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Emmanuel Church, Plymouth
in partnership with
St Paul's, Efford
There’s nothing quite like a church wedding. The long walk of the bride down the aisle, on the arm of her proud father. The magic moment the groom first sets eyes on his wife to be, looking resplendent in her dress and finery. The exchanging of vows, hand-in-hand, lit by the multicoloured sunshine pouring through the stained-glass window.
Most couples nowadays have been living together for many years by the time they eventually get married. Why bother with the wedding at all, then? Most tell me they want to take their relationship to a “higher level”. Love is not built on the shifting sand of feelings which come and go, but the solid rock of commitment. Each will be the other’s “one and only” for as long as they live. A very weighty pledge, indeed.
In today’s episode from
, Jesus is teaching about love. A love transcending feelings, rooted in an exclusive commitment to the God who is the ultimate one and only. We are still in the temple. The crowd is growing ever bigger, eagerly watching Jesus’ every move, hanging on his every word. The entourage who made the trip alongside Jesus into Jerusalem are willing him on. They have been mesmerised by his teaching, astounded by his miracles and can’t wait for him to show more of the same on this, the biggest stage in the country, at a time when the air is thick with religious fervour.
They have watched delighted as chief priests, top theologians, national politicians, Herodians, Pharisees and Sadducees have all been put in their place. They have seen Jesus “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and no one has been able to lay a glove on him.
More and more join the throng around Jesus, entranced by the verbal fisticuffs and in awe of the class oozing from the carpenter, up against temple authorities and the best minds in the country. How does he do it? Where does his wisdom come from? What next?
The circle of Sadducees around Jesus has disbursed in shame-faced defeat. Pride pricked by the ease with which the uneducated peasant cut through their academic sophistry.
A lone scribe approaches. He is one of the law teachers. As academically sharp as a modern theologian, as worldly wise and crafty as the subtlest of our lawyers. The scribes have been a constant thorn in Jesus’ side ever since he first went public.
Peter had noticed this one watching the previous “rounds” in the background. There was something different in this man’s demeanour. He lacked the normal haughtiness of a scribe. There had been no hint of disapproval on his face, as he took in Jesus’ teaching. Quite the reverse. His expression had changed from mild surprise at Jesus’ earliest answers to his critics, to openmouthed astonishment at the ease and relentless logic as Jesus had used the very Scriptures the Sadducees prized most to expose their ignorance and error.
There are no more cabals of plotters eager to pounce, so the scribe grabs his moment. He greets Jesus warmly.
Never trusting a scribe, Peter is waiting for the barbed comment, or silky words hiding a snare. There is nothing of that. Just a genuine and sincere question from the heart: “Which command is the most important?”
There were 613 commands in the first five books of Scripture. Plenty to choose from. The theologians debated endlessly which was the most important. This wasn’t just an academic parlour game. Once you knew the most important one, you could use it to put the rest into perspective. It would be a key to unlocking everything important about God and his truth.
Jesus warms to the question, pleased at last to be asked something with no hidden agenda.
“Love God with everything you’ve got … and then love your neighbour as yourself.”
The scribes so often focused on religion as “keeping the rules”. But here is Jesus saying it’s not all about obedience, it’s love. There is no one else beside God, as far as you are concerned. He is the only one for you, for ever and for always. Of course, when you see that, you will want to obey him. The biggest thing, though, isn’t obedience, it is the love that makes you want to obey.
The scribe is just a little taken aback at the answer. He had asked Jesus for the one, greatest commandment. But Jesus has given two.
If you love God, then of course you will love your neighbour. The two go hand in hand. They are inseparable. The second flows from the first. Loving your neighbour is so vital in loving God, Jesus can’t bear to see the two parted.
“Well answered, teacher,” replies the scribe. The word “teacher” this time is no precursor to flattery and a trap laid. It falls from his lips with heartfelt deference and respect.
“Love is far more important than sacrifices.” The temple authorities, who made a healthy living out of sacrifices, bristle with indignation as Jesus and the scribe agree on this. Is the scribe going soft? Will he become a follower of the Galilean?
Jesus gazes at the scribe with warmth and affection. “You are not far from God’s kingdom,” he says to the scribe.
There is another sharp collective intake of breath, from the crowd of onlookers. The scribes were the national experts in God and his kingdom. Yet this one, for all his sincerity, is only “close” to God’s kingdom. If even a “good” scribe hasn’t even made it in the door yet, what hope is there for anyone else getting into God’s kingdom?
Who is this Galilean anyway? How come he knows the boundaries of God’s kingdom and can say who is in and who is out?
Jesus’ words fall upon everyone watching, with devastating power. His own disciples are humbly grateful that they know the secret of the kingdom which has eluded even the very best of the scribes.
His opponents are crushed, by the sheer weight of his claim that they stand outside the Kingdom. Jesus has utterly routed them, in their own backyard. Their appetite for questions evaporated. They don’t dare ask him anything else.