SERMON IN CR CHAPEL 23 OCTOBER, 2011
PROPER 25; YEAR A
We are in Jerusalem, in the Temple. The hosannas which greeted Jesus on his arrival in the city a couple of days ago have faded into silence and the atmosphere is uneasy and edgy. There was that unseemly disturbance involving Jesus and the money-changers and traders in the Temple precincts. A fig tree which was all leaves and no fruit – all show and no goodness – has been cursed. There has been daily debate and controversy between Jesus and the representatives of the various parties of the political and ecclesiastical establishment. There has been argument and counter-argument, question and counter-question. Jews are notoriously disputatious – two Jews means three opinions. The groups which have combined against Jesus are unlikely allies – Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. They have made common cause in their attempts to discredit Jesus and bring him down. However he has adroitly side-stepped the traps which they have laid for him and they have failed to trip him up or catch him out. He for his part has spoken pointedly of disobedience and hardness of heart, of tenants refusing to pay their dues, of invitations being turned down. Jesus and his critics are on a collision course; events are moving inexorably towards a final show-down. This is the end-game.
It is at this point that ‘a lawyer’ puts a question. The evangelist seems to imply that this man, too, is part of the general conspiracy to bring Jesus into disrepute; he says that the question was ‘to test’ Jesus. He addresses Jesus as ‘Teacher’ but perhaps his tongue is in his cheek and he is hoping to catch Jesus off his guard. On the face of it his question is genuine enough – ‘which command in the law is the greatest ?’. It was a matter which over the generations had exercised the minds of rabbis and teachers of the law. Of the 613 commandments in the Law of Moses, which was the one which took precedence over all the others?
It is easy for us to caricature the Law as received and practised by the Jews and to see it simply as a collection of precepts and ordinances, statutes and regulations. Yet to appreciate its full significance we have to see the Law in its relation to Covenant – God’s claims on human hearts in relation to his gift, his grace, his presence with his people. Psalm 119 is a glorious celebration of that relationship. ‘Let me find grace through your law’, the Psalmist prays, ‘Set my heart at liberty that I may run the way of your commandments’. God’s statutes are to ‘become our songs in the house of our pilgrimage’. The Law is not simply a matter of external observance; it is to be inscribed on the tablets of our hearts. ‘In the roll of the book it is written of me that I should do your will O my God. I delight to do it; your Law is within my heart’. (Ps 40:9)
This is not the language of mere conformity, of keeping rules and observing precepts. This is the language of spontaneity and freedom; it is the language of love.
Jesus was not the first to say that ‘love is the fulfilling of the Law’ - others had said it too. However, what is remarkable in this case is the context in which Jesus speaks – a context of rejection and disbelief. Into the darkness and bitterness of human hostility towards him, Jesus speaks of the primacy of unconditional love.
Not only that. Although others before him had said the same thing, with Jesus there is something different, something new. With him there is complete identification of his own being with what he is saying. As Saint.Augustine pointed out, ‘He would not teach what he himself was not. He would not bid others do what he himself would not do’. ‘Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing?’ asks the Lady Julian of Norwich, ‘ Learn it well. Love was all his meaning’.
Jesus said that his ‘food was to do the will of him who sent him and to finish his work’ (John 4:34). His ‘food’- it was his commitment to what the Father wanted which fed and energised him. It was this which gave him his substance, his identity. Every cell, every particle, every fibre of his being was alive with that loving obedience. What the Father wanted was that he, the Beloved Son, should be the place and the channel of his love for the world. Jesus is the embodiment of Law and Covenant – he represents both the Father’s claims on human hearts and the means of grace to enable us to respond to those claims. ‘Grace and truth have met together – Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’. (Ps 85:10. John17).
‘Love was all his meaning’. What of ourselves and our meaning? Perhaps we are puzzled by the implication that love can be made a matter of command – ‘You shall love ..with all your heart and soul and mind’. How can that be done? Love, surely, is a matter of the heart, a matter of feeling, a spontaneous reaching out to the other. That is so but it not the whole of it. In a very real sense love is also a matter of the will. It is worth bearing in mind that Jesus is reported as saying, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15); in other words the awareness of what people and events and circumstances may be requiring of us by way of response is also part of the discourse and commerce of love.
Who can dare to presume to speak of love – it simplicity and its cost, its endeavour and its expense? For love is endless, requiring a lifetime of seeing how to do it better.
Saint Augustine (again) says that when it comes to seeking how to love we have to recognise that we are stony broke – that we come to the task with empty pockets hanging out. Yet we don’t have to despair of ourselves. ‘Lord, I don’t know how to love – either you or my neighbour – with all my heart and soul and mind. It’s beyond me but Lord I want to love.’
The marvel is that providing the wanting to is genuine, God accepts and honours it.
Eric Simmons CR