TRINITY XVIII – Da pacem, Domine
Introit: (Ecclus 36.16) Give peace, O Lord, to them that wait for thee, and let thy Prophets be found faithful: regard the prayers of thy servant, and of thy people Israel. Ps. (122) I was glad when they said unto me: we will go into the house of the Lord. Glory be … Give peace …
Collect: Lord, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the Lord’s thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. Only the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, who regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: he doth execute the judgement of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name. He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen. (Deuteronomy 10.12-21)
Gradual: I was glad when they said unto me: we will go into the house of the Lord. V. Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces.
Epistle: Brethren: I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you; so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 1.4-8)
Alleluia. The heathen shall fear thy Name, O Lord: and all the kings of the earth thy majesty. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: When the Pharisees had heard that Jesus had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the Law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth, ask him any more questions. (St Matthew 22.34-46)
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
“Rabbi, which is the great commandment in the Law?” This question was by no means so simple or innocent as might appear on the surface. Thousands of years before, by the hand of Moses, God had given the Law to Israel. Yet even during Moses’ own lifetime the people were breaking, ignoring, or seeking to circumvent the Law. So, like any set of laws, they had to be interpreted and expanded in order to cover the various situations which may arise from time to time. Thus, in addition to the Ten Commandments, there was the ceremonial law, which we find in Leviticus, and subsequently all the legal rulings and parsings of the elders and judges—the “Oral Law” or Mishnah. By the time of Jesus, “the Law” was hardly an easy matter to define. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Law, accepting only the written Torah. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that the Mishnah carried equal weight, and sought its observance in every point, as well. So the question, “which is the chief commandment in the Law?” was a very tricky one indeed! Of all the [traditionally reckoned at 613] commandments, which is the greatest? But furthermore, (and here was the Trojan horse,) since all the Commandments came from God, were not all equally important? This was the Pharisees’ contention, so in asking Jesus to choose one “chief” commandment, they were enticing Him to trap Himself into committing ‘blasphemy.’
Today’s Gospel reading comes just days before Our Lord’s trial and crucifixion. The Sadducees had come to Him with a ridiculous hypothetical scenario to try to disprove the resurrection and the afterlife. Jesus so thoroughly confounded them with His response that the Sadducees never dared to ask Him any more questions. The Pharisees were gratified that He had refuted and silenced their arch-rivals, so one of them wanted to see if He really did see the Law their way after all, and asked this question “to test Him” (cue the ominous music). “So, which is the chief commandment in the Law?” Through the centuries, many rabbis had endeavoured to answer this question, and ultimately could (or would) not. But the Pharisees had underestimated Jesus. They addressed Him as “rabbi, teacher,” but He was far more. He not only knew the Word of God better than anyone, He is Himself the living and eternal Word of God. Ignoring all their man-made rules, He answered, “The greatest commandment is this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Deut. 6.5). This is the great and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19.18). All the Law and the Prophets [i.e., the entire Hebrew Bible] hang on these two commandments.” If you love God perfectly and love your neighbour perfectly, you have kept the whole Law of God! Never mind your 613 commandments. Keep these two, and all the rest will fall into place. But they couldn’t even do that—nobody can.
Love God, and love your neighbour. How simple these words are. And yet, how difficult they are in practice. We have no trouble in understanding what the words mean. The problem for us is that they demand a transformation of our lives—transformation of our thoughts, attitudes, and standards; transformation of our hopes and values; transformation of the way we live and the way we treat others. Our Christian conversion has two sides: a turning away from temptations, and a turning towards God. So, first of all, there is a renunciation, a turning of our backs upon “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Only then will we be able “with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God.” We cannot serve two masters. Insomuch as we look to the world as the standard and measure of our lives, we cannot be followers of God. Insomuch as we are followers of the flesh, measuring our lives according to what is immediately pleasant, pleasurable, or agreeable to us, we cannot be followers of God. Insomuch as we are followers of the devil, putting ourselves in the place of God as arbiters of good and evil, we cannot be followers of God. And only as we are prepared to live that conversion day by day, in every aspect of our lives, are we able to follow God with pure (unmixed and undivided) hearts and minds.
The most difficult part about God’s Law is in keeping it, because the commandments are not simply about outward signs (like circumcision) or behaviours, but about the internal state of heart, soul, and mind. God requires that our hearts be filled with perfect love for Him. So even though His Law was meant to show us what God expects of us, it ends up showing us, in fact, how utterly we have failed and continue to fail. The Pharisees placed all their trust and hope in the Law, but as St Paul says, quoting from Deuteronomy, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” (Gal. 3.10; cf. Deut. 27.26) Thus those who depend on the Law for salvation are in fact condemned by that same Law in which they trust. The Law of God, which demands perfect love, cannot bring us salvation. Instead, it only shows us just how far short we fall of God’s perfection, showing us our sin and accusing us. We have not loved God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind. We have not loved our neighbour in the same way that we love ourself. We have transgressed the Law. And so, we are cursed. We cannot perfectly love God or our neighbour—but Jesus can. And He did. He even knew that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at that very moment plotting to kill Him. And yet, He loved even His enemies with that same perfect and ineffable love that is impossible for us. No, the Law cannot save us. But the Good News is that Jesus can.
