31st Sunday (B) 2018

It was common in Jesus’ time for Rabbis to question if there was one commandment in the Torah, the Jewish Law, that outweighed all others, one that might be regarded as the basic principle on which life should be grounded.  Judaism had over 600 rules or ‘commandments’ in the Law which governed their daily life. So a common question among Rabbis was: ‘which is the first or the greatest?’

Rabbi Hillel, one of the most famous religious figures in Jewish history, died when Jesus was about ten years old. He was asked one day if he could summarise while standing on one leg the whole of the Torah or Law. His response, known as the Golden Rule, was:

“That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary.”

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ reply to the question of ‘which is the first or greatest of the commandments?’ His response was to combine two quotations on love from the Bible’s Old Testament.

Our Lord’s first choice of quotation is from the Book of Deuteronomy:

“Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” 

This verse is known in Judaism as the Shema (Hebrew for ‘listen’) and is recited three times a day – morning, noon and night – by orthodox Jews. Parents teach their children to say the Shema before they go to sleep at night.

The Shema was a call from Moses for Israelites, as they prepared to enter the Promised land, to be in awe (fear) of God and for what wonderful things God had done for their people. In return they should respond by loving God unconditionally and wholeheartedly in every season and stage of their lives.

Jesus was asked to name just one commandment as a summary of the Law. However, as you heard, he named two, adding on to the first a second, this time from the Book of Leviticus:

“You must love your neighbour as yourself’

For Jesus, the love of God and love of neighbour flow directly one from the other – i.e. to love God, fully and without reserve, requires us to love others. The love of God is insufficient if it is not combined with practical love of neighbour.

As far as I know, Jesus was the only Rabbi of his time to combine these two commandments. Making the connection between the two was radical for its time. His teaching was that

“Love of God is illusory if it does not issue in love of neighbour, and love of neighbour is refined self-love if it does not proceed from the love of God.” (Reginald H Fuller)

Here Jesus was laying down the primacy of love as the basis of how to live a Christian life. Remember that the question put to him he was: what rule or law should be the foundation of life? He taught that that it must be love. Our actions are to be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral, according to this principle which he laid down in his own life in his unselfish and total love of others. It is love, he says, that is the fundamental guide to right living, and his life – one dedicated to the good of others – is the proof of this and it also must lie at the heart of a Christian.

So in the Christian Church we deem an action to be wrong not simply because someone says so but if it infringes the principle of love. Consequently, if something I do or fail to do harms another, infringes his/her dignity or respect, then – according to Christ’s law of love – I have sinned. I have sinned against love.

Shortly we shall sing the hymn “In Bread We Bring You, Lord”. In the first verse we will sing “We do not ask you, Lord, who is my neighbour”. This was the question – “Who is my neighbour?” – put to Jesus when he was asked to define ‘neighbour’. For Jews of the time, your neighbour, at most, was a fellow Jew and not people of other nationalities or creeds. Jesus responded to the question with his Parable of the Good Samaritan. He explained that “who is my neighbour?” is the wrong question as to ask it is to be selective and limiting. Instead, the question to ask is “how do I be a neighbour?” when I come upon someone in difficulty or in need. The answer is to show mercy to whoever needs it, whatever their race, colour or creed. For Jesus, my neighbour is everyone – even my enemies and I show my love for God by loving them.

So we live and judge our actions as Christians under the piercing spotlight of love. Properly understood, there is nothing ‘wishy-washy’ about it. In fact, it is the most demanding and challenging code by which one can live. And the most fulfilling.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
4 November 2018