Matthew 22:34 - 46
I wonder how many of us can remember back to when we were at Nursery School – I can remember music playing and the teacher asking us all to be trees, and stand tall and then the wind would blow and we would sway about. Psalm l is all about trees and being rooted and grounded. The Psalm is using picture language, and describing those who delight in God’s law and meditate on it are like trees.
Not any old trees, but trees planted by streams of water and they are fruitful and evergreen. Then they are contrasted with those who do not delight in God’s law they are likened to chaff, which is straw-like waste and it gets blown away by the wind.
The link between both the readings is the LAW. The Jewish religion is all founded on Law.
Every Jewish service in the synagogue starts with the same words. They are called the Shema with means Hear:
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’
It continues to tell the worshipers to teach their children these words, to bind them to their wrists and fit them on their foreheads in little boxes called phylacteries so that they might think of God in all their actions and thinking. To write them on paper put them in a box called a mezulla and fasten them to the door posts of their houses and touch them as they go out and in to remind them that God is with them in their going out and their coming in. In Jesus' day the devout Jews were the Pharisees. They would have the little boxes strapped to their foreheads and wrists. They got to hear that Jesus had just silenced their rivals the Sadducees and the Herodians, as we heard last week, so they want to check whether Jesus had changed sides and was now one of them.
So they asked him, ‘Teacher which is the most important commandment in the law?’ That is no mean question, as there are 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. They asked Jesus to choose from the 365 (one for each day of the year) 'do not' laws and the 248 'must do' laws of Moses. I am sure they would have agreed with the initial answer that Jesus gave - the First Commandment. This was not just an instruction on what to do, to love God, but it formed part of the prayer that every devout Jew prayed and continues to pray to the present time. Good answer then, Jesus.
But of course it doesn’t end there. Here is today’s special offer: Two for the price of one. They asked for the greatest commandment and Jesus gives them a second commandment – one that we are very familiar with, ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ This also would have been familiar to the Pharisees as it was one of the 613 laws of Moses. Jesus links the two commandments revolving around one word: love – it all sounds so easy, so wonderfully straightforward. Or at least it does until we take on board that the neighbours Jesus refers to are not just those who live next door or nearby, but everyone, everywhere; and then, suddenly, we feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge and the enormity of our responsibility. I am sure we can all think of neighbours we don’t feel to loving towards.
Jesus turns the law upside down – instead of giving us a list 613 do nots and must do’s in order to honour God we are challenged to love God and love our neighbour, to do what we can and this list is endless, for there is virtually no limit to the human need within our world. In our own community and beyond there are people crying out for support and help, desperately in need of a little kindness and compassion. Of course we cannot respond to them all, and I don’t for a moment expect that Jesus intended us to, but how far do we respond to any of these needs? That is the acid test of our love for God, and as individuals we have to work that out.
The other thing we have to address is what is meant by loving our neighbour for ‘love’ is a misused word; it can be spoken to convey everything from genuine like, to affection and even to lust. We apply it lightly to everyday commodities like chocolate and the car. This love that Jesus commands is not aroused by finding beauty or worth in a object; as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13 this love is free from the taint of selfishness or jealousy.
If you are anything like me you will find yourself asking: ‘How on earth can I do this?’
Perhaps we can learn from the trees - rooted in the love of God
Very often our roots are shallow, and the need for the approval of others seems to be so much deeper-rooted than the need for the approval of God. And sometimes we shy away from that call to be holy, probably because we do not want to be labelled 'holier than thou.'
If we are honest, sometimes the teachings of Jesus are just too hard, they are like the wind blowing through our tree, tugging at the leaves.
Jesus , you ask me to love my neighbour, but I am not allowed to ask that that they should love me in return. It gets even harder when you ask me to love my enemy, but with no guarantee that they will thank me for it or even acknowledge my love.
Who said being a Christian was easy - this 'loving others' thing is tough. We can do it one step at a time, by doing the next loving thing that comes our way. There was a craze a few years back which started in the states. Christians wore T shirts with WWJD on them. I am not suggesting you wear the T shirt but it is a good practice to stop and ask, what do I think God wants in this situation? Or, I wonder how Jesus would react, or what would he say.
And so we pray:
Lord only when our roots go deep into you, will your love enable us to stand firm -
to love those who do not love you,
to love those who do not love us.
Make us then Lord like a tree, rooted and grounded in you who are love .