30th Sunday (Year A) 25th October 2020
Last week we saw how Jesus was asked a very controversial question about Tax by the Scribes & the Pharisees and the Herodians, In today’s gospel, passage he is asked yet another question, to try to trap him. We saw how the question about tax could have got him into trouble; it is less easy to see why such a reasonable question as, ‘Which is the greatest commandment?” could also be a trick question. This was a question which no one had ever satisfactorily answered. It was a question that had been asked many times and debated over furiously by the academic keepers of the Law, namely the Scribes & the Pharisees themselves. But why the question?
Over the centuries, from the times of Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Jews had added a great many other ‘commandments’ to their religious and moral code. By Jesus’ day there were over 600 quite strict rules or regulations which carried the force of a commandment. But also by Jesus’ day the Rabbis had begun to look for a distillation, some single phrase, or single commandment that would capture the theological, spiritual and moral essence of their lived faith. In part, therefore, this question to Jesus was a legitimate one, it was a topic of debate, conversation and argument amongst the doctors of the law.
As ever, Jesus gives a simple answer: First, love the Lord your God; second, love your neighbour as yourself. Now you might say to yourself, ‘that’s actually two answers’. But the reality is that Jesus does gives a single answer because both parts of his answer are mutually interdependent and necessary upon the other. You cannot love God without loving your neighbour and vice-versa. Furthermore, the two ‘aspects’, are not sequential, but equal. This is something that the Scribes and the Pharisees would have understood because Jesus here was using a particular form and style of Jewish expression, called parallelism which is found throughout the bible. In this form, a second statement reinforces and clarifies the first statement, even though it may sound different and, to our ears, absurd. In one of the psalms it says, ‘Only one thing do I know about the Lord, indeed, only two do I know.’
In the Old Testament both of these two dimensions are to be found. There is a command to love God. There is also a command to love your neighbour. But it was Jesus’ particular genius to bring the two together as one. His single command, ‘Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself’, becomes rather like a coin with two sides. You can’t have a one-sided coin. So it is with love; you can’t love God without loving your neighbour and vice-versa.
But on the second side, the ‘love your neighbour’ side, the ‘as yourself’ bit, often gets overlooked, though in reality, as Jesus expresses it, the way we love ourselves determines how we love our neighbour, and therefore how we love God. But how does all this square with Jesus’ other teaching, ‘You must deny yourself’. How can you love yourself and deny yourself?
Although it may sound pedantic and nit-picking there is an important distinction to be made between self-love and love of self. The first, self-love, has the emphasis on the self, and therefore is selfish, self-gratifying and self-righteous. This is the ‘self’ that we should deny. The second, love of self, has the emphasis on the love and loves the self as a creation of God, the self as something uniquely loved by God, the self that is someone else’s neighbour to be loved.
It is with appropriate humility, therefore, that we should acknowledge ourselves as objects of love, because it is through that acceptance that we will be able to live out Jesus unique command to ‘love God and our neighbour’.