This article draws out a theme message from the OT, NT gospel and NT letter readings listed for Sunday, October 31 in the Revised Common Lectionary — a non-denominational resource used by a variety of churches and chapels. See also The Living Word verse-by-verse Bible study on these passages and the reflections with them.
Here are the readings and links:
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Ruth 1:1-18 — Putting God first and giving others His love and faithfulness is worship
Mark 12:28-34 — The Great Commandment, to love God and love others is the stand-out principle of the kingdom of God
Hebrews 9:11-14 — The power of Christ’s love is in His shed blood, a momentous sacrifice which changes us inwardly
And also read: Psalm 146
Everyone knows that God stands for love and the faith called Christianity must be about having loving attitudes towards others. Most people have heard of Jesus Christ; if they don’t know anything else about Him, they remember that He was renowned as having extraordinary love for others, especially social outsiders.
That is true, but why? And how, in our world, do we do this kind of loving others?
This week we are going to look at the foundations, from the OT books the Jews called the law, from Jesus’ own teaching based on this, and from the perspective of teaching circulating around the early church in an excerpt from the letter to the Hebrews.
The first five books of the Bible contain a lot of instructions for holy living. The Ten Commandments are an important starting point, and many churches have depictions of Moses receiving the tablets of stone in stained glass windows, and sometimes the words in ornate lettering around an arch. Then there was a lot of detail added, to cover the life situations these nomadic tribesmen encountered and to guide them to handle them the way God wanted, rather than with violence.
This law served two purposes. It was a framework to guide the nation’s devotion to God and worship of Him. It was also a yardstick for community living and resolving disputes, a bit like the centuries-old English Law of Torts and Common Law that is still the foundation of many legal systems today.
The First Commandment
The first four commandments are about our relationship with God, summarised in these verses:
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with youHear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.Deut. 6:3-5.
The following six commandments are all headings governing personal relationships. Jesus summarised them, taking a memorable phrase from Leviticus:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.Leviticus 19:18
Included in this week’s Bible readings is a passage from the beginning of the Book of Ruth. This tells the beginning of the story, when Naomi, a migrant from Israel who found a new life in Moab, was left a widow together with her two daughters-in-law. So she decides that security for her is retracing her earlier journey, back to her ancestral home in Bethlehem. But what about her daughters-in-law?
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”Ruth 1:8-9
Naomi continues in similar vein, feeling that her plight is “because the Lord’s hand has turned against me” — a creative introduction to the book whose theme is exactly the opposite.
But Ruth, the Moabite, apparently not belonging to God, shows herself to be full of the faithfulness of God, in words that have been the text of many songs and poems, and titles of pastors’ sermons:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.Ruth 1:16-18
Without giving too much of the story away, we can be sure that God’s faithfulness will meet Ruth’s faithfulness in ways she never expected (and she becomes part of the ancestral line of Jesus Christ).
The Great Commandment
Unselfishness is one of the stand-out defining principles of the kingdom of God. We see the kingdom in people who, like Ruth, do not talk about what they want, because they are seeking what God wants.
Loving God must also be about loving what God loves. That’s not titles and distinctions and ceremonial, but sincere, loving relationships. It’s not about controlling, preserving or limiting — it is about generosity, giving away what we have been given.
Judaism at the time of Jesus was notorious for its social divisions and judgments — and for we might call ‘majoring on the minors’. Scribes, many of them Pharisees, having codified the law that said ‘love God and love others’ into 613 precepts, loved to debate which were the more important ones. This is the background of the sincere question that one of the teachers of the law put to Jesus:
He asked Him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.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: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:28-31
Jesus had done something no scribe would have expected. Jesus had aligned two widely-separated sayings on the law as one. Instead of worship of God and care for other people being, as it were, separate clauses, Jesus was expressing them as joined up — facets of the same thing. In other words, to love God is to love others. That is God’s way!
This man got it. He agreed that to love God with all one’s heart, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself was the main thing — not the offerings and sacrifices. If we are not loving others with God’s unconditional love, we are not loving God — and the ceremonial we offer will be empty words.
The Greatest Love
We conclude with some verses from Hebrews 9 which draws a contrast between the old system of priests and sacrifices which was a provisional measure, until the time of the far superior sacrifice Christ made of Himself.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.Hebrews 9:11-12
Christ came as the high priest who presides over all the goodness of God made available to us in the privilege of the new covenant:
- Unlike the sacrifice of animals, which need to be repeated, Christ’s self-sacrifice was a one time final event.
- Unlike the shedding of the life-blood of animals, Christ’s sacrifice was the shedding of His own life-blood.
- His sacrifice was not made in a representation of the tabernacle made on earth by human craftsmen, but in the holy tabernacle of heaven itself. where Christ stands as High priest appointed for all time by God Himself.
What does this tell us about love for God, and love for others?
Most of us are strongly motivated towards our self-preservation. For Jesus our Lord, the motive was self-giving for our benefit — the benefit of all those who would call on His name in trust. We are trusting Him for our new life, which was at the cost of His life, with all the pain and the shame that went with it.
He did this for us, so we could be changed from the selfish flesh-nature, set free from sin and healed of its effects — by the power of His shed blood.
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!Hebrews 9:14
This is how we receive God’s transforming love, and it is it how we are empowered to show God’s love to others. We cannot give what we have not received. But the magnitude of God’s love, which through trusting Jesus becomes part of us, is such that we will overflow that love to others. It becomes a continuous process — praising God for His love for us which we are receiving, and being Jesus Christ’s little assistant priests to everyone else (we don’t need robes, title or a building with a high roof).
Loving God is to join Him in loving others, and loving others is part of our worship of a loving God.