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Last Sunday after Trinity

19 October 2017

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-end

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

THE feast of All Saints’, next Wednesday, inaugurates the Kingdom season: the final season of the Church’s year. It is a time of looking forward to the eternal reign of Christ, with a second strand that is carried into Advent: Christ will come as both king and judge. That is a strong reason for stripping away ephemera and concentrating on essentials.

Matthew’s report of Jesus’s final confrontation with the Pharisees shows him defining what those essentials are (Matthew 22.34-46).

The Pharisees continue their efforts to catch Jesus out. Once again, Jesus turns their own ammunition against them, taking them back to Deuteronomy 6.5, and to its unambiguous instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. That was part of the prayer they would have prayed morning and evening: the Shema Yisrael.

What Jesus adds is the injunction of Leviticus 19.18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This, John Fenton notes, would have confirmed Jesus’s impeccable credentials as a teacher in the rabbinic tradition (Saint Matthew, Penguin, 1963).

Much of the Gospel-writer’s energy has gone into demonstrating that Jesus works within the law to bring in the Kingdom. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” he tells the crowds who have come to hear him (Matthew 5.17).

The pattern of obedience begins from the moment of his baptism, which “fulfil[s] all righteousness”, even though John is hesitant (Matthew 3.15), and continues into the temptation, or testing, by Satan. In that situation, Jesus again quotes Deuteronomy in reply to Satan’s suggestion that he might rearrange the natural order to relieve his hunger, or seize power in a sensational or idolatrous way (Matthew 4.1-11; Deuteronomy 8.3, 6.16, 6.13).

What Jesus brings new to following the commandments with dedication is the emphasis on love as more than obligation: as something that leads to a deepening relationship with God. The disciples are encouraged to develop this in their own prayers, and to avoid any sense of just going through the motions (Matthew 6.7-15).

The rich young man has to learn that complete obedience has to do what it says. In his case, love of neighbour will be difficult to realise in a way that means more than not doing harm to another person, unless he sells his goods and gives the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19.16-22).

A picture of tough practical love of one’s neighbour emerges as Paul continues his message to the Thessalonians: “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts,” he tells them (1 Thessalonians 2.4).

Paul is not, however, referring to any difficulties with the Thessalonian Christians. He reflects rather on his bruising experience at Philippi (1 Thessalonians 2.2; Acts 16.11-40). Was it the Thessalonians’ faithfulness amid local hostility that made Paul “gentle” among them, or was this an instance of particular love for a community that did not depend on any material gifts to the apostles, or any special excellence in spiritual discipline (1 Thessalonians 2.7-8)? In simply loving the Thessalonians for themselves, Paul models for them the love of God.

We return to Matthew’s Jesus, who has not quite finished with the Pharisees. They have challenged his grasp of the law. Now it is his turn to test them on the prophets, as he asks for their view of the Messiah, and whose son the Messiah might be (Matthew 22.41-45).

If, by keeping to the standard answer — the son of David — they think they are in safe territory, they have miscalculated (Isaiah 11.1-9, Jeremiah 23.5 and 33.15). That definition had already expanded by popular acclamation, often in relation to acts of healing, and supremely in the reaction of the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matthew 21.1-9).

It remains for Jesus to work through the logic with them, and to demonstrate that, if they believe David to have composed the Psalms, they could hardly think that someone he named as “Lord” could be David’s son.

Dale Allison suggests that, whereas the Pharisees are left unable to answer this riddle, Christian readers are in a position to understand that it is possible to look at these two titles simultaneously: “Although the Messiah is of the lineage of David, he is also exalted to God’s right hand and reigns as Lord” (The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001).

Some Christian readers might wonder whether the Pharisees are practising a form of wilful ignorance. The only alternative to silence would have been an acknowledgement that they had been resisting for some time.

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