Which is the greatest commandment?


·       The Pharisees and Sadducees, were the two powerhouses of Jewish life, the competing religious authorities of the day.  The Sadducees were associated with the Temple and exclusively believed in the written law of Moses, the first five books of our Bible’s, Genesis, Exodus Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they rejected the prophets and other writings.  However their association to the Temple meant that when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans they ceased to play an important part in Jewish life. 
·       The Pharisees on the other hand were associated with the synagogue, and they accepted the prophets and other writings, and in many ways the Pharisees had many doctrinal points of agreement with Jesus.
·       The reading from Matthew takes place after the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the overturning of the moneychangers tables in the temple. Whereupon these two opposing religious groups appear to stop directly attacking each other and instead focus their attention on the newcomer.  They take turns in seeking to trip Jesus up.
·       So the context of our reading today is the tail end of a series of concerted attempts by both the Pharisees and Sadducees to force Jesus to make an error, to give them ammunition with which they can criticise Jesus with. 
·       The Pharisees start by questioning Jesus authority, and Jesus confounds them by asking them to commit themselves to explaining John the Baptist’s authority.  Jesus then proceeds to tell them three parables:
·       the parable of the two sons where one says yes but does not do the task, while the other son refuses but ends up doing the task anyway;
·       the parable of the Vineyard tenants that end up murdering the vineyard owners son;
·       and the parable of the wedding banquet, where those who are invited refuse to attend, so the invitation is widened to include anyone. 
·       All of these parables point to the rejection of God’s message and kingdom by the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Undeterred the Pharisees continue the attack asking Jesus whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, which would implicate him in rebellion against  the Roman authorities, when they fail the Sadducees have a try with the example of the woman who was married and widowed seven times to seven brothers. Jesus replies with something very telling:  You are in error because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.  So Jesus responds to their question about the resurrection with a quote from Exodus, a book they would respect, and highlights that God is fundamentally about life.
·        Jesus exposes the Pharisees and Sadducees lack of relationship with God, the fact that they fundamentally do not understand what they are dealing with in the Messiah
·       – It is one thing to be knowledgeable about the scriptures, it is another thing entirely to know God.
·        There are no shortcuts to getting to know God, it is only through spending time in prayer and intimacy with God, in choosing to share our lives with God and put our trust in Him, that our relationship with God deepens.   If we are to talk authoritatively about God, we first have to put the time into our relationship with him.
·       In Thessalonians Paul exposes what it means for him to be an apostle and the weakness inherent in living a gospel life. 
·       When he talks of pleasing God rather than mortals, he uses an unusual word, aresko is only used once in the gospel to describe the effect on Herod of his daughters dance, while Paul also uses it to describe how husbands and wives should please one another.   It suggests a satisfying of desire, and gives us the basic choice we have in life, do we act to please the desires of others or do we act according to the desire of God.
·       He spells out that sharing the gospel is motivated by and underpinned by the foundation of a life motivated by love.  Pauls words are backed up by Jesus summarising the whole of the law and the prophets into ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’.
·       The question posed to Jesus about the greatest commandment was a continuation of the traps that the Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus out with.  A less well-crafted answer could have left Jesus open to the charge of trying to abolish parts of the law. 
·       But Jesus does something very special with his answer, He is asked for the most important commandment, but he gives not one but two commandments as the answer. 
·       The command to love God in Deuteronomy 6:5, and the command to love your neighbour in Leviticus 19:18 were often quoted separately in ethical debate by Rabbi’s, but Jesus brings them together as the two most important commandments.
·       In doing so he brings together the two halves of the Ten commandments: our duty to God and our duty to our neighbour, while also bringing together the opposing arguments of the Pharisees and the Sadducees by basing the commands in the law of Moses and by claiming them as a summary of all the law and the prophets. 
·        By focusing on our duty to love, the commands transcends the specific requirements and letter of the law, to the adoption of the attitude of God that underlies them.
·       The other place where these two commands, to love God and to Love your neighbour, are brought together is in Luke 10 where Jesus expounds these commandments with the story of the good Samaritan. 
·       We can draw from the good Samaritan a continuation of the theme of the three parables of the two sons, the vineyard tenants and the wedding banquet, with the point that God’s agent in the world, the person who ministers the kingdom of God at a specific time is frequently the person we least expect. The person we have discounted or rejected is entering the kingdom ahead of us.
·       The pinnacle of this theme is evident in the Jesus question about who the messiah is.
·       Is the Messiah really just David’s son? The Pharisees had such a rigid definition of who the messiah would be that they had already discounted the possibility that Jesus could be the messiah. 
·       We have to open our eyes and our expectations to see the real Jesus, not just the Jesus we expect.  
·       We need to look around us, and see where the kingdom of God is being unfolded before our eyes
·       The Sadducees would not have expected to learn anything from a Samaritan, who did not even recognise the temple as the proper place of worship.
·       The Pharisees were so fixed on the messiah being David’s son they had lost sight of the possibility that He might be much more. 
·       We need the humility to recognise that we are only able to know God in part, so we must remain open to the possibility that things we take as certainties may not be entirely as we expect.  This was the continual challenge that Jesus gave to the religious leaders of his day, and as James Cone puts it, the question is not so much, what did Jesus do then, but rather what is Jesus doing now.
·       Jesus teaches us to stay open to the unexpected, to seek not just knowledge of the scriptures but also knowledge of the power of the love of God.  The power that is displayed in the commandments to love above all.  Our gospel is to love as widely and deeply as we can imagine.
 

Jon Foster, 29/10/2017