“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.
But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up. Last week we saw Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples, and it got weird. First Jesus embarrassed the hell out of them by getting down and washing their feet. Then they had the actual meal. They knew the Passover script. They knew it was all about God delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt but the whole time Jesus kept changing everything around and going on as if it was all about him. (Maybe this whole Messiah thing was getting to his head?) Then Judas left and God knows where he got off to and what he was doing and would he be coming back.
Then Jesus started going on about a new covenant, one that would replace the covenant God had with Israel that had been in force ever since Moses and Sinai. This new covenant would be for all people on the face of the earth, not just for Israel, and it was a covenant where God took on all the obligation and all people would receive the benefit. There was talk about flesh being given and blood being spilt and what was that all about? Jesus’ flesh could only be given and his blood could only be spilt once and if he was going to become Messiah what was that all about?
But as with any covenant there is always fine print. That is the final loose end which remains to be tied up.
With this covenant there is a command. Not a new command to be added to the other 633 or however many there were. This is a new command that replaces all the others.
The disciples should have seen this coming. Jesus had been dropping breadcrumbs along the way over the course of the past year, if they had been paying attention. Over the course of the past week it had come to a head. The Pharisees were scheming to trip Jesus up so that the crowd would turn on him, he would lose the crowd, and they would have their chance to get to him and enact their nefarious plans. Toward this end, they teamed up with the Sadducees. Now the Pharisees were the populist party and it was a straight, short line from the Pharisees to the Zealots. (Think: Trump-supporting Republicans.) The Sadducees were a rich, well-heeled elite (think: Northeastern liberals) who believed that there was no resurrection or afterlife and that we all lived for God and then we died and that was that.
At any rate, these two factions teamed up in hopes of delivering a one-two punch during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. They probably flipped a coin to decide who would go first for all we know. The Pharisees came out first. They sent their interns down (none of the actual Pharisees would go because they would be too easily recognized and then the whole gig would be up) to pose as honest questioners. They started by buttering Jesus up, then asked him a question about paying taxes to Caesar. This was intended to be a no-win question that would split the crowd along partisan lines. But Jesus shut them down with a coin trick.
Next up were the Sadducees. Recall that they believed that there is no resurrection and no afterlife. The Pharisees and many of the rank-and-file Jews believed the exact opposite. The Sadducees sent their interns, who posed a riddle intended to show the whole ridiculousness of believing in all that afterlife/resurrection nonsense. But Jesus shut them down by going all the way back to Abraham and making an argument based on the tense of a verb.
Now it was the Pharisees’ turn. They sent one of the teachers of the Law (or likely one of their interns) to ask Jesus “What is the greatest commandment?” This, for the Old Testament Jews, was basic Sunday school stuff. Everybody knew the Sunday school answer: “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.” Of course this person had a question behind the question, one intended to trip Jesus up. But we will never know what it was. Jesus gave the Sunday school answer, but before his questioner could say anything he continued: “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
That had never been done before. The “Love the Lord your God” part came from Leviticus, and the “Love your neighbor as yourself” part came from Deuteronomy. Never before had anyone taken these verses from two completely different books and linked them up like this. Yet here was Jesus doing exactly that. With this one stroke Jesus took all 633 or however many commands of the Jewish law and reduced them down to two.
But on this night Jesus would go one better. He would take the two and reduce them down to one: Love one another–not as you love yourself–but as I have loved you.
And herein lies the beauty of it: With 633 or however many commands there were, there was a lot of room to find loopholes. The more commands there are, the more space for loopholes there is. The Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law who were in power then specialized in finding loopholes. That was their raison d’etre. But with only one command–and a simple one at that–there is no room whatsoever for loopholes.
And herein lies the problem with claiming to just believe the Bible or just follow the Bible. If you look to the Bible, you can find a loophole for anything. You can find a verse or even multiple verses to justify pretty much anything you wish to justify. But when there is only one command, it becomes that much harder to find loopholes. And when the command is “Love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you”, …well, there are some things you just can’t justify no matter how hard you try.
So now Jesus and his disciples leave to go out to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. They knew the spot well. They went to pray. Jesus went off to pray by himself. He came back to find the disciples sound asleep. Then the Pharisees and Judas showed up with torches. After a bit of a scuffle, they led Jesus away. The disciples took to their heels.
Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house for a hastily convened trial. Many witnesses spoke up and said many different things, but the witnesses who were closest to Jesus and knew the truth because they had been with him the whole time were nowhere to be seen because they were all in hiding.
Eventually word trickled back to the disciples that Jesus had gone to Pilate. That could only mean one thing. For any other punishment the Jewish religious elites wished to impose, they didn’t need Pilate. But if they wished to put someone to death, Pilate would have to give the OK. And if the Pharisees were going to do that to Jesus, they as his closest followers were surely next.
That is as good a place as any to leave it.