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Last Sunday after Trinity

15 October 2020

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

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THROUGHOUT the Gospels, Jesus is interested in the dispositions of his questioners’ hearts. Our Lord always answers with integrity and depth. An insincere or superficial question still receives a probing, revealing answer.

In Mark 12.28-31, when another teacher asks which is the greatest commandment, Jesus says that the questioner is “not far from the Kingdom of God”. In this Sunday’s Gospel, the disposition of the lawyer’s heart is very different. His question emerges from the plotting of the Pharisees; for Jesus has confounded their attempt to trap him over taxation, and “silenced” the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. The lawyer’s use of the flattering “Teacher” belies his intent.

Unlike in Mark 12, Jesus’s reply has no preamble. He addresses the texts from Deuteronomy and Leviticus directly to his questioner, saying “You shall love . . .”. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis observes, the lawyer would have expected “an abstract answer”. Instead, Jesus takes a universal theological truth and applies it directly to the individual: “He is not speaking as someone quoting an ancient sacred text but as himself giving the lawyer a direct answer emerging from his own person.” Jesus’s response to the lawyer cuts to the heart of the spiritual issue (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St Matthew).

Jesus identifies the two commandments on which the Law and the Prophets “hang”: the command in Deuteronomy 6 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and the command contained in our first reading from Leviticus, to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

These two commands are intertwined. As the prophets repeatedly remind the people, God desires justice and mercy and not just sacrifice. The spiritual root of the failure to love our neighbours is idolatry — the enthronement of another deity in our hearts and affections.

The detachment of religious observance from love of neighbour is a danger in every age. As Leiva-Merikakis explains, the attempt to create an “exclusive dyad” between God and the individual worshipper, detached from the divine flow of love outwards to neighbour, has “always been the temptation of the pious perfectionist”. This leads on to a “religious narcissism” that “defines degrees of ‘virtue’ and ‘sanctity’ mostly by the distance one has achieved between oneself and the world of poor, unwashed mankind”.

This exclusionary piety finds its antithesis in Jesus, who scandalises the Pharisees precisely by his immersion in the lives of the “poor” and “unwashed”. His teaching about the inextricable connection between love of God and love of neighbour is expressed completely in the pattern of his life — and is about to reach its consummation in his self-sacrifice on the Cross: “Jesus, incarnate Word, has himself become the living text.”

Each disciple, in proclaming the Gospel, must likewise become a “living text”. Paul and his companions share “not only the gospel of God but our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2.8). When juxtaposed with our Gospel, this Sunday’s epistle highlights two particular ways in which their ministry emulates Jesus’s own.

First, Paul and his companions are unafraid of conflict. Like Jesus in the Temple, their ministry encounters “great opposition” and this does not deflect them from “courage” (parrhesia) in their apostolic task. Parrhesia is a term which Paul uses in several of his letters, and it is used by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles to signify the Church’s witness to her resurrected Lord. Paul’s boldness in Thessalonica, after the opposition he faced in Philippi, shows the cruciform nature of his witness.

Second, Paul and his companions see their relationship with God intertwined with sacrificial love of neighbour. Parrhesia was a trait commended in Graeco-Roman philosophy. As Beverly Roberts Gaventa explains, such philosophers also rejected “self-aggrandising” speech and were “prepared to endure the scorn of others in order to tell the truth”.

Where Paul differs most strikingly from these contemporaries is in his understanding of such boldness not as a human achievement, but as the fruit of the life of God’s Spirit within him (Interpretation Bible Commentaries: First and Second Thessalonians).

Paul and his companions can nourish the Thessalonians with their “own selves” because Christ has shared his very self with them. So, too, with us: the Lord does not simply command us to love God and neighbour — he shares his life with us; so that the life we share is his.

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18 November 2020
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