Lectionary: Matthew 22:34-46
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time TS Eliot Little Gidding
The word "simple" gets bad press. There are no simple answers, we are told. The problem, as I see it, is that we often confuse simple with simplistic, or with other conditions. We think about simple in simplistic terms. Simplistic means to over simplify. To state something simply, however, is to clarify, or to show the bones of the matter. Simple is often good.
When we think about life, and its purpose and meaning, we should distinguish between simple and simplistic. Simplistic is to see only black and white when life is mostly composed of grey; that is, a multiplicity of choices and dilemmas. It is wish fulfillment, and a denial of reality.
We need to distinguish between simple and ignorant. Ignorant comes up with an answer that doesn't take heed of all the facts or issues. Simplicity is not the problem here. Factual error is the problem. We also need to recognize the difference between simple and bigoted, where a short answer masquerades as simple. The short answer is not simple, but uses its brevity as a powerful way to endorse a prejudice.
Simple is also used as an excuse to ignore justice. A "simple" answer is simply to have the same flat tax for everyone. This is not simple; it is unjust. Ten percent of my thousand dollars per week barely impacts my ability to survive, where as ten per cent of your two hundred a week means going without basics.
Simple has the edge of Ockham's Razor in our dealings with life. "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best." If there are two competing theories, the most likely one to be true is the simplest.
Simple without simplistic is also a good test of our understanding of an issue. I constantly try and restate theological principles in my own words, aiming also for conciseness. If I am wordy, it usually means I am unclear. Not only unclear to the reader, but also unclear in my own mind. This is because simple tends towards concise. Concise, if it is not simplistic, or ignorant or bigoted, understands.
Sometimes simple is able to summarise with such brevity that it becomes profound. Thus in the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures, there are many commandments. There are not merely ten. The ten are presented as a kind of summary. In the presentation of the story in Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments are almost an abstract of the chapters of commandments which follow. Then there is the detailed law in the book of Leviticus, more again in Numbers, and the restating (The Second Law) in Deuteronomy.
When the lawyer in Matthew 22 asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, there were many from which to choose, and great potential for argument. Jesus makes an obvious reply.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment.
He is directly quoting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) which is an interesting orthodoxy as far as his listeners were concerned. There is nothing controversial here.
His second commandment, a kind of rider or interpreter of the first is this:
And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."
This is from Leviticus 19, and again, not controversial. Torah to Go says
"love neighbour as yourself" - is, according to Rabbi Akiva, the most important principle of the entire Torah (Sifra).
Born around 50 AD, and therefore a contemporary with Matthew's Gospel, Akivva was one of the greatest Jewish Rabbis.
Jesus statement in Matthew could thus be seen to bolster his orthodoxy. It says, "This man who has just been seen to criticize the religious authorities so harshly, was actually deeply orthodox! He was not a rabble raiser or a heretic!"
I think there is more. In this story we are in the presence of that wonderful thing "Simple as in Profound." It was easy, and is easy, to be so concerned with our god(s) that we forget the purpose of God, who is for all people. So the rider upon loving God with all our heart and soul and mind is that this includes, by definition, loving our neigbour as ourselves. However, one might be so concerned to do good for a neighbor, that one drifted away from other implications of the love of God. The corrective is that our neighbour cannot be truly loved except as a part of loving God.
The Gospel of Luke sharpens this point in one particular direction. There (Luke 10:29) the lawyer asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbour?" The answer is, essentially, everyone. In the specific case it is the Samaritan traveler; Jews and Samaritans were sworn enemies. To love God "in the whole" means to seek to love all people in the agapeic sense. To love one's neighbours "in the whole" means to love God. It means to love in the presence of, and with reference to, the very most and best I know of Ultimate Reality; otherwise my loving of my neighbours must be flawed.
"On these two commandments," Jesus said, "hang all the law and the prophets." In his milieu, this meant that allknowledge and action depended on these two commandments. There was no split between religion and politics or between philosophy and religion.
Simply put, successful living today, in the presence of all the complexities of religion, politics, philosophy and science hangs on these two commands. The very most and best I know of Ultimate Reality may be about physics, evolution, psychology and limitations to the ecology of the planet with no reference to any traditional notion of God. And true justice and equality cannot exist without, well, justice and equality for all.
It's that simple. Dom Helder Camera said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." In his situation that was a dangerous accusation. Sometimes simple is uncomfortably, dangerously true. The charges of being simplistic, naïve, communist are an attack on uncomfortable truth.
‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, ‘ "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'
Andrew Prior 2008
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