, the flesh. Wisdom and knowledge, memory, reason and skill. The ground of being. The source of light and life. The Holy Trinity. God. So much of our experience of the world is in the realm of the unseen, the unseeable. What the great commandment calls us to, is to love God with every means available, to love the source of our and every life with our emotional beings, our intellectual beings, our spiritual beings. Every part of us must strain to be in right relationship, that is, loving relationship. Being in love with all of it is the true nature of things, the way it is supposed to be… that is the Kingdom of God that Christ proclaims. The great commandment runs deep.

So when Jesus says that upon these two statements, loving God and loving neighbor, that upon them hang all the Law and the prophets, what is he saying? Mostly, he is saying that all of the wisdom of the Law, all of the wisdom of the prophets point to one way: Love. Everything we know of God and the world must be framed in terms of Love. Love of everything we are in relationship with. And we’re talking agape love; the love of God for us is to be met with that same love reflected back to God and everything. That’s the completion of the circle, the fulfillment of the covenant. That is the appropriate response of the creature to the creator. But what wondrous love is that?   What does it mean to love God and everything as God loves us?

I think that if we could explain that better we’d have a much better time of in the world. The love of a creator for the created, it is so abstract yet it is so visceral, so right in front of us. The ideal love of a mother for her child is the closest most of us can imagine. That ideal physical and emotional two-in-oneness of mother-child. Not maybe what we received from our own mothers, but the ideal. Not the everyday “I love you,” as they run off to school or call in their weekly hello from back East, but the love to the core of your being, the love that puts your life unquestionably as secondary to theirs… that kind of love. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… that kind of love. The love you feel when you are exactly you are supposed to be in that moment, the consolation of being fully present. Do you know that feeling? Too many of us never feel that kind of love, but most of us have had a glimpse, right? You have a memory of it, no? You can imagine it, dream of it, yes? It is not just an interpersonal, anthropomorphic love, agape is receiving and giving a full embrace to/from the entirety of existence. If we open ourselves to the ground of being, the creator of Heaven and earth, source of light and life, if you open your selves to that, if you can even dream that that is possible… you are on your way to the promised land. That is what Jesus Christ is talking about. The Law and the prophets pointed the way to the life we were born to live, a life in love with God and Everything.

What the Law did was to provide a framework of life, a regimen of practice to not only ensure conduct within the boundaries of loving relationships, which we as humans we seem to need, but more so, to condition our very souls to loving all that we encounter. The Law breeds mindfulness. And being mindful, paying attention, noticing what you are actually doing when you are actually doing it, that is a step towards understanding. And the understanding that the Law leads to is understanding of the nature of God, a God that Jesus knew as Love. If we practice, truly practice, if we try and try again to live as we know we are expected to live, you know what, we’ll get better at it. We become what we take into our hearts and minds and bodies, we become what we expose ourselves to. The Law helps to introduce us through rote to a life lived pointed towards love.

And the Prophets? You can’t have love, not agapic, total love without justice. You can’t have love, not agapic total love without peace. You can’t have love, not agapic total love without righteousness. You can’t struggle for these things without love, not truly. You can’t fight evil with evil, you can’t heal with sickness, you can’t teach with ignorance. You can’t dream with hopelessness.   That is what the Prophets teach in their myriad ways. That is also what Jesus was talking about. Loving God, fully; loving who and what we share this world with, fully; that is what the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, both gifts directly from God, that is what they are teaching us. The perfect teaching. But how to learn it, how to follow this, the greatest commandment? That is another story.

We’ll continue this next week on the Feast of All Saints, continue with the discussion of How do we follow the great commandment. The gospel for all Saints is St. Matthew’s Beatitudes, Chapter 5:1-12. You might take a look at them this week, pray on them. One of the keys to the kingdom is in there… AMEN