Vkem, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 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.” 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.’
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
By David, a Lay Reader in training at St Mary's.
O Lord, you have given us your word
for a light to shine upon our path.
Grant us so to meditate on that word,
and to follow its teaching,
that we may find in it the light
that shines more and more until the perfect day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
after Jerome (420)
What is the greatest commandment?
As our Gospel passage opens Jesus is again being questioned by the Pharisees. I say “again being questioned by the Pharisees” as we heard last week how they and Herodians tried to trap Jesus with the issue of paying taxes to Caesar.
In the space between that section of Matthew’s Gospel and today’s Jesus was questioned by the Sadducees, a different group of religious teachers, on how the resurrection life will work. True to form his response astounds them to silence, referred to at the beginning of our Gospel today.
This can seem quite confrontational to us. There are forums in the modern church for rigorous debate on specific issues of doctrine and practice. I’m thinking of the church’s synods, at Deanery and Diocesan level and General Synod, its equivalent of a parliament. It takes specific circumstances for this debate to filter into parish life.
We have some experience of this at St Mary’s, often advocating for the ministry of the ordinary parish church, rooted in loving service and mission to a community. Or quietly affirming that the threefold order of bishop, priest and deacon are open to all. But it’s not something we do day in and day out.
For first century rabbis this kind of debate was much more common. There are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Old Testament, known in Judaism as the Torah. Working out how to apply them in life and how to view some of the more general, all-encompassing commandments in light of the specific, focused ones takes some thought and much debate.
So, while the Pharisees are portrayed by the Gospel writer as testing Jesus, it is part of the normal religious discourse. What sets Jesus apart in most of these arguments is that he often leaves the other side in the debate stunned and speechless. But we aren’t told that here. His response, to choose two commandments – love God and your neighbour – and make them both equal, is in fact a fairly standard interpretation of the commandments in line with Jewish thinking of the time.
What we could easily miss – we’re used to hearing them together – is that the two commandments quoted by Jesus come from different books of the Torah, Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And Leviticus 19.18 “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.”
We all need to be reminded of the importance of these commandments, but for now I’m setting aside the first one and focusing on loving our neighbour as ourselves. It has echoes of the Golden Rule in Mathew 7 verse 12 “‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” A similar sentiment is found in the practice of most major religions and provides common cause between those of different faiths and no faith.
Yet it’s practice still seems to be a revolutionary concept. This takes many forms.
I once heard a sermon by the former Bishop of Sheffield, Jack Nichols, where he said the problem is that we do love others as we love ourselves and that we don’t love ourselves enough. There is a lot of truth to this. Low self esteem and other mental health conditions are prevalent and likely to become more so in the next six months as we face what is likely to be a very difficult winter. We all need to learn to love ourselves a little bit more. This will in turn overflow into love of others.
But it’s a fine balance between loving ourselves and allowing that self love to consume us. Between seeing ourselves as Jesus does, forgiven, loved and free, and becoming a slave to our own ego. Between overflowing with love for others and hoarding all our love for ourselves.
None of us, as individuals or institutions, gets this right all the time. A particularly live example is the debate around provision in the holidays of free school meals to children who normally receive them at school. As a school governor I know how much of a difference these meals make to the children, their health and wellbeing and their ability to learn.
If decision makers on this issue don’t go hungry and those they serve do, they aren’t loving their neighbour as themselves.
While the church is not immune to this failure to love our neighbour as ourself, we do have a calling to model it in our private, public and institutional life. By modelling it we will hopefully highlight where it is not present.
How do we tell this truth without descending into a holier than thou smug attitude? Our first reading from 1 Thessalonians offers us a blueprint. “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts… we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.”
This is our pattern, but not only ours. Marcus Rashford seems to be modelling this behaviour pretty well for us. He speaks from a place of experience on the issue and doesn’t seem to speak to please mortals. An MBE hasn’t stopped him advocating on the issue of child food poverty. He could have taken the award, the praise from mortals and stopped, but he hasn’t.
In Sheffield the City Council has decided it will fill the gap and provide food vouchers over the half term. They are not alone, other councils had already done so and more may follow, though time is running out.
All of these actions highlight how unjust the decision on extending free school meals was. But this also points us to a broader injustice within society. While anyone goes hungry and at the same time others have more than enough, we are not living up the ideal of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
The Church of England and the Worldwide Anglican communion of which it is a part adopted five marks of mission, drawn from the life of Jesus, and on which we are called to base the life and work of our churches. Number 3 is “To respond to human need by loving service” and those working to extend free school meal provision are doing exactly that. Responding to an immediate need with a swift response. A biblical example would be the feeding of the five thousand. We do a small part at St Mary’s in our support of the S6 Foodbank. But all of this is and should only ever be a sticking plaster.
The fourth mark of mission is “To transform unjust structures of society,”. This is what comes next. The immediate need is met, now we need to look at the structural problems which caused this need and address them. The danger is we never get here. We get stuck in responding to immediate need after immediate need, all of which should be addressed, but we never get to transforming the unjust structures of society.
Over the coming months many of us may have more time on our hands than we would normally. Much of our everyday activity isn’t possible, or is at least restricted. We can use this time to pray, to reflect on and respond to the immediate needs we see around us. But also how we might may our society more just. In doing so we will inch ever more closely to loving our neighbour as ourselves.
O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
a Franciscan prayer
Prepared by David, adapted from Common Worship.
Gracious God, fountain of all wisdom,
we pray for all people;
for Pete and Sophie our bishops,
and for all who teach and guard the faith.
May the word of Christ dwell richly in our hearts,
and knit us together in the bond of your love.
Hear us, good Lord.
We pray for the leaders of nations,
and for those in authority under them.
Give them the gift of your wisdom,
and a right discernment in all things.
Hear us, good Lord.
We pray for this community of Walkley,
for those who live, work and visit here,
and for all who seek the common good.
Speak your word of peace in our midst,
and help us to serve one another as Christ has served us.
Hear us, good Lord.
We pray for those who do not believe,
and for those of hesitant belief.
Open their ears to hear your voice,
and open their hearts to receive you, the very Word of life.
Hear us, good Lord.
We pray for those bowed down with grief, fear or sickness.
May Christ your living Word bring them comfort and healing.
Hear us, good Lord.
We give thanks for all who have died in the faith of Christ,
and we rejoice with Mary and all your saints,
trusting in the promise of your word fulfilled.
Hear us, good Lord.
accept these prayers,
for the sake of your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is included here,
is copyright © The Archbishops' Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing.