Proper 25: Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8;
O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please
you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things
direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
THERE can be fewer collects shorter and more to the point than
this one. It allows no get-out clause as it sums up our problem and
points to the source of our help. The readings provide a commentary
on this succinct prayer.
Paul's appeal to the Thessalonian Christians to have regard to
how he and his companions presented themselves to this new church
is a powerful summary of how Christians can support one another.
Having escaped "shameful mistreatment" in Philippi, including
wrongful arrest as a Roman citizen, Paul walked 100 miles to
Thessalonica, a city about the size of York or Milton Keynes. It
might have been a forced arrival, but it "was not in vain", as
nothing is with God.
Paul's actions exemplify Leviticus's focus on holiness and
purity. How did he come? With pure motive, with the gospel,
desiring to please God, without flattery or pretext for greed, with
gentleness and deep care for hitherto unknown people. What
happened? There was uproar: a mob formed, and Jason and other
believers were hauled before the city's leaders before being
bailed. Meanwhile, the Christians packed Paul and Silas off in an
undignified exit (Acts 17). Our best attempts to do good can meet
with extraordinary opposition.
Sometimes, we can have too pious a picture of what it means to
obey the command in Leviticus, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord
your God am holy. . . You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I
am the Lord." For Paul, it meant chaos and fleeing for his life to
unknown places, while remaining driven and shaped by his love for
I suspect that, both en route from Philippi to
Thessalonica, and from Thessalonica to Beroea, he had some vigorous
conversation with God about what had happened. The Old Testament
frequently reminds us that being holy may involve asking faithful
but demanding questions of God.
Matthew quotes this passage from Leviticus three times,
indicating how deeply it was embedded in Jesus's understanding. But
it was not unique to Jesus: a lawyer quoted it to him (Luke 10.27).
Here, Jesus quotes it in response to a malicious question freighted
with animosity and designed to "test" him (Matthew 22.18, 35).
Nothing could be further from Paul's lack of deceit, impure
motives, or trickery. There are, perhaps, deliberate echoes of
Psalm 2.2, "The rulers take counsel together against the Lord and
Jesus's answer was as adroit as the question. He combined the
instruction in Leviticus with the Shema, the nearest thing his
questioners had to a creed (Deuteronomy 6.4-9), which - as faithful
Jews - they recited every morning and evening. Jesus had greater
and wiser insight into the law than they did; yet we should not
fall into the trap of assuming that his divinity made this
automatic. It was gained in his humanity through study and
We can all do that: Jesus was a Jewish peasant, with few of the
opportunities available to us. His whole orientation of life was
towards God; he loved what God loves: his neighbour. In the fourth
century, Evagrius Pontus wrote that love of the neighbour was
equated with love of God because it was love of the image of God in
humans. Jesus was about to come to that more explicitly (as we will
on the feast of Christ the King), and had already addressed it when
castigating the hypocrisy that allowed people to claim their love
for God justified neglecting to care for their needy parents
Jesus seized the initiative with his question. The reference is
to Psalm 110, and the only way to resolve the conundrum he
presented is to believe that he, Jesus, is the Messiah. As
Christians, we read that back in, but the people present could not,
and were silenced.
How is it resolved? Since Christ's ascension, there is a human
at the right hand of God who is both David's son and David's lord:
Jesus Christ, incarnate God, now seated at the Father's right hand
in glory. Their answer should have been not silence, but worship,
with pure and holy hearts.
We are to be holy. Kierkegaard said, famously, that purity of
heart is to will one thing. He went on to pray, as we can in words
that expand the collect: "In prosperity, grant perseverance to will
one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in
suffering, patience to will one thing."