Church of St Mary Magdalene, Madingley
Sunday 26 October 2014, Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.
Morning Prayer, 11.00 am
As part of the training course I undertook to become your Lay Minister, there was a unit on Ethics. Over the weeks, we discussed all sorts of ethical issues – medical ethics, the ethics of business and industry, and many other things. I wrote a rather unmemorable 2000 word essay on ethics and the coffee bean, i.e. the ethics of the coffee trade, exploitation and fair distribution of profit. One evening, our tutor asked us “Which of the Ten Commandments can be safely disregarded in today’s world? Which one, or more than one, don’t we need any more?” It was a good question. For example, could someone abused by a parent be able to keep the commandment “Honour your father and your mother”? And the commandment “You shall not kill” comes up time and again in discussions of assisted dying, suicide, and of course war.
Anyway, we discussed the Commandments quite heatedly, and then our tutor asked us to form a line: the people who thought all the Commandments were valid to stand at one end of the line, then in the middle the people who thought we needed some of the commandments and not others, and at the end of the line those who thought we didn’t need them at all. So we all had to get up and take our stand on what we thought about the Ten Commandments. The range of views was interesting – there were people standing at the beginning, the middle and the end of the line. If you are wondering where I stood, we can talk about it after the service.
And just as we may find difficulties or puzzles in the teaching of the Ten Commandments, we may also find difficulties with the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. For instance, are all his teachings “do-able” by ordinary people? Or maybe they were valid in Israel 2000 years ago, but do they have to be followed to the letter today? Do we literally have to sell what we have and give to the poor in order to consider ourselves Christians? If we did, maybe there would be fewer Christians. Does the command “Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth” mean that we shouldn’t open a building society account? And what about “Love your enemy”? Should we give up trying to do these difficult things because in the real world we inhabit we simply can’t meet the standard which Jesus seems to be setting for us? What is the code of conduct, the standard, by which we, as Christians, should live our lives?
A lot of questions, so what about some responses, perhaps even answers.
First of all, my line of thought for this morning was of course suggested by our Gospel reading: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:36) This was another hostile question fired at Jesus by the Scribes and Pharisees, trying to trap him. We heard last week the trick question whether they should pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Jesus responds to the final question about which is the greatest commandment in the Law, by quoting from the Old Testament: “Love the Lord your God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5. “This”, Jesus says, “is the greatest and first commandment”. He goes on “And the second is like it”. He doesn’t say that this commandment is the second commandment, just that it is like the first: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. His second quotation “love your neighbour as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18, which we heard in our first reading this morning. These two commandments were already known.
There had been much discussion over the years among the Pharisees about the most important commandments, as they searched for a summary of the Law or Torah, which would express its fundamental principle. The closest they came to it was the saying of Hillel the Elder. He was a Jewish sage and scholar working in about 25 BC. He thought that love of man lay at the heart of all Jewish teaching. He formulated what is known as the Golden Rule. This states that “What you yourself hate (to be done to you), do not do to your fellow; this is the whole law; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
This is quite close to the summary of the Law which Jesus gives to the Scribe: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”. “Love your neighbour as yourself”. When Jesus says “On this commandment hangs all the Law and the Prophets” he is underlining what he said previously. “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to complete” (Matt 5:17). The question then arises if Jesus’ summary of the Law is a restatement of the existing Law of the Old Testament and the Prophets, what is different about the teaching and life of Jesus?
What is completely new in Jesus’ words is the bringing together of the two ideas expressed in the Old Testament: love of God and love of neighbour. Together they form the original, creative energy of the Christian code of conduct. And love of neighbour comes from love of God. It is only true love of God which expresses itself in love of neighbour. In other words, love of God is the spring of inward character and outward conduct. There is no need for a book of rules, of human devising, if of our own free will we accept the will of God as first in our lives. If we love God first, everything else will fall into place and in our own hearts, filled with God’s love, we will know the right way to live and what we should do. That does not mean to say that it is easy. There will be difficulties and dilemmas. The battle to knock self off its pedestal is not easily won. But Jesus himself is the supreme example of love which sets self aside, loving God first and then us. Regardless of the cost to himself, he achieved salvation for the world.
Just imagine what the history of the world might have been, could be, if only it would embrace these two seemingly simple principles: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.