(gospel Matthew 22:34-end)
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sad’ducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, `The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.
I’ve always been a fan of pithy one-liners. I loved those comics who could reply to something with a quick sentence.
Bob Monkhouse was my favourite; When I die, he said, I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my old Dad. Not terrified and screaming like his passengers.”
Or a modern comedian, Milton Jones. He tweeted the other day. “Missed the train. Reloading…”.
I love how those jokes, and those comedians, subvert what you are thinking. The joke is about having to jump onto a different line of thought. The classic example of this, is “two fish in a tank. One says to the other, “do you know how to drive this?”.
That’s what people like PG Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde were brilliant at, and it’s long been the role of comedians, jesters and fools, to do just that. Jump people onto a different line of thought. Jesters or fools were the only ones who could criticise the King. The Fool in King Lear, is not really funny at all – that is not his purpose, to make people laugh. He is there to comment on what is going on. To show the King the truth of what he is doing, and to present him with a different perspective.
That function is exactly what Jesus does here. Jesus responds to the Pharisees with a one-liner (or a one verser), designed to make the Jews think differently. It’s not funny, (he may be the Son of God, but he’s no Bob Monkhouse) but it performs the same purpose.
In the Talmud, which is the Jewish book of theological discussion, “which is the greatest commandment” is a standard sort of launch-pad for a debate. Jews loved debating. like the medieval theologians, wondering how many angels could balance on the head of a pin, they loved talking about stuff. They debated real-world things such as when it is alright to divorce a woman, or the right way of paying tax, but they also debated a great deal of semantic problems which didn’t really affect the real world. The Talmud, which is the book of theological debate, goes into about twenty four volumes. Those guys really loved debating.
So when they asked Jesus, which commandment was the greatest, they were testing how clever he was, his rhetorical skill, his knowledge, his learning. They were saying, “go on then, show us your talent” in the same way that someone might suggest a topic for a comedian to improvise upon.
But Jesus doesn’t play their game. Almost certainly, the Pharisees would have expected Jesus to choose one of the ten commandments. But he doesn’t. He chooses two commandments, not one, and from two very different parts of scripture, and putting them together, makes an audacious claim. Not only are these two commandments more important that all other commandments, but he says that everything about their religion is dependent on these two commandments.
Love God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.
And you know, that’s it. That’s the lot, that is all we need to do as Christians. As long as they are at the centre of everything we do, we can, in the words if Ignatius, “love, and do as we will”. If those commandments are at the heart of what we do, we literally cannot go wrong.
But look at the things that Jesus says are not necessarily important. We don’t need to ascribe to doctrines, we don’t need to know the traditions of the church, we don’t need to come to church every Sunday, we don’t need to criticise other people for not coming to church, we don’t need to surround ourselves with guilt for what we do wrong, we don’t need to fight those who disagree with us, as the church is so very fond of doing. We don’t need to evangelise, we don’t need to excommunicate. We need to do only these two things, Love God and Love our Neighbour. That’s it. It’s that simple.
But it can’t be that simple, surely? Love God and love your neighbour, and none of the other stuff matters? Well actually it can and it is, I genuinely think it is. The other stuff matters if it helps you love God and your neighbour, but the other stuff is merely tools, channels in which to love. Doctrine, tradition, opinion, moral standpoint, these are means by which we love. And if they do not perform that purpose, then we shouldn’t bother with them.
It may be that there are those who would say that “objecting to what other people do or say is a loving act.” Well, it is not necessarily a non-loving act. But very often, in argument, in conflict, we sort of take the “love thing” a red. “Of course we’re doing this out of love!” we say as we get red in the face at Synod, or write catty responses to people, or just generally get cross at others. But there is never an “of course” about it. You can’t just park Love in the corner of a room like a mascot and claim you are doing your duty. It has to infuse everything, and if it does not, then any debate, any argument, any moral conflict is as empty as the sterile debates of the Pharisees.
