Such a welcome into the house of God surely reflects the welcoming tone of Jesus as given in the New Testament. In Matthew, chapter 11, Jesus encourages people to come to him for rest from heavy burdens and for their souls. In Luke’s Gospel the disciples order people not to bring their infants to Jesus to touch them but Jesus refutes this rejection saying: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’.
This welcome extends to those who are your enemies. Again in Luke, Jesus says: ‘But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’.
So in the sayings of Jesus and in the attempts we make in our own time to welcome people we can see the love of God for his creation manifesting itself in such welcome; particularly when challenged to love our enemies as ourselves.
This call to love your enemy as yourself is absent though in the attitude of the chief priests, scribes and elders of Jerusalem when in the Gospel narratives they engage with Jesus in a series of controversies. These controversies culminate in the response of Jesus given in today’s Gospel reading concerning the First Commandment.
In these controversies, the aim of Jesus’ opponents is to trap him by putting him in a position whereby they can undermine him and what he stands for, which is the love of God.
The first controversy concerns the authority of Jesus. His opponents want to trap him into a public claim that his authority is from God, thus laying the groundwork for a charge of blasphemy. Jesus avoids the trap by asking a counter question about the origin of John the Baptist’s authority. This strategy has the effect of reducing the opponents to silence while making clear the divine origin of Jesus himself. It does so because if the opponents admit the divine origin of the Baptist’s authority they would have to explain why they did not welcome him and would have to admit the divine origin of Jesus’ authority. If they deny the divine origin of the Baptist’s authority they would run the risk of opposition from the people who held him to be a prophet from God. Their dilemma reduces them to silence.
Still keen to trap Jesus, the opponents send him to some Pharisees and Herodians to ensnare him by another controversy. This concerns their paying poll tax to Caesar. In effect they are saying hypocritically: ‘since you are so great and teach the way of God, do you believe that we should defer to Caesar by paying the poll tax?’ Jesus sees through this hypocrisy and eludes the trap by calling upon them to be as exact in serving God as in serving Caesar. Thus he says to them: ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.
The third controversy is about the Resurrection. The opponents here are the Sadducees who said there was no Resurrection as it is not given in the Pentateuch. They ask Jesus whose wife would a woman be in the Resurrection if seven men had married her. Jesus once again eludes the trap by teaching on the nature of resurrected life where none marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.
These three controversies culminate in today’s Gospel reading. In all of them we find what may ensue when there is not welcome but hostility. We find cunning, hypocrisy and a desire to trap and bring to the ground the unwelcomed person. All this runs contrary to the all encompassing love of God.
Thus, as given in today’s Gospel reading, when the scribe, having heard the responses of Jesus to his opponents, questions him on which commandment is the first of all, Jesus asserts the love of God forcibly in the First Commandment, as he says: ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength’. In the first words ‘Hear, O Israel’ we find the first two words of the Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael, which is the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services. In the words that follow ‘the Lord our God is one Lord’ we find the monotheism of Judaism. The commandment to love God flows from his nature as the only God. The whole person should love God in heart and soul and mind.
This leads into the second commandment to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. Here Jesus shows his orthodoxy as a Jewish teacher ‘getting to the root of things’. There is an emphasis on inner and basic dispositions as can be found also in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew calls for reconciliation between brother and sister and the need to come to terms with your accuser. Nor should you murder as you will be liable to judgement.
The second commandment to love one another is a new commandment given as a final instruction after the Last Supper. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: ‘owe no-one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’. This second passage is considered to be a form of the ‘Golden Rule’ which in effect says ‘do as you would be done by’. As Matthew expresses it in his Gospel: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’; for this is the law and the prophets’.
The two commandments are connected by the word ‘love’. I would add to this the connectivity of welcome that reflects this love as distinct from the rejection and discarding produced by hatred. Such rejection can leave a person isolated and trapped in a negative state and with low self-esteem. This was the aim of Jesus’ opponents in the controversies so in avoiding being trapped Jesus is leaving himself free in the love of God.
You could speak against this and say that ultimately his opponents trapped Jesus on the Cross but that was only a temporary state of affairs as Jesus himself says to the criminal being crucified alongside him: ‘Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.
The First Commandment to love does not mean that the law does not exist but that as Paul expressed it in his second letter to the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in Christians and writes God’s law in their hearts in letters of love. The whole basis of life is not law but grace. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. It is this self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ that is the motive for Christian living. In today’s Gospel reading we learn that the scribe understood this message of love and Jesus responds by saying that he is then not far from the Kingdom of God.
Let us hope, then, that we Christians today can continue to be welcoming to all as a manifestation of the love of God.