The Last Sunday after Trinity
Leviticus 19. 1 – 2, 15 – 18
Fr David Hope
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord’ (Lev.19.18)
Among the individuals and groups mentioned in the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospels, none are more prominent than what are termed the ‘ the Pharisees’. In many of the references they are coupled together with the Scribes. Though each group exercised distinct functions in Judaism in the time of Jesus, both were concerned with the strict observance of Torah – the Law. This morning we are concerned with the Pharisees alone, but that is only because they have heard that Jesus ‘had silenced the Sadducees’. Now that they had heard that Jesus had seen off, so to speak, the Sadducees , this is their chance to weigh in and see what he had to say in response to their questioning.
In fact the questioning had already begun as we heard in last week’s Gospel. As so often it was a less than friendly questioning - ‘ The the Pharisees went and plotted against him in what he said’ - and this time the Herodians joined in as well, just for good measure ! You will recall it was a question about the payment of taxes -whether to the emperor or not. As on other occasions Jesus skilfully turns their question against them. His response to their question is to ask them a question– a question which they are hard put to answer.
And then on the very same day, seeing the discomfiture of the Pharisees, the Sadducees sieze their opportunity to trip Jesus up. Its a question about the Resurrection, given that the Sadduces believed in a resurrection of some sort whilst the Pharisees held no such belief. Their hope was that Jesus having so skilfully seen off the Pharisees, his response might be more favourable to them. Alas it was not.
And so we come to this morning’s Gospel in which we are told a lawyer – one of the Pharisees asks Jesus a question - ‘to test him’. And it’s a question which takes us to the very heart of Torah – the Law – as to what is the greatest commandment. The response of Jesus is surely very well known to all of us, in that it has come to be incorporated into the Service of Holy Communion and known as the Summary of the Law. ‘You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it - ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. And note that it is this love of neighbour as yourself which concludes this morning’s Reading from Leviticus, itself reciting extracts from Torah.
Here then is a commandment which today remains as fundamental to your faith and mine as it did to God’s ancient people and the continuing Jewish community today - and one might add to any of any faith or none - for all time as the foundation of any decent, caring and flourishing human community and society. Indeed Jesus himself tells us ‘ a new commandment I give unto you – that you love one another’ And the quality of that love is no sloppy sentimental slush, nor is it either a preoccupation with sex, but rather a robust regard that we have towards one another fashioned in the image of the God who created each and every one of us. No we are not necessarily expected to like one another, and to be honest it’s always a bit too easy to find fault with another person, yet faults and failings notwithstanding that doesn’t excuse that robust regard that we are to have for each other – to care for and about each other – to go the extra mile, even for someone to whom we may have taken a particular dislike or indeed someone who may have done us down in some way. The summary of the law is clear, that it is impossible to speak of loving God without in the same breath including one’s neighbour, otherwise we run the risk of ourselves becoming the new Pharisees !
But then we are told that not only does our love of God consist in loving our neighbour, but perhaps more perplexing - ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. So there’s a question here about our love of self which may at first sight seem somewhat narcissistic. But then its not a matter of how we may look outwardly but how we are as it were inwardly. It was St Teresa who once remarked - ‘However stupid, foolish and useless I may seem to be, I will never cease to praise you O my God for having made me just as I am ‘ And I wonder just how many of us can say that not only with real conviction but with actual pleasure and yes even excitement ! There’s a beautiful modern hymn, based on Psalm 139, which contains these lines - ‘ For you created me and shaped me, Gave me life within my mother’s womb. For the wonder of who I am I praise you’. So today as we recognise the presence of the risen and living Lord Jesus in our midst in this Holy Sacrament, make these words your own - ‘For the wonder of who I am I praise you’ - be thankful for who and what you are, that you are a beautiful person, that you are a beloved child of God, that you are quite unique , wonderfully made , already held in the arms of your creator with a love that knows no end.
So hear well this morning Jesus speaking to you. Yes you personally - ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind…..You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
The second part of the Gospel Reading for this morning sees Jesus turning the tables on his questioners by asking them a question, which it may be said is a question to end all questions. One commentator informs us that ‘this may seem to be one of the most obscure things which Jesus ever said. It may be so, but none the less, it is one of the most important statements he ever made’. For in spite of its obscurity and the play on the word ‘Lord’ - its understanding and interpretation, the main point of this exchange is that Messiah is not just or only Son of David, but rather Son of God. And here in making this claim for himself Jesus is dismissing the popular concept of Messiah as an earthly conqueror who would repeat the military triumphs of David, but rather the Son of God who comes in humility and love, who comes not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many, whose kingdom is not one of power but of righteousness of peace and love – a kingdom for which daily we pray may come here on earth as it is in heaven. No wonder that from that day ‘did anyone dare to ask him any more questions’.