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Readings: Last Sunday after Trinity (19th Sunday after Trinity)

17 October 2014


Proper 25: Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-end

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. Amen.

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 God.

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 his anointed."

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 commitment.

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 (Matthew 15.1-9).

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."

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