Every day, we hear more details about the relentless march of the Corona Virus. Each day, we hear how health care professionals are struggling to cope with this Second Phase. Each day, governments offer more advice and take more stringent measures to keep us safe.
Perhaps the more we hear, the more we can become concerned and confused.
In some parts of the country, 'Three Tiers' are being brought into operation, starting with 'Tier One'. In Scotland, we are soon to enter a 'Five Tier' system, starting with 'Tier Zero'.
It can be worrying to hear differing advice and warnings and perhaps not be sure what exactly is the most important set of regulations in any given area.
Similarly, in the Gospel this Sunday, we hear the question asked: what are the most important regulations? 'Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?'
Although the question is put to Jesus, deliberately 'to disconcert him', nevertheless, he answers with great clarity and disarming simplicity, so much so, that in Mark's version of this episode, the interrogator has to admit, 'Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true.' (Mark 12;32)
The simplicity of Jesus answer lies in the fact that he refers himself to fundamental texts in the Law which his hearers cannot but respect.
He quotes first of all that foundational text of Judaism: the Shema: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.'
This is the basic, essential creed of Judaism, the sentence with which every Jewish service still opens, the first text a Jewish child commits to memory. It means that to God we must give a total love, a love which is the dynamic of all our actions.
The second commandment which Jesus quotes is from Leviticus 19; 18. Our love for God must be expressed in our loving care for others:
'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord.'
The order of the commandments is important. We must love God first. It is only when we love God does it become possible to love others.
Humanity is lovable simply because we are made in the image and likeness of God,
'God said, 'Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves.'
The Trinity creating Eve - Sarcophagus Dogmaticus,
(320-350 AD) Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican Museums.
Michelangelo: Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, (1508-1512) Vatican
The biblical teaching about humanity is that we are created by God, not some random mix of atoms or chemical elements. Many centuries before Michelangelo's Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, an unknown sculptor of the fourth century had a clear conviction that human beings are created by the love of the Trinity, a creation of love, created lovable and to be loving. At the heart of this act of creation is love. It is only logical that in return, human beings should return this love to God and be loving and reverential of one another.
This love is no nebulous sentimentality, but a determined act of mind, heart and soul, to live up to what amounts to our person specification.
In difficult times, when we meet with harsh conditions, we can easily be side-tracked into selfishness, worrying about our own situation, to the exclusion of others.
We can read rules and regulations in a self-involved way and perhaps allow lesser issues to overshadow the more important.
A guide to making right choices is to be found in the answer of Jesus to the scribe: whatever we do, it should be out of love for God, made real in our care for one another.
Legend in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh
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When will I ever learn to say Amen,
Really assent at last to anything?
For now my hesitations always bring
Some reservation in their trail, and then
Each reservation brings new hesitations;
All my intended Amens just collapse
In an evasive mumble: well, perhaps,
Let me consider all the implications...
But you read my heart, I hear you say:
For once be present to me, I am here,
Breathe in the perfect love that casts out fear
Open your heart and let your yea be yea.
Oh bring me to that brink, that moment when
I see your full-eyed love and say Amen.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite