A Simple Game
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)
When my son was little we went through that phase I suppose lots of families go through of playing board games. We played the old favourites like Monopoly - he was merciless at Monopoly - and Cluedo and the like. There was one we played once, though, and never again. It was The Simpsons version of “The Game Of Life”. I kid you not, the rule book was like “War And Peace”. “If you land on this square, and if you have this card, and if you have already passed square Z, then you pay £500 to the player on your left. Unless there’s an R in the month. Or of your name starts with a ‘B’”. I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
The games that survive - the ones that people have been playing for centuries have very simple sets of rules. Chess is a great example: these are they ways that pieces move and, apart from weird things like en-passant and castling, that’s it. What if life were a simple game? Especially, what if our lives as Christian believers was a simple game. In some ways, Jesus’s teaching here suggests that it is. Here they come - the Pharisees - and they ask Jesus what the most important commandment is. Now these guys are the experts on the commandments. The Pharisees were the folk who prided themselves on keeping all the commandments of the Old Testament. Maybe it’s a trick question. Maybe they’re thinking, “He should say, ‘all of them’”.
But he doesn’t. He gives one answer: “Love God with all your heart and mind”. Then he follows it up with another: “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. Then he goes further - these aren’t just the top two - they sum up all the other commandments. On them hang all the law and the prophets. This is an idea that would hang around, not just in Christianity, but also in Judaism. Paul refers to it, but so does Hillel, a Jewish Rabbi who would boast that he could recite the whole Jewish Law while standing on one leg. When he was challenged he would say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that all 613 commandments of the Torah can be reduced to the two that Jesus comes up with. I’m not sure that Canaanite slaves being property for their whole lives unless they break a limb neatly fits into these simple rules. But what if the Christian faith really is meant to be a simple game, and what if these really are the rules?
What if what really matters is that we love God with all our mind and all our heart and all our soul and all our strength. What if, what God really wants, is a relationship with his children? What if what really matters is that we spend time with him in prayer and worship - that we get to know him and understand what he wants for us as a loving father? It’s funny, we get so caught up in rules about how we pray and how we worship. It’s not so long ago - OK, a few decades - when I was the only man at Dryfesdale church who didn’t put on a suit to go to church and I can tell you I got some snash for that. In times gone by we’ve argued and made rules about whether we stand or sit to pray, or whether we sing unaccompanied or not.
If you love God, why does any of that matter? If what really matters is that we are spending time with our father in Heaven, our father who loves us so much that he came into this world in Jesus Christ to bring him home to him, then why not just rejoice that we can do that? Why get caught up with a whole bunch of rules that God does not demand?
Sometimes people portray Christianity as being about obeying rules. It isn’t. It’s about our relationship with God. And more than that - and this is why Jesus’s teaching here is important - it’s about our relationship with each other. It’s about our relationship with our fellow human beings. It’s about loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. What if what our faith demands of us is really as simple as that? What if this really is a simple game?
“Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. Simple, right? Simple, yes. Easy, no. It’s not easy because our neighbour is the person we know about. It’s the person we can make a difference to. It’s not necessarily the person just across the street who invites us round for Hogmanay. It’s the person who really needs people to care - caring: that’s the best translation of the word ‘agape”. It’s the translation that says that people matter; that they matter to you enough to make a difference in their lives.
Trouble is we get told time and time again not to care. As wave after wave of destitute men women and children wash ashore on the coasts of southern Europe there are those who will tell you that they are Greece’s problem, or Italy’s problem. Not ours. Why should we care? When there are reports in the press of families getting kicked out of their homes in this wealthy country of ours because their breadwinner lost his job and the benefits will take months to come through there are those who will tell you to just be glad you have a job and forget them. Their not our families. Why should we care? As bombs fall on cities far away from here - bombs made in factories in this country - and as kids lie crying in the ruins of their homes there are those who will tell you they aren’t your neighbours. They don’t speak your language. Why should you care?
This is the Great Commandment: the one rule. Love God your father with all your heart. If you do that how can you not love your brothers and sisters? Sure, if you want to, you can insist that all the commandments in the Old Testament still matter. Maybe they do. But if they do the way we follow them has to be based on the Great Commandment - the commandment to love God by loving our neighbour.
This, to me, is the essence of the Christian faith. It’s about what our lives here on this earth are for. Here we stand in bodies that age and get weak and eventually die. Here we stand as fallible and flawed human beings, tested by temptations and, often perhaps, failing. Here we stand as single voices in a cacophony of hate-filled noise. But here we stand.
Here we stand as witnesses to an insanely simple idea. Here we stand as witnesses to the idea that we are at our best when we care for those who need our care - that everybody matters. Here we stand as witnesses to the idea that God loves his children so much that he came into this world to share the life of a human being - a human being that just didn’t matter in the eyes of the world. Here we stand as witnesses to a simple idea - that what makes a difference in this world is love.
A love that reaches beyond the differences that so beguile us. A love that transcends the barriers of class or race. A love that embraces the poor and the vulnerable and the broken as our brothers and sisters. A love that insists that nothing else matters beyond this: everybody matters. We all belong. We are one. We’re all the same. And life is just a simple game
Lord God, our father. Teach us that faith is simple. It is love - love for you and for all your children. Teach us to draw close to you and to our brothers and sisters
Preached at Gretna Old parish church