Sunday 10 September
Year A: 14th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 18)
Liturgical Colour: Green
- Exodus 12:1-14
- Psalm 149:1-9
- Romans 13:8-14
- Matthew 18:15-20
In this week’s passage from Romans Paul urges his readers to remember that all of the commandments can be summed up as ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. He is echoing the words of Jesus (Matt 7.12, 22.39 and Mark 12.30-31), even though the oral accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection recorded in the two gospels were actually written down at about the same time, 50-60AD.
The phrase is known as the Golden Rule and practically every major religion has a version of it to describe the ethical behaviour expected of its followers. Paul goes on to say that ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Rom.13.10).
Both Jesus and Paul were of course Jews. Their overarching golden rule originated in the ancient Israelite religion, which taught that they were a nation set apart to worship and follow God’s law. This law is set out in the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch (which means five books), comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Among other things these books, especially Leviticus, contain often very detailed instructions about day-to-day living, social relationships and guidelines for worship. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is in Leviticus (19.18).
Jesus clearly knew and followed the teaching of the law and the prophets and valued them highly (Matt 5.17-20). However, it is interesting that he sometimes instructed his disciples to uphold the spirit of the law in a way that was far beyond what the letter of the law demanded (Matt 5.17-48). While, at other times he disregarded the letter of the law when it went against the overarching principles (Mark 3.1-5).
This ‘interpreting the law to circumstance’ was not that unusual. Teachers of the Jewish law were (and still are) constantly debating how to understand and apply it in their times. And of course, they don’t always agree. We can see that from the arguments between the Pharisees and Sadducees in the New Testament. These interpretations of the law and teachings over time are now contained in the Talmud, although it is more a record of debate than hard and fast conclusions.
In common with most religions there are different movements within Judaism today. These hold views on the 613 commands in the Torah that range from very orthodox (observe punctiliously) to reformed (accept critical analysis and modern interpretation).
Although ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ seems an obviously good thing, this can be interpreted in different ways too.
For instance, I am not sure that I agree with Paul when he says it means ‘do no wrong’ to them. That could be understood as just ‘be nice and try to avoid offence’. Being polite is important, but it can also be a way of holding people at arm’s length and disengaging from them. Jesus certainly didn’t do that. He spent much of his ministry with those on the edges, and beyond, ‘acceptable’ society.
The phrase might also be interpreted as love you neighbour as long as they are like yourself. We sometimes assume that everyone shares our values, or perhaps ought to! Maybe when it comes to the ‘big stuff’, like keeping the 10 commandments, that is right. But that level of agreement is not necessarily the case in every area of life. After all, we might love loud music, but treating our neighbours to it on a regular basis might not be that loving if they don’t share our tastes! Again, this is not what Jesus did. He didn’t expect everyone to share his view or come to where he was comfortable. He went to where those in need were. He spent time listening carefully to people; asking them what they wanted and needed, even when he already knew them better than they knew themselves.
Finally, it is good to remind ourselves that it is ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and not ‘love your neighbour instead of yourself’!
Whatever the interpretation, Paul was clear that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’.
Archbishop William Temple famously said ‘The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.’
Perhaps this week we could make a point of reflecting on our neighbours in the parish God has called us each to love and serve. Setting aside what we think they should be like and want; who are they and what are their real needs? What do they say when we really listen to them? How might we interpret our faith and respond today in ways that are truly loving?
We might try those same reflections on ourselves too.