Last week it was like a boxing match and this week we are definitely into football with this game of two halves. Those of you who were at 8am last week will recall me describing the questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees as akin to a boxing match. The Pharisees are seeing their authority threatened by Jesus so they are determined to catch Jesus out by proving either than he is blaspheming or he is encouraging an insurrection against Rome. Better still if they can prove both.
The passage we heard this week is like a football match in that superficially it is a game of two halves. The first half, which is very well known as we say it every week in the communion service is about the commandments to love. The second half, possibly less well known, is pretty obtuse. However like any football match the two halves are actually all part of the one.
Before I bring the two together let’s look at the two separate halves. The Pharisees’ question seems innocent enough. However once more they are setting a trap for Jesus. It was not unusual for 1st century rabbis to discuss the relative importance of the 613 commandments of God contained in the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament. However the trap being laid is that it was held that all these commandments were equally binding so if Jesus were to suggest that one commandment took precedence over the others they could accuse him of blasphemy.
Jesus is clearly aware of the risk so he answers the question in a very acceptable way but he also does something new. He uses the words in Deuteronomy “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind”. The new thing is that he then links it to the words we heard this morning from the book of Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Those two spoken together are often described as Jesus’ summary of the law or the two great commandments. I think though that describing them in Old Testament terms of commandments undervalues what those words really are. They are a gift that God gives us. A gift that we can accept or reject, but if we accept the gift we will find that we have accepted the most perfect gift we will ever have.
The first half of the gift is the unconditional love of God. Whatever we do or don’t do, God will always love us even if God does not always love what we do. If we accept this amazing gift then we will find that it controls our emotions, directs our thoughts and guides our actions.
In other words we will find that we do love our neighbours whoever they are. Like us at times, they might not be particularly likeable but also like us each and every one of them is made in God’s image and that is what we are loving.
In our reading from Leviticus we have the first ever known statement of the law or gift of love towards each other. To love each other was a concept unique to Judaism amongst all the religions that flourish in the Ancient Near East around 1500 years ago. It was the Judaic concept of protecting and caring for others through love that set Judaism apart. In this short passage we are given the key concepts of behaviour that will flow from our response to loving God by loving each other. The most important one is the one that comes first – justice.
Leviticus is very clear that justice cannot be overridden for the sake of economic interest – a point well worth remembering when we question what action we should take against a tyrant on whom we might be economically dependent. In the present climate I have our gas supplies from Russia and its behaviour towards the Crimea and Ukraine in mind.
Centuries after these concepts of love and justice were developed the prophet Micah stated the behaviour of those who have accepted God’s gift of love in the following words “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. That I believe sums up what is it to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours.
So that is a few of my thoughts about the first half of our gospel reading. We now come to the somewhat obscure second half of the reading. Jesus asks the Pharisees the question whose answer will define who he is. He asks “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees give a very orthodox answer for their times. “He is the Son of David” is their reply. In this understanding, the Messiah will be a warrior king as was King David. The Messiah will lead the people of Israel into battle with Rome. With the defeat of Rome Israel will once more be a sovereign state.
Jesus then quotes psalm 110 verse 1. It is David who is speaking and he says “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”. In this psalm the first Lord mentioned is known to be God and the second Lord mentioned is the Messiah. David addresses the Messiah as “my Lord” something which he would not do if the Messiah is David’s son. So the Messiah is not David’s son and therefore will not be a warrior king.
If the Messiah is not David’s son then he must be the Son of God. This is where two apparently separate halves of this reading come together. Jesus has just told the Pharisees that everything God wants for and of us is love. In a couple of days’ time on the cross Jesus will show the Pharisees and us just who the Messiah is.
He will show us that God’s gift to us is not military conquest but love. Love shown by dying for us and defeating death for us through his resurrection. That is the depth of God’s amazing gift of love for us. Remembering that and responding to it is our way of thanking God for that gift. So let’s leave here today accepting God’s gift of love for us and his image in each of us which means we love each other through our words and our actions. In doing that we will be following the advice of St. Augustine to “love and do as you will”.