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Thursday, 8 October 2015

Law & Love: The Greatest Commandment

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook (this sermon will shortly be available to listen to on the London Internet Church site):

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” says Jesus (Matthew 22. 34 - end). What does he mean? What do laws about shaving, tattoos, clothing, work, food and drink, farming, money, and much more have to do with loving God, loving ourselves and loving our neighbour?

Jesus frequently attracted criticism, particularly from the Pharisees, for seemingly setting aside laws which they thought important but also said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 15. 8). So how did Jesus understand and relate to the Mosaic Law?

These verses and this saying are actually key to answering all these questions. By saying, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus is arguing that all 613 commandments in the Torah, however much they may also be about shaving, tattoos, clothing, work, food and drink, farming, money or whatever, are fundamentally about love for God, for ourselves and for our neighbours.

The commandments divide up into 248 positive commandments (Thou shalt's) and 365 negative commandments (Thou shalt not's). In the Ten Commandments the Thou shalt not’s are all to do with limiting the harm we do to others; do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet. These are minimum standards of behaviour which enable society to function because respect and toleration exist.

Tom Wright has a helpful illustration for the way in these negative commandments work. He says, “The illustration I sometimes use is that when you learn to drive a car, the idea is that you will quickly come to do most of the things “automatically”, changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and that you will develop the “virtues” of a good driver, looking out for other road users, not allowing yourself to be distracted, etc.; but that the highways agencies construct crash barriers and so on so that even if you don’t drive appropriately damage is limited; and also those “rumble strips”, as we call them in the UK, which make a loud noise on the tire if you even drift to the edge of the roadway.

“Rules” and “the Moral Law” are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally you won’t need them because you will have learned the character-strengths and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when you start to drift, you are at once alerted and can take appropriate action – particularly figuring out what strengths need more work to stop it happening again.”

The other side of the equation are the positive commandments; the virtues in life which we are intended to quickly learn to do automatically. This is where we begin to engage with love and see that love and law can work together. Parents teach their children the rules of the road. To begin with, when children are very young, the rules of the road are very restrictive i.e. the child must never cross a road without a parent and must always cross at a crossing with the parent and while holding the parents hand. As the child grows, they are taught new rules for crossing the road; for me, that was the Green Cross Code - stop, look and listen. Now, the aim is that the child learns to judge for him or herself when it is safe to cross the road.

Eventually, the rules with which we began – don’t cross on your own, don’t cross unless you are at a crossing – are left behind because the child has learnt how to cross the road safely using their own initiative. Elbert Hubbard has said, “Initiative is doing the right things without being told.” We are able to use initiative because we have not only learnt the rules but have learnt to apply in our lives and situations. At this point, we are no longer restricted just to crossing the road at specific crossing places but can cross wherever we judge it to be safe to do so. So, we have gone beyond the rules by learning and applying the rules. In other words, we have found the true purpose of those rules which our parents enforced when we were young; which is that we learn to cross the road safely by ourselves wherever we are.

Jesus is essentially saying the same thing when he speaks about the Law. The Law starts by keeping us safe – do not murder, do not steal. If we all abide by the Law then we do not harm each other. That is good, but it is not enough. We also need to learn to love one another. That means doing more than the Law requires but to do that is also the fulfilling of the Law. If the Law is about maintaining good relations between us, then love is the fulfilment of the Law’s intent, and that is why Jesus said the heart of the Law is found in these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”


Victoria Williams - Love.

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