... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 19 Year A, Message October 23th, 2011

The Ideal of All Relationships

Text: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thess.2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

If there was one theme connecting all four passages for today it would be that all relationships must move forward if they are to grow. From the story of Moses’ death to Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians to emulate his example of care and love, we witness the fleeting human life in contrast to God’s constant mercy and plans for creation. Yet in order that a proper relationship be maintained it is necessary that the mantle of the human side be passed on to each successive generation.

Moses, arguably the greatest of ancient Israel’s leaders, lived as the spokesperson of God’s intentions and the deliverer of the Law. However, like all humans he aged and even though he still had perfect vision and a full head of hair at one hundred and twenty years, he had to go the way of all human flesh. Having lived a tumultuous life, often times committing great sins, he had, none-the-less, been chosen by God to lead his people. And as a reward he was permitted to cast his eyes upon the Promised Land. But it was not to be his role to lead the people into that country. The mantle of responsibility authority and succession was to be Joshua’s. We must note that Joshua was the son of Nun and not a direct relation of Moses. Yet by divine approbation Joshua was Moses’ legitimate heir.

The psalm entitled a Prayer of Moses contemplates the mortality of human life and contrasts it to God’s immortality. By extension the sins of humanity are laid forth in light of God’s mercy and love. The covenant can only be seen as eternal in the power of God’s love and the capability for human recognition and the passing of the right relationship from one to another. Thus human prosperity might continue and each successive generation come to know the mercy of God and bring glory to all.

As Paul recounts his ministry that he and his co-workers had established with and among the Christians at Thessalonica, he encourages them to do likewise to those who will come to join the church there and for generations to come. In love he reveals how apostleship and in particular his apostleship had been one of proclaiming the gospel and gently coaxing his listeners to discern the truth. He also noted that to be genuine and to be seen as such there had to be integrity within each apostle. What each said and did must be in line with one another, devoid of all deceit or impure motives or trickery. And finally the only way to ensure a solid foundation and a continuance of the work of the gospel was to have the relationship between apostle and newcomer to be one founded in love mutual trust and respect.

It was this right relationship between apostle and convert, teacher and student, Messiah and people, that Jesus was attempting to convey in his encounter with the Pharisaic lawyers. Having faced the Temple elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees, Jesus is now confronted by the lawyers.

Much like today, lawyers exist to apply the law in its practical terms to everyday life. While the Pharisees and Sadducees may well have been rival theological parties and have debated various theological concepts, doctrines and dogmas, it would have been the lawyers who would have applied those to the real world and the situations confronting the people. The encounter we hear today placed in context is the last of the testing by the religious leaders and parties. Each faction has had their go at trying to outwit Jesus and each in turn has been “shot-down”. The final testing is no longer in the realm of the hypothetical but in the real world of applied law. “Which commandment in law is the greatest?” To appreciate this we must recall that in Israel at the time much debate was going on about the laws: which were major which were minor and what were proper punishments for each offence. You might say that there was going on a general review of the legal system and the lawyer was placing Jesus in the midst thereof.

Thus Jesus’ answer would have to be one which would have been all defining. He does this by quoting Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” However, rather than ending there he also adds part of Leviticus 19, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And places a commentary that all the Law and Prophets are based on these. In effect Jesus now has stated that all scripture and from that all laws and the legal systems are dependent on loving God and loving neighbour. To us and our ears this might not sound extraordinary or contentious, but to those in Jesus’ day there would have been some pretty irate feelings and demands as to Jesus’ authority.

This Jesus immediately addresses with his question to his inquisitors. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he? The well-held notion of Israel and of its leaders was that the Messiah would have to be a direct descendent of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings. However, as Jesus points out such a lineage could still not account for why David would have called a descendent “Lord” and that he be on God’s right hand. The only way such an appellation would have been accorded would have been if God had anointed and ordained that descendent as such, much in the same way Joshua became heir to Moses authority. Joshua, son of Nun was anointed by God’s choosing as Moses’ heir. As an aside – Joshua is also known by the name Jeshua which is also the same as Jesus. Thus Jesus was opening to the Pharisees his true identity, his authority and, his relationship to and with God.

With this now in mind we should take a closer look at Jesus’ words concerning the greatest commandments and to see what he was implying. Three observations about his reply are critical.

First there is a link between the two. Love of God and love for neighbour are inseparable. One cannot love God and not one’s neighbour. The one who states that he loves God but holds anger contempt or hatred towards another person has no integrity and deludes himself concerning his love of God. Directed to those who treat their fellow citizens with derision, who lay heavy burden on the widows and orphans this becomes a scathing condemnation not only of the religious factions and their leaders of his day but of all human societies. The other practical side of this has to do with worship: true worship of God cannot be divided or divorced from fruitful actions toward the rest of humanity. True justice social order and stewardship of creation cannot be fully understood or accomplished outside of love for God.

Second, while the two laws are inseparable neither is dissolved into the other. To love neighbour to be involved in social justice or to be an advocate for environmental health in no way places the first commandment in a secondary or subordinate position. The greatest is the love – true love for God. The second commandment is like it. When one can appreciate fully the 1st law then the second is a natural consequence. Not necessarily so the reverse.

The third observation held to be critical is that understanding love of God and love of neighbour are the keys to interpreting and understanding scripture in its fullest context. They can only be appreciated in relationship one to the other in the same light as the covenant is God’s relationship extended to humanity. Thus the Shemah becomes a counter to any system of legalisms, codes of conduct and set of moral ethics. To love God and to love neighbour as self is a total approach to life and the ideal of all relationships.