At the end of the Gospel, Jesus presents the Pharisees with a Talmud-like poser. They walk away a bit perplexed, and a bit cross. Perhaps he was teasing them, but it was as though Jesus said “look, anyone can do that stuff. Anyone can trick people with words, pose difficult questions.” He was putting intellectual fencing in it’s place – which is lower down the pecking order than the commandment to love. This is difficult to someone like me, who values his brain, to swallow – but one can make a false God of anything, one’s own intelligence included.
Very often we seek ways of avoiding this terrible, simple commandment to love. One of the ways is by trying and do God’s work, not our own. The image of the pious priest, talking about “going about God’s business” provokes the response in me, “perhaps you should try going about your own business instead, and leave God to do his stuff”. We are called to love God and our neighbour, but the work God gives himself sounds so much more interesting! Moreover, we don’t always trust God to do his business, so we would prefer to do it for him.
Judging people. That’s one of God’s jobs that we like to do. We are told that God is a merciful and wise judge, judging with compassion and understanding. But sometimes we think he lets people off a bit too lightly, and we know them better. If that sounds like blasphemy, that is because it is. But we do it anyway.
Telling people what’s right and wrong – God us what is right and wrong via our conscience, and it is our job to enable people to develop that; but we always like to give God a helping hand by telling people off every now and again.
Trying to turn people into Christians. Sometimes people love the idea that they “win souls for Christ”. But God is already in those souls, We are just giving people words to express it. Often all we are doing is making more members of our particular tribe.
We should really leave those things to God, judging and making Christians, and telling people off, because they are harder than they look and we almost always make a mess of them.
Another way of avoiding doing our work of loving God and loving our neighbour is by making it complicated. Because we don’t like things that are hard but very simple.
Lots of the hardest things to do in the world are very very hard, but very very simple. Losing weight requires you to eat less and exercise more. Very difficult, very simple, but you wouldn’t have thought it was simple, if you looked at how many books there were on it. Giving up smoking, requires you to not put things in your mouth and set fire to them. It’s not complex, it’s just difficult. But we make it complex, because somehow it feels an easier task if it is a more complicated one, where we have to use the brain, rather than just not doing something.
So we make loving God and loving our neighbour very complex. Lots of rules to observe, or practices we must do, or just lots of books or courses on prayer and meditation. Priests love that sort of thing. But the reality is that we’re just called to love people.
People who don’t love you back. We like to judge those people, not love them. People who don’t behave well. We like to tell them off, not love them. People who we are afraid of. There is no room for fear in love.
We so often want to change people, often for their own sakes. It is undeniable that experiencing the love of God changes people’s lives for the better. But the love of God is not one that demands change. That is one of God’s great jokes. The only way of changing people for the better, is by not trying to! The people is unconditional, the love which does not seek to change people You see, to say that someone could be better is a judgement. We are called not to judge, just to love.
You see, very simple. Very difficult.
In my previous life when I was a singer, I took singing lessons, the majority of which were really about not getting in the way.
Singing is very simple. You allow your lungs to give air to your voice box, and you use your mouth muscles to produce vowels, and your tongue and lips to produce consonants. But so many things get in the way – our ingrained habits of speaking, our accent, our desire to make a sound happen, rather than just let it out, our wish to imitate other singers we like, rather than allowing your own voice to sing. So many of my singing lessons were about just not getting in the way. Week after week my singing teacher said, “just keep it simple”.
Loving unconditionally as Jesus did, is very hard, but similarly simple. There lots of things you have to not let get in the way. Pride, anxiety, fear, etiquette, our own emotional needs.
Someone once said to me, “but you cant’ stop there, Love god and Love your neighbour and that’s it.” But I believe that this is the place we have to go back to every single day, every hour, because it so easily slips from us.
On these two commandments hang all our religion, all our faith. Jesus makes love not just primary, but all-pervasive. We are called to show forth the richness of love in all its variety to all we meet. No conditions, no contracts, no clauses, no complications. To love recklessly, whatever the consequence. Just love as God loves.
I thought things got more complicated as we got older, like cars and computers and mortgages. I never expected them to get simpler. But to my surprise I find that as life goes on, the more persuaded I am that the call of the Christian is terrifyingly, dauntingly simple.
Love one another. You know, I have a feeling that it really might be that simple.