The challenge of love

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost; 25 October 2020; Proper 25A (RCL)Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46.

All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have some version of the Great Commandment (John has a new commandment — love one another as I have loved you). In Mark, a scribe asks Jesus about the greatest commandment and Jesus responds with love of God and neighbor. When the scribe says that Jesus has answered rightly, and that love is more important than all sacrifices, Jesus says that he (the scribe) is not far from the kingdom of God. In Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must to do inherit the life of the ages. Jesus asks him what is written in the law, and the lawyer responds with the Great Commandment, but then wants to justify himself and asks “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the story of the Samaritan.

Leave it to Matthew to turn the Great Commandment into a challenge story. A Pharisee asks Jesus the greatest commandment to test him. I’m not sure what the test would be, but this story comes at the end of a series of challenge parables and contests between Jesus and various interlocutors. Immediately prior, the Sadducees had asked Jesus the question about the woman who had been married to seven brothers — whose wife would she be in the resurrection?

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, and thought they had set a perfect trap for Jesus. He replied that they misunderstood the resurrection. There would be no marrying and giving in marriage in the resurrection. And besides, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” God is God of the living and not the dead, so the resurrection is given.

The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection, so must have been gleeful at Jesus’ response. Now it’s their turn to trap him. He responds with the great commandment, and somehow avoids their trap, and then sets his own. How can the Messiah be David’s son, when David (the presumed author of all of the psalms) calls the Messiah lord? They have no answer.

Matthew wants to show Jesus as the interpreter of scripture (and therefore of the law) par excellence. If Matthew’s community is a Jewish-Christian community, in competition with the Pharisees for an understanding of how to apply torah to daily life, then having Jesus best the Pharisees in a contest of interpretation will assure Matthew’s readers that their understanding of torah is the correct one.

For me, at any rate, this is not very satisfying. Both Mark and Luke attempt to give some content to the great commandment. For Mark, it is more important than all sacrifices. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, that would mean that love fulfills the requirement of the cult. For Luke, love extends to the hated foreigner, and may even be shown by them to us. For Matthew, the content is not immediately obvious.

We have to turn to other sayings of Jesus to discover it. The Sermon on the Mount comes to mind: walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek. God makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust. Or Chapter 25: inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me. Love enacted looks like God’s justice.

The passage from 1 Thessalonians also gives us an insight into what Paul means by love. He uses some surprising images of his care and love for the Thessalonian congregation. Like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, he has loved them. As with all things Paul, his love for them is an extension of an attribute of God. God’s love is the love of a nursing mother for her child. We are to extend that to one another. Think of the time and attention that takes.

The great commandment is a challenge, just not the kind Mattthew makes of it.

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