29th October 2017
The first part of the book of Exodus lives up to the meaning of its title – exodus means going out; it is about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the early life of Moses and the miraculous escape from slavery into the desert and on the way to the promised land. But then we read of the establishment of the covenant between them and Yahweh. But this is an account put together after much retelling adapted and development. During that time the rules by which the people should live became established and were put together in the form of a book; they originated at the time of Moses and the Book is attributed to him (Exodus 24:1-7). The first reading for today is taken from this book shortly after the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai; among all the ways that those in covenant with God should live is this definite section about how to treat immigrants – foreigners living in your land. We notice also the strong image of God as a strict ruler who in anger will deal harshly with those who let him down. Ideas about God also develop with time.
The second reading follows on from that we had last week from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Now we hear how this Gentile community of Christians have influenced others in that part of the world. Paul had preached to them about there being just one God, whereas they were used to a multiplicity of gods in their pagan environment. He had preached to them about how they should live their lives to please this one God. And it was quite a development for them to move from polytheism to monotheism and to a belief in a God who cared for them. Paul himself had developed in his understanding as a Jew to the idea of a God who was there for all peoples. We detect in this reading two other ideas that were present at that time; the potential wrath of God and the proximity of the final coming of Christ. Some Christians today still have these ideas, but generally we think of God as a loving father and the end of the world as a distant future fulfillment of Christ in the world.
The gospel does not follow immediately from last week’s reading; in between is something about the Sadducees trying to question Jesus about life after death, for they didn’t believe in resurrection. Today we read from Matthew how after the Sadducees, the Pharisees come to Jesus. The story is based on Mark (12:28-34) where a scribe asks what is the most important commandment, and in response to Jesus’ answer tells him he is right. But in Matthew’s version the encounter is more confrontational; a Pharisee asks the question in order to trap Jesus; for them more than 600 laws in the Bible were all of equal importance. But the importance for us is Jesus’ reply, namely that loving God and neighbour are the two most important commandments; the first is taken from the succinct and central creed of the Jews in Deuteronomy (6:4-9) and thus avoids the trap posed to him. However, as thinking develops, nowadays we might think of them as necessary and best practice rather than commandments. I think, in addition, that we might put the two together and believe that loving others is the way that we love God; and we extend ‘neighbours’ to mean all other people that we encounter or who need our love.