Love is the key: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, 23 October 2011)

Love is the key

Readings
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8
Matthew 22.34-46

We meet Jesus again today, still a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, and in the last week of his life. And still being asked questions. Remember last week we read that he was asked about paying taxes to Caesar—it was a trick question designed to get him offside with either the Jewish people or the Roman oppressors. He cleverly escaped.

Today it looks like a harmless question.

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

The Pharisees posed this query, and there was a long-standing dispute among them about how to answer it. One one side were the followers of Rabbi Shammai, whose had a very severe interpretation of the Law; and they were lined up against the disciples of Rabbi Hillel, who had a gentler, perhaps more ‘liberal’ interpretation. There’s a story told about these two men:

One day someone approached Shammai and asked: “Can you teach me the whole Law while standing on one foot?” Shammai was offended by this silly request and chased the man away with a stick.

The man then approached Hillel with the same question, to which Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. This is the whole of the Law. All the rest is commentary. Now go and spend the rest of your life studying and practising this.”

Now, someone has counted 613 laws in the Old Testament. (I haven’t counted them; let’s assume that’s around the right number.) How on earth do you organise 613 laws? How do you set priorities?

Rabbi Shammai didn’t set priorities. He said you had to obey each and every law. They were all equally important. But Rabbi Hillel had this rather interesting way of putting it: You don’t like people to do something to you? Don’t do it to them in the first place! Keep that in mind, and you’ll walk in the way Moses taught.

Most of the Pharisees went with Shammai, and tried to keep all the laws and more besides. It seems that Jesus was more of a Hillel man; he could see the need to summarise the Jewish Torah, the Law, the Teaching of Moses.

The Teaching of Moses is found in the first five books of the Old Testament. Leviticus is the third book. Have you ever read Leviticus 19? (You haven’t? It’s in the Bible; you should read it sometime.) It’s called the ‘Holiness Code’, and it’s a real ‘dolly mixture’ of instruction, a real grab bag of teaching, about the way the people of God should live. Some of it sounds quite ok to our ears: (vv. 17-18)

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. You shall keep my statutes.

That’s really good stuff! But then it continues, without even taking a breath:

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

Anyone wearing anything made out of a polyester-cotton blend may now remove it forthwith.

It’s a strange book that forbids wearing a garment made of two materials right next to “Love your neighbour as yourself”. But it didn’t seem that strange to the people of Jesus’ day—perhaps it was ‘just the way it is’, or ‘the way it’s always been’.

That’s why the Pharisees had had this argument about keeping the Law. There were 613 commandments plus the oral law, a whole heap of tradition that had also grown up alongside the written Law. And as we’ve seen, it was a hodge-podge of stuff.

I mean, imagine this: what if Jesus had said the greatest commandment was:

You shall not put on a garment made of two different materials.

Why not? The laws are all just lumped together. That one comes just after “Love your neighbour”; so why couldn’t someone could have decided that this rule was the key to understanding all others? And if Jesus had said that, then today we would be holding interfaith dialogues with those strange people who insist on wearing polyester cotton fabrics.

We don’t think it’s at all controversial to say “Love your neighbour” is more important than Don’t wear polyester cotton, even though those two pieces of instruction are in adjacent verses. We don’t think it’s at all strange to say one is more important than the other.

That’s because Jesus has given us a key to understanding how to organise those 613 laws. Love God, love your neighbour because:

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In other words, love is the key. Not love as feeling warm and fuzzy towards people, but love as actively seeking their wellbeing.

Jesus is saying this: if you want to be my people—if you want to be my church family here in the Centenary suburbs—you are called to be a community of people who love God, and love your neighbour as yourselves. It’s that simple. It’s that obvious. It’s that demanding.

It seems though that Christian churches so often drop love in favour of other rules. I think every Christian group has done this one way or another. We have rules, mostly unwritten rules, which show who we are, and who’s in and who’s out. Sometimes these rules are easy to spot. Those who were Methodists probably ‘imbibed’ the rules against drinking alcohol. Methodists didn’t drink, and Christians shouldn’t drink. In my early years in an Open Brethren church I knew that Christians didn’t drink, smoke, dance or go to the pictures. And I also knew they didn’t go to the Methodist Church.

What’s wrong with rules that show who we are? Well, for example, take smoking. It’s one thing to say that smoking is bad for your health; but it’s quite another thing to say a Christians don’t smoke. Why? Because the key to the Christian life isn’t in what we don’t do—don’t drink, smoke, dance, have fun of any kind—the key is in love, love of God and love of neighbour.

The Christian churches should and could be known as places of love and care. Thank God it’s so, most of the time. But you know, we have a bad public image.

For example: the latest edition of Rolling Stone magazine has an article about Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple who died recently. They’re just about making him a saint! In the same issue there’s an article about the Catholic Church. What’s it about? You guessed it—paedophile priests.

That’s not our problem, you might say. But we’re all tarred by the same brush.

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most respected leaders of modern history. A Hindu, Gandhi nevertheless admired Jesus and often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi he asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Apparently Gandhi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened in the 1920s, when he was a young man practising law in South Africa. He had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. And so he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice.

Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”

The church elder snarled at him, “There’s no room for kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”

From that moment, Gandhi said, he decided to adopt what good he found in Christianity, but would never again consider becoming a Christian if it meant being part of the church.

In his book They like Jesus but not the Church, Dan Kimball finds that the younger generations (Y & Z, I suppose) see the church in quite negative ways. For them, the church is:

  • an organised religion with a (right-wing) political agenda;
  • judgmental and negative;
  • dominated by males and oppresses females;
  • homophobic;
  • arrogantly claiming all other religions are wrong; and
  • full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

There’s a bit of a US bias in that list, so you may say that’s ‘not us’—at least, not as many of us in this country. But we live in an age of rapid communication and Americanisation of culture. People outside the church don’t make a distinction between Australian and American church life. So that’s the way many young Aussies see us. The subtleties of the difference between an outright fundamentalist and a conservative (or a progressive) Uniting Church position are totally lost on them.

Where do we go with that? What do we do? We can’t control the media, nor should we try. We can find a way if we receive the words of Jesus into our hearts. Remember, he said,

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Jesus summarises the Law like Rabbi Hillel did; but Jesus summarises it in a new way. Jesus takes that verse from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 (“You shall love your neighbour as yourself”) and links it not with a ban on wearing polyester cotton but with a command to love God with all you heart, soul and mind.

In other words, the key to walking the way of Jesus is the key to living as a Church—and it’s the only hope we have to counteract negative messages. The key is love in action. Jesus says that all the Law and all that the prophets said hangs on love.

We need to be sure of what we believe. We need to be obedient to the voice of the Spirit. It all hangs on how we love God and our neighbour.

A congregation with love at the centre is an attractive place. Sometimes, churches have been good at putting out messages about what we’re against rather than a message of love. For example: we may be against problem gambling; but how do we care for gambling addicts and their families? A critical voice is heard as a criticising and judging voice. If we want to address the ills of gambling, then criticism needs to be the second thing we say. The first thing is to say what we would do to support people who are its victims.

The Gospel is heard when we put love first in all we do and say—as we act in ways that show a deep love for God and others. And that’s really what stewardship is about. It’s about how we respond in love and gratitude to the God who has showered us with all we are and have.

Love is the key. Amen!

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