Immediately after Jesus makes a great proclamation and defense of the resurrection to the Sadducees, who wished to deny it, he is called on by the scribes and the Pharisees to discuss the Law. They do not deny the Law, far from it; indeed, they are obsessed by it. So they want to use it as a test of Jesus.
And Jesus, it seems, passes the test. That love of God and neighbour is the best summary of the Law is something they can agree on. And it seems all agree upon what love of God and neighbour should be, but how does that love appear in the life and death of Jesus? Those experts on the Law know what it is to love God and to love their neighbour. Yet with, and despite this knowledge, these people will execute the very person who is both Son of God and Son of Man. Is that love?
In the death of Jesus, we see the gap between what we know about love and what we do. The cross reveals humanity, all of us, to be the kind of creatures that can torture and crucify even the Son of God. That is surely one of the most painful truths of the Christian faith; it is lost or denied when we try to pass off the blame on “bad people” or some specific group we can target and label – Jews, Muslims, “racists”, “gangs”, someone else, in other words, not us. The reality of sin is that “good people” do bad things.
Ironically however, the cross is itself the true interpretation of these core commandments. The British theologian Herbert McCabe often insisted that the way of the cross is just what love of God and neighbour looks like in our fallen world. The uncomfortable truth is that we too must take up our crosses if we are to love, forgive, heal, and so worship God in spirit and in truth. We can expect scorn and even persecution because that’s what love can trigger in a world of sin.
In which case, we can see again why this last question put to Christ leads to his questioning of the Pharisees. If we are really in the business of loving God and neighbour, we shall need the power and the grace of the Messiah. It is not enough to have a humanistic ethic, or to tick off a set of instructions found in the Law. There is no political programme or set of laws that will make the world good.
The ‘great and the good’ in our secular materialistic society grossly under-estimate the forces of evil which confront us. We depend on God’s grace in history, the power of the Messiah at work in our lives, and in the Church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is the only way we can truly love God and neighbour. And so we should pray for that grace each and every day.
Fr Chris Denham