In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Father, brothers and sisters: Happy Feast! Spraznecom! Happy New Year!
In today’s Gospel we find our Lord yet again being hounded and harassed by the elders of the People of Israel, representatives of the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees – the husbandmen of the vineyard and the invited guests to the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’. Yet again we can only marvel at the extraordinary patience of our long-suffering, meek and merciful Lord. How He doesn’t just dismiss His inquisitors but engages with each of them and answers their endless and tiresome questions just days before He would be arrested, scourged, mocked and brutally executed. In our reading today though not only does He answer a question posed to Him but also questions his questioners leaving them speechless. As is our custom, let us seek to interpret today’s Gospel with the help of the holy Fathers, this week: St Jerome of Stridon.
Let’s start by first looking at the context. As we have heard over these past few weeks, our Lord has told two highly pointed parables directly to this same sad group of Sadducees and the Pharisees that have relentlessly pursued Him throughout His ministry. Yet despite hearing the parables and knowing that they were being identified with their ancestors who had abused and killed God’s prophets and holy ones, still they relentlessly choose to pursue and hunt One they knew was working signs, healings and miracles well beyond even the greatest of the prophets of old. However, despite this, and out of their sheer jealousy and hate, following last week’s parable, the Parable of the King’s Marriage Supper, rather than repenting we hear that – Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.
As St Jerome bemoans, ‘Among themselves they are adversaries, but they agree to think alike when it comes to testing Jesus’. First, after colluding together they send the Pharisees and the Herodians who try to trick him with the question of whether it is ‘lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?’. Trying thereby to find a way to condemn Him either with regards to the Law of God or the law of the land. But Wisdom was not to be outwitted by the cunning of the Pharisees. Next, ‘on the same day’, come the Sadducees to see if they can find a way of ensnaring Him with a long and convoluted question about marriage and the resurrection, which aimed, of course, to openly mock the whole belief in the resurrection, the reality of which they firmly denied. Yet God is not mocked, and our Lord was able to refute their attempted reductio ad absurdum through appealing to the Scriptures and thereby affirmed the resurrection of the body as well as the purity of our eternal life after the general resurrection. After hearing how our Lord had disposed of the arguments of the Sadducees it was then that the Pharisees sought to have one last try whose efforts form the first part of our Gospel reading today.
Of course, our Lord knew the intentions of this lawyer from amongst the Pharisees, and the falseness with which he addressed Him as ‘Master’ or more literally in the Greek, ‘teacher’. As St Jerome glosses, the lawyer ‘asks a question, not with the desire to know, but in order to test him’. This time the lawyer asks the Author of the Law Himself, a final question: ‘Master, which is the great commandment in the law?’ The Orthodox Study Bible provides an interesting fact that the Pharisees had identified that there were 613 commandments throughout the Holy Scriptures and often debated and disagreed amongst themselves which was the most important. This was a highly controversial and contested question posed deliberately to trip our Lord up, since, as St Jerome says, ‘everything that God commands is great, whatever Jesus might respond would create a pretext for bringing a malicious charge’. Look again at our Lord’s patience and forbearing, He doesn’t react, rebuke or dismiss but answers the question straightforwardly. In choosing the commandments, Jesus doesn’t, as one might expect, turn to the Decalogue, the 10 Commandments given to the Prophet Moses, Whose Memory we also celebrate today. Instead, He answers the Lawyer in two parts with two verses taken directly from the Law. Quoting verbatim from the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 5: ‘Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This our Saviour says, ‘is the first and greatest commandment’. But He then supplements this with a further commandment, this time taken directly from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18 where in the midst of a list of laws it states – Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord. Later on in the same chapter, at verse 34 it repeats this refrain, with reference not just to the neighbour but also the ‘stranger’
But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
When our Lord says, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, it is also important to understand that He isn’t saying that we should love our neighbour as much as, or to the same extent as we love ourselves, thereby making our own self-love the determinant of our outward regard and conduct. Rather, as we see more clearly from looking at the context of the verse within chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, we should love our neighbour as being of the same being as our self: as a fellow creature of God, endowed and beautified with His Image and His Likeness. This is also why our Lord adds that this second commandment – to love our neighbour as ourself – ‘is like unto’ the first. For if we truly love God, we will love Him and everything He has made – His Creation and the human beings which He tenderly made in His image. The history of the 20th Century – with its death camps, gas chambers and gulags – shows exactly what happens when people do not love God and do not see human beings as the unique and wondrous works of His hands.
In St Matthew’s account, we hear nothing more of the reaction of the lawyer which then leads our long-suffering and greatly patient Lord to pose a question to His impudent questioners. Our Lord asks them ‘What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?’. Of course, they all immediately answer – ‘The son of David’. Referring to the passage in the 109th Psalm: ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, ‘Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?’, our Lord thus asks them, ‘If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?’. As St Jerome explains, ‘he is called David’s Lord, not according to the fact that he was born from him, but in accordance with the fact that, having been born of the Father, he has always existed, preceding the very father of his flesh’. The 109th Psalm thus clearly points and prophesises that the promised Messiah would not just be of the House of David, according to the flesh, but would be divine – God of God. However, the Pharisees in their blindness and hardness of heart, refused to see the divinity of Christ as much as they refused to see the image of God in their neighbour thereby denying the Prophets and the Law whatever their pretensions to fulfilling the commandments might have been.
My dear father, brothers and sisters: on this first Sunday after the start of the new ecclesiastical year, it is spiritually beneficial for us, despite the guile of the Pharisees and Sadducees, to return to first principles and consider what Blessed Father Seraphim (Rose) called our ‘Spiritual A, B, C’s’. Unlike the blind Pharisees and Sadducees let us not make our Lord just another man, just a son of David’s House. Let us honour Him and recognize in Him, ‘the fulness of the Godhead bodily’: our Lord and our God. Let us also honour His creation and His creatures, made with His hand in His likeness and His Image for His glory and thereby fulfil the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel.