Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday before Advent (4 November 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

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Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday before Advent (4 November 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

'Shemas and shibboleths'. The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor, looks at the 'extraordinary' behaviour of religious people and Jesus' response to the hierarchy of the Commandments.

Hebrews 9: 11-14 Mark 12: 28-34

I wonder whether close observation of ritual and purity laws is a means of avoiding self-awareness and of masking low self-esteem.

That’s quite a bold statement to make by someone like myself who has little or no training in psychology and who therefore could be accused of not knowing what he’s talking about, but it’s a thought that occasionally goes through my mind and this morning’s gospel lesson put the thought into my mind once more.

After all, something has to explain the extraordinary way in which some religious people behave: often a form of behaviour entirely at odds with the central precepts of most religious faiths.

When we meet Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson, he is involved in a series of disputes with doctors of the law: that is religious law, most of which concerned itself with ritual and purity. The dispute we heard a few moments ago is not actually so much of a dispute as a conversation between Jesus and one particular scribe who, having heard what Jesus has been saying to his colleagues, appears to admire Jesus and wants to engage with him and learn from him.

The question about what weight should be given to the various commandments of Old Testament law was a common one and was part of a debate that was waged at the highest level amongst the rabbis, the teachers of the law, such that great courage and depth were required in seeking to answer the question which the scribe puts to Jesus: ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’

And, as is so often the way when he responds to his interrogators, Jesus doesn’t quite answer the question. He is asked which commandment is the first and he answers with two commandments and does so by quoting two separate portions of scripture: Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, verse 4 and Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 18. He says, ‘The first is "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

And, although he doesn’t attempt to equate the two commandments or join them into one, the fact remains that Jesus sees them as two sides of the same coin and dependent upon each other if either is to be observed fully and effectively.

And it is the scribe who reckons not only that Jesus is right in this answer to his question but also that his answer is more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. And certainly early Christians took Jesus’s summary of the law as permission to disregard the law’s ritual commandments.

Elsewhere, in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus claims that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfil the law and that claim has been used by ritualists and purists to challenge the assumption that religious law, by and large, compromises our ability to love God and to love neighbour to the fulsome extent that Jesus’s summary of the law dictates. To which the response comes: that surely to fulfil the law is to render the letter of the law obsolete while articulating the spirit of the law in a very different way.

Be all of that as it may, I remember preaching a somewhat green and naive sermon in Cambridge many years ago when I was an ordinand on this very text in which I spoke passionately and almost evangelically about how important it was that we should all love each other as much as we love ourselves. As I stood in the church porch after the service, keenly awaiting the approbation and enthusiasm of the congregation, a quiet and slightly sombre-looking woman came up to me and said, ‘But what if we don’t love ourselves very much?’

Her words have haunted me ever since and taught me a great deal about naive assumption and perilous judgement. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that every shibboleth to which religious people cling is a means of hiding a lack of self-worth and has little to do with what the Bible says and much more to do with what we don’t love about ourselves. And surely no one could deny that it is the shibboleths to which we cling that are the devices that make our observation of Jesus’s summary of the law so ineffective and incomplete.

Perhaps that is precisely why Jesus answers the scribe in the way he does. Perhaps Jesus’s summary of the law is as much an instruction to love ourselves as it is an instruction to love God and to love neighbour. And if I’m right, does that imply divine permission to be selfish and open and honest about ourselves? Yes, I think so. Although I’m not naive. I can’t be selfish and open and honest about myself unless you’ll let me and, because we’re talking religion here, I’m never quite sure what sort of people I’m engaging with in church circles.

David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, summed it all up in a rather quaint but effective instruction when he said: ‘You must be you in such a way that I can be me in such a way that you can be you.’

If we can get that right, our love of God and our love of neighbour will be all the more profound and all the more loving.