There is a tale, which is said to have come from the Middle Ages:
The Pope, under pressure from his Cardinals, decided that all the members of the Jewish community had to leave Rome. As you would expect, there was a huge uproar from the Jewish community. The Pope suggested that he would have a religious debate with a member of that community. If that person won the debate, the Jewish community could stay, but if the Pope won the debate, they would have to leave.
The members realized they had no choice so their elders chose a respected Rabbi to represent them. The Rabbi was rather flamboyant in his expression, so they asked for one addition to the rules of debate. To make it more interesting, and safer, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.
The day of the great debate came. The Rabbi and the Pope stood opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The Rabbi looked back at him and raised one finger.
The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. The Rabbi energetically pointed to the ground.
The Pope pulled out a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and he broke the bread and ate, then sipped the wine.
The Rabbi pulled out an apple and took a bite from it.
The Pope then stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jewish community can stay in Rome as long as they want.”
An hour later, the cardinals surrounded the Pope asking him what had happened.
The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my fingers around me to show him that God is all around us and is the ultimate authority over the church. He responded by pointing to the ground and reminding me that God may be all around, but God is also right here with us and is God of the Jews as well as of the church. I broke bread and drank wine to show that God loves us and forgives our transgressions. The Rabbi ate of the apple to remind me of original sin and how it still affects us. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had gathered around the Rabbi.
“What happened?”, they asked.
“Well”, said the Rabbi, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of town. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
“And then?” asked a woman.
“I don’t know”, said the Rabbi, “He took out his lunch and I took out mine – and now we can stay as long as we want.”
Ah, the complexity of communication and the interpretation of actions!
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew recalls an encounter between a representative of the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees were a “Jewish party during Jesus’ time that obeyed the written law of Moses and its unwritten interpretations, known as the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms by Donald K. McKim, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, p.208) The Pharisees, for the most part, were very critical and greatly concerned about Jesus’ interpretation of Jewish religious law. They focussed much of their efforts on ensuring adherence to the holiness code. Jesus’ actions showed a blatant disregard for the holiness code in that he ate with anyone who wanted to share a meal with him, regardless of whether or not they were deemed clean or unclean by the strict religious standards of the Pharisees. Jesus also worked, taught, and healed on the Sabbath which was another contravention of religious law as understood by the Pharisees.
Jesus was unorthodox in his interpretation of Jewish religious law. He was also an observant Jew who had a high regard for scripture and tradition but he differed in his interpretation of scriptural mandates of Jewish religious law and the teachings of the prophets.
The Pharisees, represented an elite ultra-orthodox perspective and adhered to a highly detailed interpretation of religious law. They were scandalized by Jesus’ lack of adherence to their strict regulations and were deeply concerned about his increasing popularity and influence with the marginalized peasant majority of their society. They were determined to find a way to discredit Jesus and put an end to his popularity and influence which they feared would undermine their own power and authority. To this end they met to discuss strategies and it was decided that one amongst them, a lawyer, would pose a trick question to Jesus in order to trap him in an answer that could be used against him.
The question that was asked of Jesus was, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Keep in mind there were the Ten Commandments given to Moses but also hundreds of religious laws set out in the book of Leviticus and in the teachings of the elders which had been developed over centuries of religious practice.
Jesus’ answer was simple and yet brilliant, “He said… ‘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 the first commandment.” (Matt. 22:37)
What Jesus was quoting is from the book of Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the theological affirmation that was, and still is, a requirement for every observant Jew to recite morning and evening.
Then Jesus added, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:38-40)
Many of us, in our era, believe that Jesus’ mandate to love your neighbour as yourself was an original thought by Jesus. In fact, it is a direct quote from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus knew well his religious heritage and teachings. The essence of Jesus’ life and ministry, what he believed and how he enacted his faith, is concisely described in terms of love of God and love of neighbour. All the wisdom and teachings of his faith tradition could concisely be expressed in these powerful mandates which Jesus honoured and which he reflected in his life and ministry. The Pharisees were stymied; they could not argue against Jesus’ answer because he upheld the wisdom of the law and the prophets which they cherished. Where they differed was in the practical application of these mandates. The Pharisees had a very narrow definition of who was a neighbour; who was in and who was out; who was clean and who was unclean; who was religiously acceptable and who was not. Jesus, on the other hand, practiced radical inclusivity where everyone, and anyone, is included as God’s beloved. Everyone, and anyone, is a neighbour deserving of love, respect, and inclusion in God’s commonwealth. Ironically that included the Pharisees who did not want anything to do with Jesus’ vision of God’s inclusive commonwealth.
Today’s gospel passage from Matthew (22:37-40) is found in very similar form in the gospel of Mark (12:29-31) and Luke (10:25-27). Also, Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in Rome emphasizes Jesus’ mandate by saying, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
What, then, are the implications for us, as followers of the way of Jesus in the 21st Century? In our era, the notion of a global community is a reality which is assisted by technology which can connect persons from far-flung places in an instant. We are informed about world events as they happen and we cannot deny or ignore the pain and suffering of our neighbours around the world.
I believe that if we are called to be compassionate, to love our neighbours as ourselves, then we are also called to act in ways that promote social justice, equity, and basic human rights. Some of the simple ways we can love our neighbours is by:
- practising ethical consumerism
- supporting non profit societies which work to raise the standard, and quality of living, for children who live in poverty and others who are marginalized
- advocating for peaceful and non-violent resolutions in family, community and global situations.
- supporting initiatives that provide for the basic human right for adequate shelter
- being informed (keep up to date with local and global news; read and pay attention to what prominent social justice advocates, like Stephen Lewis, are saying)
- asking politicians to be accountable for national and foreign policies which affect the health and safety of Canadians and citizens around the world
- praying for our neighbours, close to home and far away
- being aware of how our own actions can reflect God’s love for us and our love for God and our neighbours.
This is not an exhaustive list but is merely a beginning for further thought and action. You will have your own creative ideas. I pray that in our individual and group decisions we will intentionally keep in mind Jesus’ mandate to love God and our neighbours as ourselves. With this in mind, we pause to pray…
God of compassion,
stretch our faith and understanding.
Help us to journey
as far as our imagination
and your grace extends.
Empower us to speak boldly for justice.
Inspire us to live, with conviction,
the faith we profess.
We yearn, for an uprising of hope, and courage,
in our lives and in our weary world.
We pray, in the name of the one
who showed us your ways of love and justice.