So now He asks them a question: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” Now any Jewish schoolboy could have answered this question. The Messiah was to be a descendent of King David, of course! Well enough. So then He refers them to Psalm 110, where David describes the Messiah, having accomplished his mission and defeated his enemies, now taking his place at the right hand of the Lord, the God of Israel. The Jews were expecting this of their earthly messiah. They loved this messianic psalm, and knew it by heart. He asks them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him his Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? If the Messiah is the son of David, why would David refer to him as ‘my Lord’? My ‘son,’ yes, but a son can never be lord over his own father.” The Jews believed that no one was above King David—except God Himself. Therefore, if the Son of David is also David’s Lord, it would mean that the Messiah must also be God. And that is what makes all the difference. The Messiah, who was equally Son of David and Son of God, had come not to save them from the Romans, as they expected, but to save them from their sins and from eternal death. Jesus was about to accomplish His redemptive work on the cross. Forty days later He would ascend to heaven and take His seat at the right hand of the Father, where His enemies would be made His footstool, fulfilling David’s prophecy in Psalm 110. Jesus is that Messiah, being God-with-us, true God and true Man, One with the LORD God of the Old Testament to whom David, Shepherd and King, Warrior and Psalmist, is also subject. “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest form of credal statement in the Early Church—a profession which St Paul says we can only make “by the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor 12.3) And the doing, rather than simply the hearing, of God’s Law is only possible when we truly acknowledge the divine Lordship of Jesus Christ in our hearts.
God became man to do what we could not do. David’s Lord became David’s son and only He has perfect love for God and perfect love for His neighbour. The perfect love of Jesus the Christ was offered up to God on behalf of all humanity, and in Him, the just demands of God’s holy and righteous Law were met and satisfied. This is how the seed of the woman crushed the head of the serpent (Gen. 3.15). This is how God the Father placed all our enemies—sin, death, and hell—under the feet of His Son. Thus we can pray, as in our Collect, “grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” David’s Lord became David’s son in order to do battle against our enemies. In perfect love He joined Himself to us and took our nature upon Him. Our sin became His curse, so that His perfect righteousness and perfect love might become ours. And having conquered sin and death on the cross, our Lord rose again to life and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Those who trust in their own works and their own goodness will be condemned and die by the Law. But those who put their trust in Christ, even though they die, will have eternal life.
This ‘first and great commandment’ is in fact nothing less than the motion of God’s active love towards us. Our true end, our true good, lies in union with Him, and the response of faith is to let that active love move within us. As St John Chrysostom says:
To love God with thy whole heart means the heart is not inclined to the love of any one thing more than it is to the love of God… which we cannot do unless we withdraw our hearts from the love of worldly things. To love God with thy whole mind means that all the faculties are at the disposition of God: he whose understanding serves God, whose wisdom concerns God, whose thought dwells on the things of God, whose memory is mindful only of his blessings, loves God with his whole mind. To love God with thy whole soul means to keep the soul steadfast in truth and to be firm in faith.
In the Epistle, St Paul writes: “I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony [a word elsewhere used for the two tables of the Law in the Ark of the Covenant] of Christ was confirmed in you … that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ still works through His Church to spread His Kingdom. What kind of ambassadors are we? Can others see that Jesus is our Lord? Are we living in accordance with the measure and model of love as shown to us in Christ, or do people see us making our own rules? In response to the grace we have been shown, are we truly living for Him, or are we still living for ourselves? St Paul continues (v. 9): “God is faithful, by whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are not just another fraternal or benevolence society; we are the Body of Christ, and our mission is to embody the grace, love, and glory of God.
St Francis de Sales says that it is a special sign of God’s goodness that he actually commands us to love him. It is wonderful enough if he permits us to love him; a few brave spirits might avail themselves of due permission. It is still more wonderful if he invites us to love him; the responsive and the generous might answer the invitation. But he commands us to love him, because he will have us all to do so. He will not be deprived of any man’s love. Nor will he be deprived of any part of our love, for he commands us not merely to love him, but to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The love of God holds out two hands to catch and take us: one is the commandment that we should love, the other is the act of his own love in the sacrifice of Jesus. He does not mean that we should escape him; see, he has taken us between his two hands. (Austin Ferrar, The Crown of the Year)
“Which is the great commandment in the Law?” The answer is not in the keeping of the Law or of a particular commandment, but in a relationship with Christ, making Him Lord of our life. God calls us into communion with Himself. With the one hand, He commands us to love Him and all others in Him, and with the other hand He unites us to Himself through the sacrifice of Christ. The God who gave His life for our salvation also lives and works in us to will and to act, so that we can love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength, so that we can love our neighbour and seek his good, just as Christ has done for us. “He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen.”
“The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,”
“… who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, show thy pity upon us thy humble servants: that we who trust not in our own merits may know, not thy judgement, but thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.