The Pharisees Question Jesus by artist James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper.
October 23, 2011
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Greatest Commandment
We meet Jesus today in hostile territory. He has begun his assault on Jerusalem. He paraded into the city and stormed the temple, waving the banner of the prophets. He’s in a place as foreign to him as the far side of the world, yet his spiritual home by birthright. He’s a village lad from “Galilee of the Gentiles” working to make his presence known in the capital of religious and ethnic purity. He’s a reformer at the seat of the establishment. His people are always at odds with the agents of empire. The city’s leaders maintain a fragile peace with Rome.
Those leaders are afraid to risk any direct action against him. They hope he’ll trip on his words and give them a case. It’s the Pharisees this morning. They warm up by asking him a question and they already know how he’ll answer. What frames his words and works? What key does he use to unlock scripture and tradition? As important as that is, they’re waiting to hear what he’ll say next.
The words that confound the critics are mostly lost on us. We already know whose son Jesus is! Don’t we? Our text today is what Jesus has to say about the commandments, the story, the scriptures.
So, picture him rolling his eyes before he answers the scribe’s question. “You want to know what I think is the greatest commandment? Why don’t you say it along with me?” What Pharisee could stop from joining in?
“Love God with all …” All you are. All you’ve got. Not first in order on the list. The one that must be remembered before any other, and no other can be spoken without this one. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Not second in importance. Jesus means, “And the other first commandment is …”
The Pharisees are interested in this mash – up of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but it’s nothing new. They shrug and agree. Jesus is as orthodox as they are. Do they live what they confess along with Jesus? They spend a lot of time speculating, arguing over how to do it. In Luke’s version the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbour?” We know how Jesus answers him. In Matthew, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees stands alone, as an indictment on the righteous. And a call to the reader.
What is this love that God commands? It’s agapé love, passion for the sake of another. Emotion – proof love. The motive power of a community in action. The commandment calls a nation together. This love can’t be loved by individuals, on their own. Some scholars call it “group attachment,” a shared connection to One that gives all identity and purpose.
To love neighbour as self isn’t a matter of loving someone to the extent I’m able to love myself. Nor is it waiting to reach out to someone else until I have my own stuff together. If my neighbour has to wait until I’ve learned to love myself she’ll be out in the cold for a long time. Self – love is not a valid concept to Jesus. Nor does it really have a place in Jewish or Christian tradition. The other greatest commandment is about self – knowledge. It’s admitting I’m no one apart from whom I belong to. I’m not myself without my neighbour.
The greatest commandment and the other greatest commandment call God’s people to loving obedience and obedient loving. In community. In the world. On this all scripture and tradition hang. The Pharisees have to nod to this, too. How they live it is another matter. Jesus has always accused them of lovelessness.
Often we separate love and obedience. We obey, not always wholeheartedly, but because we believe it’s the right thing to do. We think believing is mostly intellectual assent. Loving obedience, obedient loving, flow from knowing who we are and whom we belong to.