“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?””
We’ve just heard in our gospel reading this Sunday what might be described as one of the most well known nuggets of holy scripture. It is frequently referred to as the Golden Rule. Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
The teaching is so beautiful, so simple, so straightforward and easy to remember, one might be forgiven for wondering, what more if there to say about the matter? What can a preacher possibly add to such a wise piece of succinct teaching from Jesus?
A voice that might add some wisdom comes to us from the Third Century. The voice I am thinking of is that of scholar and writer called Origen. He was one of the most famous interpreters of sacred scripture in Antiquity.
Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel tells us the most interesting bit of this Gospel passage is not the saying of Jesus, but the words of the lawyer who puts the question, and in particular, his use of the word, “teacher.”
Origen points out that the lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher,” when in fact he means nothing of the sort. He uses the word to try to ingratiate himself and trick Jesus. He doesn’t actually think he has anything to learn from him.
Origen makes a really important point. You can’t call Jesus “Teacher” unless you are one of his disciples. “And see, on account of this, that not all who call him teacher do so appropriately, but only those who have a desire to learn from him.”
The point for Origen is not whether Jesus’ answer is correct, or what really is the most important commandment, but whether we are prepared to learn from what Jesus says. Are we prepared to make him our teacher?
Because I can’t see that his teaching in today’s gospel is capable of making any difference in a person’s life unless we come to it as a disciple, as a pupil, learning from our teacher, Jesus.
It’s important to remember that the Ancient world had a much better and much richer idea of what teaching was about than we do in modernity.
For the ancient mind, one of the most important things a good pupil wants to do is change and be like their teacher. This was seen as the point of teaching. It wasn’t to learn stuff from a teacher as if they were simply a repository of information; it was to become like the teacher, who himself was ideally an example of learning and virtue and wisdom.
I think this is still what lies behind the best teaching today. A young pianist will want to change and get better at doing his scales so he can play like his impressive piano instructor. A footballer will want to change and be able to score goals better like her inspiring football coach. Similarly, Christians will want to change so that we are more like the one who teaches us – Jesus Christ.
So this teaching today shows us that God’s law is less about things we should or shouldn’t do for the sake of it. It’s actually about becoming like Jesus. It’s about becoming more and more like our teacher. Living wholly in God’s presence and solly for him. Reaching out to our neighbour with an unconditional love. For then we discover that it is on being generous and loving like Christ that all the law and prophets hang.