St Laurence – 10.00 a.m. – Exodus 20: 1 – 17 and Mark 12: 28 – 34
As part of the Northern Group’s teaching programme about the basics of our faith, it falls to me to begin a four week series of sermons about the Commandments – but, as happened earlier in the service, I shall omit the Eleventh of them, which – as we all know – is “Thou shalt not be found out.”
My task is to introduce the Mosaic Commandments, but leave their detailed consideration to others, and then to spend the rest of my time talking about Jesus’ summary of them, sometimes known as the Great Commandment.
As most, perhaps all of you, know, the Ten Commandments form the basis of the faith and practice which Moses brought from Mount Sinai – reputably written on two stone tablets – and which Jews and Christians share. According to the Book of Exodus, he had spent forty days alone on the mountain communing with God. How long he had really spent up there is open to question, though, for, as with Jesus in the wilderness, forty days merely signified a long time.
Having escaped from Egypt, the Jewish nation was feeling its feet as as an independent state, no longer subject to the law codes forced upon it by its previous masters. Almost all the colonial possessions of the great European powers have been given their independence since the end of the Second World War, and have felt their way towards their own codes of law and practice, so many of us can fully understand the position the Jews felt themselves to be in.
If we take the relevant parts of the first five books of the Old Testament at face value Moses seems to have tackled the whole task on his own, ending up by carrying down those two tablets, with the new law code literally carved in stone upon both sides of both of them. But straightway Moses found his ideals and plans in jeopardy because, in his absence, his people had turned away from the one true God to unseemly revelry and worshipping a golden calf.
Moses was incandescent as we can read in Exodus 32: 19 – 20:
“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the camp and the dancing, his anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the [golden] calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.”
And, in the voice of Basil Brush, Jews and Christians alike have been taking the tablets for their spiritual and moral health ever since. Boom! Boom!
Nevertheless a second pair of inscribed tablets was soon made and Exodus tells us that, again, God himself did the writing
But as I explained earlier my task this morning is to talk about about Jesus’ very short summary of the Ten Commandments which, under pressure from the Pharisees, he boiled down to just two laws.
Jesus’ deceptively simple formula emerged when a Pharisean lawyer asked him a question to test him. “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.”
And it is fair to say that those two linked commandments, sometimes called the Great Commandment., reveal the basis of true religion which starts with loving God, not in some kind of sentimental, feel-good sort of way, but in total commitment of heart, soul, and mind.
And so Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest and first commandment and that verse from Deuteronomy is part of the basic creed of Judaism.
“It means,” said the great Baptist commentator William Barclay, “that we must give total love to God, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions.”
The second commandment Jesus cites is from Leviticus 19:18. Only when we love our neighbour in concrete acts of justice and compassion does our love for God become real – and not merely an abstract idea. As Jesus says in Matthew 7: 16 in the Sermon on the Mount: “You will know them by their fruits.”
But it is important I emphasize the final two words of our Lord’s second Great Commandment, for the Gospel accounts do not record him as saying simply “Love your neighbour” but “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
For, in the last resort, if one doesn’t look after oneself, one cannot take one’s proper place in life, be it in the family, at work or at leisure, or in helping one’s fellow human beings wherever they might be in the world. or in helping the world at large.
To give you one example from my personal experience, I shall always value the advice I was given by Bishop Timothy of Portsmouth who ordained me Deacon on Michaelmas Day in 1987 – a very wise man who previously had been Bishop of Johannesburg, with Desmond Tutu as his Dean and once he had retired he became a monk in Alton Abbey, Hampshire. After dinner on the evening before the ordination, he ended my private talk with him by saying “I expect that after tomorrow you’re going to feel you’re fired up to conquer the world for God, but never forget that come what may – as it will – your major responsibility should not be to the world but to yourself and your family.
Without looking after yourself and looking after them, you will be ineffective and no real long term good to anyone. Advice which stipendiary clergy should take particularly to heart, but sadly – sometimes even tragically – rarely do. So it’s the duty of the rest of us to make sure they take their time off and aren’t forced to attend all the meetings they do and for the rest of us to accept that a home visit doesn’t mean that it’s always the vicar who has to call.
Now to conclude, let me offer you some final thoughts on the two commandments from St. Cyril of Alexandria, an outstanding theologian who died in the year 444.
The first Great Commandment teaches every kind of godliness. For to love God with the whole heart is the cause of every good. The second commandment includes the righteous acts we do toward other people.
The first commandment prepares the way for the second and in turn is established by the second. For the person who is grounded in the love of God clearly also loves his neighbour in all things.
So may God give you grace to obey Jesus’ two commandments in all their fulness, so that you may experience the blessings to be gained from obeying the whole ten which Moses brought down from the mountain.