SERMON: The Greatest Commandment

SERMON: The Greatest Commandment

A sermon preached by Alice Lawhead on 25 October 2020.

Have you seen Unorthodox, the Netflix series about a young woman, Esty, who is born into a strict Hassidic Jewish sect in New York City.   This sect has adopted an extreme rules-based expression of their faith, and in it we get a vivid picture of what it is like to live under the burden of The Law.  Esty is stifled, brutalized, by the inflexibility of the community and its demands on her life.  With rules on how to dress, what to eat, how to relate to the man who is chosen to be her husband …. she gasps for air that she can only find by leaving the community – becoming ‘Un-orthodox’

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is quizzed by Pharisees.  They are similar to the Hassidic Jews of the film, in that they have devoted their lives to understanding and observing the complicated laws and rules and regulations that have built up in their faith. They are good people, Psalm 1 people – ‘whose delight is in the law of the Lord, who meditate on it day and night.’  Who, because they were righteous, could look on the wicked and say, ‘They are like chaff that the wind blows away.’ 

And here comes Jesus into their world.  One of their own. Born into a Jewish family, of the house of David – and it doesn’t get any better than that.  Circumcised, properly raised.  Someone who from boyhood could hold his own in the temple with the rabbis.  Now, himself a popular rabbi. 

The Pharisees approach Jesus with a simple question:  Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law? 

Imagine the tone in which that question might have been asked.  ‘Teacher’ is a sign of respect, but it can also be a bit of a rebuke – because they are trying to catch him out.  Think of the way in which the leader of the opposition might step up to the dispatch box in Parliament and ask the Speaker of the House, ‘Will the Prime Minister ….’   And you get a sense of the tone.  In it there is acknowledgement of position, but also a challenge to that position.

I wonder in what tone of voice Jesus answered.  Because his answer was not an unexpected one; it was straight out of the Torah, and we heard it today in the reading from Leviticus.  Indeed, it was the only answer that could be given. But was it delivered with a sigh?  Was it delivered in a tone – perhaps a bored monotone — that was similarly a rebuke to them?

Think of the child who asks when she can get on her iPad, and is told for the umpteenth time, ‘After you’ve cleaned your room and taken the recycling to the kerb.’  Did the girl really need to ask?  Did she really need to hear the same answer one more time?  Is she going to do her chores or just keep nagging her mother?

Are the Pharisees asking the question because they are immune to the answer?  By stating once again the great commandments, which they know so well, is Jesus challenging them for not keeping those commandments, and reverting instead to rule-keeping rather than embracing true religion? 

Some years ago, Steve and I lived in a Christian community in Austria.  Christian communities often have a bad reputation, often well-deserved, because they tend to end up like the community in Unorthodox:  lots of rules, set in their ways.  Believe me, more than one of our friends and family cringed when we told them we were going to join up.

This community was made up of staff and volunteers from a dozen or more countries, and was conspicuously lacking in rules – to the extent that members and visitors alike were often outraged by the way a young volunteer might dress or behave, or the way a family raised its children, or perceived laziness by some whilst others worked too hard.

As a member of the leadership team, I was often involved in helping iron out some issue within the community.  Many a time my colleagues and I would agonise over situations that needed to be sorted out, and it wasn’t easy.  We’d talk the thing to death, pray about it, and many was the time when we were at stalemate, stuck, didn’t know what to do.  We wondered:  maybe we should have a rule about that particular thing; it makes sense.

And then I remember my colleague Norm breaking through all the confusion and asking, quietly:  What does love require in this situation? 

What does love require?  Trying to answer the question didn’t give us a quick fix, an answer to please every party.  Sometimes it complicated matters even further!  Because whilst rules create order, love can be messy; its outline is often fuzzy and it makes real demands on our opinions, our high ground, our certainty.

What does love require?  That is the question that the Pharisees might more productively have asked Jesus, and that is our question now.  Having once again heard the two great commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbour – the next question, the question to guide us through this day, the week ahead, and all the messy challenges of our life, is:  What does love require?

Updated 26 October.