The events that took place in the passage we have heard from Matthew’s Gospel are part of the week that Jesus spent with the disciples in Jerusalem after his coming into the city riding on a donkey. Jesus had come to Jerusalem for a number of reasons. One of these reasons was to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. It was a common practice for people to come to Jerusalem – which was considered to be the spiritual centre of the people – to celebrate what was one of the most pivotal events in the history of the Jewish people and one which did more to heighten and deepen their relationship to the One who had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who had preserved the nation through so many trying periods in their history had done something beyond even their wildest imaginations. They had been delivered from the hand of an oppressor not by their strength or wisdom but by the strength and wisdom of the one they knew as the great “I AM” – the ground of all creation. Further they had been guided, nourished and strengthened through their time in the desert to be able to take hold of a land that was destined by their God to be their homeland – a place they could call their own and no longer be a people in someone else’s land.
And the people never forgot what that journey meant to those who were there. The memory of it would never pass from the collective memory of the people. But the law that was given to guide and direct the community life of the nation had fallen away. Time and again prophets came and resurrected the law and attempted to rekindle in the people not only a strong sense of their history with God but also their obligation through the covenant to honour that history with a conscious decision to heed the law and commandments of the One to whom they had pledged their allegiance.
The time that Jesus spent in Jerusalem was spent mostly in the temple area. While there he interacted with the people, healing people and continuing to reinforce the message he had brought from the One who had been with the people throughout their long history on this earth. His presence was refreshing and life-giving to many but caused great concern to others. The Sadducees and Pharisees along with other leaders of the Jewish people were still unsure of Jesus. And even though Jesus ever gave answers that should have satisfied them, they remained unconvinced. In the minds of the leaders God had appeared to be silent for so long. In fact it is recorded that a significant gap of time had occurred between the last recognized prophet and the time in which Jesus lived on this earth.
It was no doubt puzzling to the leaders that after such a long gap, there could be such a tremendous outpouring of healing and teaching unlike they the people had experienced for more than 200 years – the equivalent of 10 generations. And as much as they tested and retested Jesus to determine if the truth was truly in him and to discern whether or not this person was indeed first a prophet from God – if not God himself – they remained sceptical. But they could not find any fault with his answers.
And so they try one more time to catch him and cause him to stumble and so be discredited with the people. “Teacher,” one of them asks,” which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Now remember that the law had more than 600 parts to it and far more negative prescriptions than positive ones. So much of it was an attempt to fully explain and interpret everything contained in the 10 Commandments and even those were interpreted again and again to the point where many people felt overwhelmed by it and began to despair of fulfilling the covenant relationship by truly being the people of God. Further such despair had led many people to abandon hope of a positive relationship with God as they could only see how they were a disappointment and failure in God’s eyes. And so in the midst of all the confusion of life, of all the myriad of rules and regulations designed to enable the people to lead the perfect life in their covenant with God, Jesus breaks through the fog of their confusion and gives the leaders and the people words they could hang on to and be able to live their lives with hope – hope of knowing that they could live as the people God had created them to be.
Jesus answers with the words that he spoke in other places and at other times but ones that ever need repeating: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the greatest, the first commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.” The simplicity of Jesus’ response is clear. The depth of what is encompassed by those two commandments is what has caused people to frame and reframe what the commandments mean.
We struggle to understand how best to be the people God has created us to be. We struggle to know how best to respond to the situations and dilemmas that we face in our lives as individuals and as a community of faith in this place, nationally and globally. We want to know that we are indeed loving our God with all our soul and mind and we want to know that we are acting toward our neighbours both near and far in ways that reflect the love and respect we are to have for own selves.
We live today in a world that is much larger than was ever imagined in the time when the New Testament was written; but we are also living in a world that is much smaller in so many ways. The interaction of different races, cultures and philosophies is challenging to us as we seek to know what our response is to be as followers and disciples of Jesus Christ. We want to know that we are not only following the path of our God but also guiding others in that path. We all know that we have made mistakes, we have erred, and we have sinned. We know that we have had to deal with the mistakes and the errors and the sins of those who came before us.
God came in Christ with a message that the people who had journeyed with God through the generations needed to hear. It was a message of hope, a message of forgiveness, a message of peace, a message of love. God would put all things right.
Within a week the world of the people would be shattered and then restored with the trial, death and resurrection of the one they knew as Master and would come to see as Lord and Saviour. His resurrection would bring to them the hope that nothing in this life could ever overcome the will of God to live in a lasting relationship with the people.
What they were asked to do was to remember those two greatest commandments. As they lived their lives, they were to ever seek to love God with all their soul and mind and seek to love their neighbour as themselves. As for their shortcomings, God would take care of that when they accepted his promise of mercy, grace, forgiveness and love.
May the One who revealed himself to the world in the person of Jesus and who continues to reveal himself in the Spirit amongst us bring us peace and hope as we continue our journey together.