Brisbane's Gateway Bridge was being built between June 1980 and January 1986. We were living in Bulimba and saw the two main piles go up. We watched in fascination as the bridge grew out week by week - a metre to the left, then a metre to the right - from these piles, until they met in the middle. While this was going on, a steel framework enabled the approaches to be built from each bank.
It is said that the arch is the greatest Roman contribution to building technology. A wooden frame was built so that the wedge-shaped stones could be laid. They were made to fit together, to lean on one another. Finally, a larger stone wedge was dropped into place at the top, ensuring that the arch would be stable and remain secure when the building was complete and the framework removed. This "keystone", as it is called, was often carved to enhance it as a feature. All the stones were important, but the keystone held them all together.
In today's reading, it is Jesus' last week in Jerusalem. His opponents are plying him with questions - trying to manoeuvre him into saying something that could incriminate him before the Romans or that might stir the crowd into opposition.
Back in 3.6, we read that, following the healing of the man with a shrivelled hand on a Sabbath day, "the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus." It was an unlikely alliance, since the Herodians were a political force opposed to Roman rule, whereas the Pharisees were devoted to maintaining the Law and tolerated cooperation with the Romans. And now in chapter 12 we see the Pharisees and Herodians working together, trying to trap Jesus one way or the other with a question on whether they should be paying taxes to Caesar. They were amazed at his answer - "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (v. 17).
Next the Sadducees came along. They were in sharp disagreement with the Pharisees - they didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. So they posed their hypothetical question about marriage and the resurrection. Jesus made it quite clear that they were wrong in their understanding of both marriage and the afterlife - "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising - have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (vv. 24-27).
"One of the teachers of the Law" hears how Jesus has given the Sadducees a good answer - we can safely assume that this teacher is a Pharisee. But he doesn't seem to have any hidden hostile motives for questioning Jesus. Jesus has answered well. He may be able to resolve the question that we Scribes seem to be debating endlessly - "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" (v. 28).
Across the years the Scribes had identified 613 individual commands in the Law of Moses. 365 of these were negative and 248 positive. All were held to be binding, but some were considered "weightier" and others "lighter". Often they tried to identify a single unifying command which would sum up the whole Law.
It is important to give them credit for this attempt. So often we have thought only of their multiplication of the rules (as with the Sabbath command) - a multiplication of detail to make sure there was no chance of the Law being broken.
Jesus doesn't go into the question of weightier and lighter commands, but immediately identifies one command as "the most important." He quotes it from Deut. 6.4-5 - "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" (vv. 29-30). These words are very familiar to his questioner. They are the opening words of what is called the Shema - so named from its opening Hebrew word which means "Hear!" The Shema is recited morning and evening by all devout Jews.
The Lord (Yahweh) is unique. There is only one God. Therefore that final worship, honour, trust, obedience and love are due to God alone. Too often our profession to love God falls short of what Jesus is saying because we haven't acknowledged that there is only one who is worthy of this kind of love. We have our "other gods" - additional to the Lord. We treasure our idols. So, by our profession we in fact take the Lord's name in vain - saying that the Lord is our only God, yet flirting with other gods.
The command is to "love" - that is a choice of the will, a commitment, rather than some fuzzy feeling.
When people get married, they make a promise "to love and to cherish as long as we both live." I did hear of a civil celebrant's service where the couple promised to stay married "as long as love shall last." Not adequate - hardly reflecting the Australian marriage law which describes marriage as "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life."
We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In their thinking, the "heart" is the control centre (like the will), the "soul" the self-conscious life, the "mind" the ability to think, the "strength" the ability to do, to obey.
The command to love God is the most important, but there is a second one that Jesus gives - lest people think they can lose themselves in a pious life and let the rest of the world go by. "Love your neighbour as yourself" - words found in Lev. 19.18. In Matt. 22.40 Jesus adds the words, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
When we allow God his proper place in our lives, we can no longer circle around ourselves. If our lives - our attention, our thoughts, words and actions - centre around ourselves, then we haven't begun to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.
There is, of course, a proper "self-love". We aren't meant to hate ourselves. Some people talk themselves up all the time. Others put themselves down. Both may be an expression of self-hate. We talk these days about the need for a healthy "self-esteem". Ideally, there is a balance where, seeing ourselves in the light of God, we are free to love others.
And that will include the honour we give our parents, our commitment to the well-being of others and their property, the sanctity with which we regard and live in marriage, the truthfulness of our relationships, our freedom for desire for what belongs to others. To love our neighbour as ourself is to fulfil what God expects of us. It is the outworking of our central commitment to God.
The man responds very positively to what Jesus has said and boldly states that the double command of love is more than the whole sacrificial system - "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (vv. 32-33).
His answer shows insight and wisdom. Unlike the others, he is open to the teaching of Jesus. So Jesus says to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God" (v. 34).
Why does Jesus say he is "not far from the Kingdom"? Although he rightly perceives that love of God and of neighbour is the motivating principle of life in the Kingdom, he is still thinking of obedience to this law of love as the way to get there.
The action begins with God. Our love flows from - and is a response to - God's love. The key to entering the Kingdom is God's grace - not our obedience to the Law (whether the Ten Commandments or the law of love), but the obedience of faith. Burnt offerings and sacrifices can't get you there, though they do remind us that we are sinners unable to make it into the Kingdom by ourselves. They point to the cross - to the perfect, complete, effective sacrifice of the Son of God.
We have no idea whether this teacher of the Law finally came to Christian faith. That is one of those curious questions we would like to ask of the story. In Acts 6.7 we are told that "a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" - some teachers of the Law too?
What we do know is that love of God and neighbour is the keystone which expresses what God expects of us in the life of the Kingdom. To understand that is to be "not far from the Kingdom of God." To become part of the Kingdom requires the obedience of faith - trust, not in our imperfect law-keeping (or loving!), but in the grace of God poured out for us perfectly and fully in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Receive his love poured out - and let your love flow!
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