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The Law and the Prophets

Ordinary Sunday 30, 23 October
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed.
V'ahav'ta eit Adonai Elohekha b'khol l'vav'kha uv'khol naf'sh'kha m'odekha.

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Amen.

***

According to the Talmud, a pagan once came to the Rabbi Hillel saying that he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one leg. The rabbi replied: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it."

In Mishna Pe'ah 1:1, the Talmud says that g'milut chasadim — acts of loving kindness — is one of the few mitzvoth, or commandments, for which there is no measure — that is, there is no minimum amount sufficient to satisfy your obligation.

So, the answer that Jesus gives the debating lawyer in today's gospel would have been neither unexpected nor much different from the one that a contemporary rabbi would have offered. While it has been used with greater or lesser degrees of deliberate anti-Semitism to attempt to distinguish Christianity from the perceived legalism of Judaism, it is clearly a perfectly orthodox statement of Jewish belief and priorities. Indeed, in the next chapter, when talking to the am-ha'aretz, the ordinary people of Judea, he says that the scribes and Pharisees 'sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.' His problem with the Pharisees is not what they believe — or profess to believe — but with what they do.

It could be argued in fact that the answer to this question is so obvious — sort of the rabbinical equivalent of the hundred dollar round in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? — that Matthew is really just setting things up for the next discussion about the identity of the Messiah. Jesus gives this orthodox Jewish response as a lead in to what he says next, which carries the quite unorthodox implication that he is the Messiah and is greater than David.

What I'm suggesting here, then, is that the moral imperatives of Christianity are barely different from those of Judaism. the difference between our two faiths lies somewhere else and are tied up with the next part of the dialogue.

But what about those shared moral imperatives?

If, as both Jesus and Rabbi Hillel say — in slightly different words — all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments, then that means, I suggest, two things. Firstly, that our behaviour is to be judged against these two mitzvoth. This, fundamentally, is what we are called to do. Secondly, though, if all of the law hangs on these two commandments then that surely means that any law that does not involve us loving God and our neighbour cannot be one which is binding on us as Christians. It gives us a standard by which we should judge what teachers, preachers, bishops, synods, scribes and Pharisees tell us we should do. I recognise that this raises questions about discernment — and that perhaps I am channelling my radical Methodist Northamptonshire ancestors here a bit too much rather than being a loyal son of the church.

But look at what the media is constantly being sold as the Christian viewpoint by conservative groups. I cannot see, frankly, how people such as the so-called Australian Christian Lobby can justify the homophobia and patriarchy that they seem to see as essential to Christianity in the light of these mitzvoth. Or frankly how the many members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic communion could justify putting the interests of the institutional church above those of victims of clerical abuse. Not that our own communion has been blameless in this regard either. If all the law and the prophets hang on these commandments then perhaps the church is a bit too long and law and short on prophets.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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