One of the criticisms you often hear from political commentators is that, as our appetite for instantaneous news increases and our attention span simultaneously gets shorter – politicians and public figures find themselves tailoring their responses more and more to the 24 hour news cycle. So that complex arguments get squashed into 30 seconds video grabs – policy starts to get done on the run and major announcements are made on the kerb-side. We no longer, it seems, have the time or the inclination to hear and digest and suspend judgement until we have heard all aspects of a debate. It’s not so good for us – the electorate – because we start to lose the ability to reflect and chew things over – and it’s probably not so good for policy-makers themselves who – one hopes they are still taking the time to consider their positions carefully – at the very least are under enormous pressure to reduce complexity into stark, simple, yea or nay pronouncements.
So today, Jesus is in just this position. Teacher –in 30 seconds or less – what’s the Law about? What’s the most important bit? Not that there’s anything wrong with the question I guess - when you think that according to the rabbis the Law consisted of 613 dos and 365 don’ts it’s not such a bad idea to have an executive summary. What’s the heart of the matter – what’s the bit I’ve actually got to remember! It was actually a favourite word-game or competition between itinerant teachers in the ancient world – remember this was way before ‘Australia’s got Talent’ or whatever the latest dreary identikit reality TV competition is. It was a world where people did have time and inclination to listen to rhetoric and hear the nuances of argument, and one of the favourite challenges was to see how the lived tradition of the Torah with its wealth of history and understanding of the people’s identity in relation to God could be succinctly expressed.
But as the hearers of the story, we know even before the question is asked that it’s not sincere. Jesus is being put on the spot. This is a question being asked by people who are hoping Jesus is going to give the wrong answer so they can publicly discredit him for holding unorthodox opinions and leading people astray.
“Oh, Teacher,” – they butter him up with a little compliment first. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Well they must have been horribly disappointed with Jesus’ answer. You could not imagine a more thoroughly orthodox and uncontroversial answer. At least two of Jesus’ contemporaries, orthodox teachers of the Torah, come up with summaries that are essentially the same. “This is the greatest and most important commandment’, he says. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second most important commandment is like it, Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Every Jew listening would know that Jesus had given the right answer. Because every Jewish kid can recite those two commandments since kindergarten. Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the “Shema” from its first word in Hebrew, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every religious Jew repeats these words every day. And the second bit – “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”? Straight from Leviticus, chapter 19. It’s not only Jesus who comes up with this answer - all down through history the rabbis have agreed that these two verses together are a near perfect summary of the whole law of Israel. It was probably the most non-controversial thing Jesus said in his entire life. This is Jesus at his most Jewish. And we know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke chapter 27, who Jesus thinks our neighbour might be. That’s nothing new either. That also comes straight from the same chapter of the Pentateuch, the Books of the Law, Leviticus 19. The alien who lives among you, the poor and the dispossessed – those are your neighbours.
That’s what makes Jesus so dangerous, not because he’s coming out with something brand new but because he’s coming out with something absolutely straightforward, absolutely familiar – something the Pharisees know all too well - the real question is not how important you think the commandment to love God might be compared to the commandment to love the people around us, or which one comes first and which one second - but how you actually live it. For example, how do you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?”
Loving the idea of God is one thing. Finding security and purpose in the thought of a loving Creator who has a particular purpose and a soft spot just for me – I love that. Loving talking about God isn’t too hard either, for anybody like the Pharisees – or me – who finds a particular pleasure in theological argument. But how do you love God – particularly a God who insists on having all your love, all your attention, all your energy and your time? This God who insists on being indivisible, take it or leave it, no room left over for anything else – how can you love that God?
You do it, says Jesus, by loving your neighbour. That person who you bump into by accident, who maybe looks and sounds different to you, who maybe has a different language and a different religion to you. The person you can neither understand nor ignore. The person who is made in God’s image. Right from the start, loving God means loving other people, and even loving those people who most challenge your ability to love. It means radically rethinking who we are, and how we live, and how we relate to others, and what we value and devote our heart, mind and energies to. Loving the indivisible, take it or leave it, all or nothing God means loving your neighbour. You love and serve God – who you can’t see – by loving the grumpy, the difficult, the exasperating – who you can see.
And that’s just within your own family!
How do you love people like that? Even harder – how do you love people you aren’t related to? I find it easy enough to love some people – in theory – for example when I read about issues like poverty and racism and injustice in all its forms – but loving the idea of justice and equality isn’t really the same thing as loving people, is it? And how do you love people who seem to be part of the problem – those who commit acts of violence, those whose greed and power causes others to suffer? Aren’t they our neighbours also? How do you love them?
Here’s the oneness thing, the indivisibility thing, again. Because Jesus, the orthodox rabbi schooled in the wisdom of the Law, refuses to separate these two great commandments. The way you love your neighbour, who exasperates and challenges you but inconveniently is also made in God’s image, is by loving and responding in faith to the God who creates you. By following the commandments, by studying the scriptures, by learning how to pray, by being attentive to the everyday movement of the Spirit within you. By paying attention to God’s self-revelation in Jesus himself, by measuring your own life against the model of Jesus’ own life, and by looking to Jesus’ relationship with God as the foundation and the example for your own.
That’s why it’s so dangerous coming to church! Did you know that? Church is a construction zone, a hard-hat area, there should be signs: ‘Danger! Children and men and women at work!’ We don’t actually come here to get our prejudices confirmed! We don’t come here for a private warm fuzzy or to hear the hymns and prayers that take us right back to the security of our childhood.
Church isn’t a cocoon of personal spirituality, in fact, exactly the opposite. Come here to get your prejudices challenged. Come here to be disturbed, to be broken open, to hear uncomfortable truths and to learn the art of give and take with God’s other people who just might see the world, and God, a whole lot differently to you. Come here, in short, not to stay the same but, by creatively allowing God’s love to percolate and bubble away inside you, to be fundamentally changed. Into somebody who loves people.
In John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, just as he and the Father are one. Jesus and his Father are made one in love, and he prays that we – his disciples – may also become one by loving each other as he has loved us. As Jesus puts it, “so that they may live in us, and we in them”. Again, it’s the oneness thing – the indivisibility of God. The more we love one another, the more we participate in God’s own life – the more we move into the circle of what gives us life. The more we love God, the more we grow in love for one another, and for all who Jesus tells us are our neighbours.
The 30 second media grab that says it all.