Gospel reading was Matthew 22: 34-46
Who is Jesus? That might seem like a huge question, but it is one which I think resonates through each gospel (each of which, after all, was written to try to answer the question) and is as important a question for each of us as ever it was for the first followers of Jesus.
In the section of Matthew we’ve had in the lectionary over the last few weeks there have been questions to Jesus – some from the Sadducees, some from the Pharisees: there have been questions on divorce, authority, taxes, resurrection and now the law.
Matthew states that these questions are put to ‘test’ or to ‘trap’ Jesus, but perhaps there was also a genuine desire to find out whose side Jesus was on, what he stands for, who should rally to his cause. Who is Jesus? Or perhaps whose is Jesus? But Jesus shows no interest in claiming support from one faction rather than another.
We know that at the time of Jesus there were factions amongst God’s people.
The Pharisees were the strictest in terms of law – they were highly moral, deeply suspicious of the Romans and concerned for moral purity. The Sadducees were more concerned with the continuation of temple worship and were content to collaborate with the Roman powers. The Essenes were more radical and exclusive, and were expecting God to overthrow the Roman powers but without a Messiah figure. They had taken themselves off to the desert, which is probably why we don’t hear of them interacting with Jesus.
But for the Pharisees and Sadducees the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah and if so what sort of Messiah he was, and therefore whose side he was on, was of real importance.
Who is Jesus?
Was Jesus the Messiah who had come to reinforce the law of Moses, the son of David who would lead the people to a new kind of moral purity? Or was he a more political leader who would help the Jewish people to stand alongside the Roman powers with temple worship preserved and honoured, but not disturb the status quo too much?
So we come to today’s question in Matthew’s gospel. When the Pharisees ask Jesus ‘which is the greatest commandment?’ it’s meant to be a difficult question. Jesus is potentially onto a loser – if he says ‘You must not kill’ is the greatest commandment, people might say ‘Ooh, he doesn’t think worshipping God is important, then’ or if he says the most important commandment is ‘Respect your parents’ he can be criticised for not being tough enough on crime!
It’s also trying to work out whether Jesus sides more with the moral aspects of the law (favoured by the Pharisees) or the ceremonial aspects of the law (favoured by the Sadducees).
Whose side is Jesus on? Who is Jesus?
Jesus, as ever, responds in a very clever way – he sums up all the 10 commandments in two phrases: the greatest commandment is ‘Love God with all your heart & soul & mind’ and ‘the second is like it - love your neighbour as you love yourself’.’ Jesus places the two laws very clearly side by side, with no preference or hierarchy. Love God, love other people – that’s it.
So Jesus gets out of the trick question very neatly.
But he does something else – Jesus makes us think about what the commandments are really for.
They aren’t a set of rules to be followed like mindless robots – and God isn’t watching & waiting for us to slip up so that he can punish us horribly for breaking the rules. The commandments are there to help us work out what life is really about – what we are here for.
And they tell us that we’re here to love God & love other people. And if we are here to love God, we need to seek and know God, which brings u back to the question of Jesus’ identity.
Then Jesus deals with the unspoken question of what sort of Messiah he is, with the question about how he can be both the son of David and the Lord of David. Jesus’ answer is that he is the Messiah they are expecting – the son of David – but he is also more than they can imagine – the Lord of David. Not just a messenger of God but God himself come to save his people.
Jesus points us to a law that is about more than rules, and a knowledge of him that is about more than facts.
Jesus resists each faction, each human desire to divide ourselves according to what we believe.
And what about us? Who is Jesus? We might think that the divisions of the Sadducees and Pharisees and Essenes are no longer relevant to us.
But we have our own divisions: are own answers to the question ’who is Jesus?’
Is Jesus a teacher? Then it is following his teaching that is the most important thing for us to grasp – we are to be followers of Jesus.
Is Jesus the Messiah? Then we should be asking what his message of liberation is, and for whom – we are to be social revolutionaries.
Is Jesus the Christ? Then we should focus our energies on worshipping him and proclaiming him to others.
And what denomination is Jesus? And for which party would Jesus vote? And which charities would be support?
Remember, when you’re asking yourself who Jesus is and what Jesus would have you do, that Jesus himself resist all divisions and pulls all our factions and differences together to show us that he is all we hope for and pray for and look for – and more.
Who is Jesus?
The one who tells us who we are to be., and yet the one who resists our every attempt to think that we have completely or comfortably found him.
Jesus says ‘love God and love your neighbour’.
The most important thing is to know God, and love God in return;
to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to celebrate it; to know that our love for other people is a vital part of being alive, and to want to serve them.
The story is told of Pope John 23rd that at a large audience we was to be seen staring intently and yet lovingly into the crowds. Those who saw him felt that he was looking for the face of Jesus in every face of those around him.
So remember as this week unfolds before you that you cannot ever rest completely in your search for Jesus anymore than he rests from his search for us.
Jesus is more, ever before us, greater than we think and perhaps to be found, this week, in unexpectedly places and people.
And as we find him so may we love him.