Friday, October 27, 2017

How Shall I Love My Neighbour? Reflections on Matthew 22.34-46 (RCL Proper 30A, 29 October 2017)

How Shall I Love My Neighbour?
Reflections on Matthew 22.34-46

RCL Proper 30A
29 October 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Matthew 22.34-46

            22.34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him.  36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  37 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.’  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

            41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:  42 “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  They said to him,  “The son of David.”  43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’?  45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Jesus was a Jew.

            At some point in his long teaching career the Anglican liturgist, Gregory Dix, was asked what was the most significant thing that liturgical scholars in the first half of the twentieth century.  His answer was brief:  ‘We have learned that Jesus was a Jew.’  This may sound obvious to you, but I can assure you that there have been and still are people who would bristle at the suggestion that Jesus was a Jew.

            I remember vividly a conversation I had in September 1993.  I had given a presentation at the old Saint George’s Church near Vancouver General Hospital.  During the course of my presentation I had made numerous connections between contemporary Christian liturgical practice and the Jewish soil from which these practices had sprung. 

            During a break an older woman approached me.  She thanked me for my presentation thus far but had one criticism.  She said, ‘Jesus wasn’t a Jew.  He was a Christian.’  I cannot remember how I responded, but it was quite clear that I wasn’t going to persuade her to alter her view.  Later the rector of the parish told me that she belonged to ‘British Israel’, an organization that believes that the English people are the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.  Thus Jesus must be Indo-Germanic not Semitic.

            Denial of the Jewishness of Jesus has led directly to the long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people, to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and to frequent, if not constant, misrepresentation of Jewish teaching.  One of the most common lies is that the Torah, the Law of Moses, has little or nothing to say about love.

Love is at the heart of the Torah, the Law of Moses.

            In today’s gospel reading from Matthew Jesus does nothing more than quote Deuteronomy 6.5, the heart of the daily Jewish confession of faith known as the Shema or ‘Hear, O Israel’, and Leviticus 19.18, the last sentence of our first reading today.  The second commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, is the famous response of the great Jewish teacher, Hillel, to a challenge from a Gentile that he recite the whole Law while standing on one foot.  Hillel, who died six or seven years after the birth of Jesus, is reported as saying, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow:  this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’

            At the very heart of the Torah, the Law that God gave to the people of Israel, is the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.  It is only natural that anyone who seeks to follow the God of Israel, the ‘Abba’ of Jesus, will want to know what this means in practice.  In Luke’s version of this conversation, the lawyer who asks the question hears Jesus’ answer and immediately asks the fateful question, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10.29)  Jesus takes the lawyer’s question seriously and tells the parable of the ‘good’ Samaritan.

            Those who would have us build a wall between the God revealed in the covenant of Moses and the God revealed in the renewed covenant made known to us in Jesus would have us treat the lawyer and the lawyer’s question with contempt.  They often forget that at the end of the parable, the lawyer gives the right response to Jesus’ question about who was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by the robbers.

            The writer of the First Letter of John, a letter which can be read as an extended meditation on the Summary of the Law, tells his audience:  ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from [Christ] is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.’  [1 John 4.20-21]

How shall I love my neighbour?

            So the question is ‘How shall I love my neighbour?’  The short answer is that we should love our neighbour as God loves us and the whole of creation.  And how does God love us and the whole of creation?  God loves us and the whole of creation by giving life rather than denying life.

            We love our neighbours as ourselves --- in the body.  Each one of us, in our use of the resources God has given to us, loves our neighbour when we choose, in whatever way is within our power, to nurture the physical bodies of our sisters and brothers, near and far.  How we use non-renewable resources responsibly is an expression of Godly love.  How we ensure housing and food security to people here in Canada and elsewhere is an expression of Godly love.  Given time I know that we could prepare a long list of how we care for the physical lives of our neighbours.

            We love our neighbours as ourselves --- in the soul.  When we share the good news of God made known to us in Jesus, whether in the witness of our actions or in our words, we extend Godly love to the souls of our neighbours.  For some of them this Godly love will reinforce their existing spiritual life; for others it may be an invitation to find the spiritual life that will forge a connection between themselves, God and the rest of humanity.  Telling our stories of faith, an activity that we sometimes call ‘evangelism’, is a way of loving.

            We love our neighbours as ourselves --- in the mind.  For too long Christians participated in the de-humanization of the Jewish people.  We compounded the tragedy by de-humanizing other peoples as well as European settlers moved from continent to continent.  In recent weeks and months the sexual harassment that many women have experienced has come to take a prominent place in our news reports.  We know all too well how women throughout the world are denied access to healthcare and education and the means to personal security.  This Parish’s gifts to the so-called ‘micro-lending’ movement is a way of loving women throughout the world so that they can become financial secure and care for their families.  How we, as a Parish, become an agent of reconciliation with the indigenous people of this neighbourhood, let alone throughout Canada, is an act of love.

            We love our neighbours as ourselves --- in the strength.  We are strong because we have access to fiscal and physical resources that others do not.  I remember a visitor from Melanesia being asked how we might help his climate-threatened island home.  His answer, ‘You have access to steady electrical power.  We do not.  You have access to the internet, reliable telephone and postal services.  We do not.  Use your strengths to tell your leaders what their action and inaction are doing to our islands.’  When we write a letter to our Member of Parliament, when we commit funds to refugees, when we use social media to spread the word, we are loving our neighbours.

There is no greater law.

            Be of good cheer.  God has made us in God’s own image.  That image is self-giving love.  By the example of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, God enables us to grow into the likeness of God, a likeness revealed in lives that manifest Godly love in each and every moment, in each and every relationship.  So, let us love our neighbours as ourselves, for that is the road to the love of God.

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