Today, again, Jesus is in a debate with his religious brothers, the Pharisees. The religious leaders and Jesus have been sparring for a while now. However, we forget that Jesus was a practicing Jew and that the Pharisees, as depicted in the bible, were not a monolithic group. There were different schools of religious thought within the Pharisees. There was, for example, the school or house of Shammai and the school or house of Hillel. Shammai and Hillel were both teachers—some of the best of their time—and religious leaders. Both schools of thought were influential and prominent.
The two schools of thinking—within the Pharisees—differed on several things. For example, they disagreed as to how certain rituals should be performed, like the lighting of lights for Hanukkah, with the school of Hillel saying that the light should increase each day. In a hypothetical situation concerning the beauty of a bride: The House of Shammai argued that one should never tell a bride that she is beautiful on her wedding if she truly is not beautiful because that would be lying. Yet, Hillel basically pointed out that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day and that one should rather look at the good attributes of one’s future spouse, and focus on those attributes, rather than focusing on a particular unlovely characteristic. Likewise, Shammai and Hillel disagreed about whether students had to be “worthy” of teaching Torah. Shammai stressed that students should be serious and deserving first, whereas Hillel believed that Torah could be taught to anyone with the expectation that one would repent and become worthy in the process of learning. You might recognize a similar take in Matthew, when Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13). For the fact that you do not have to be worthy to study our gospel, you can thank Rabbi Hillel, and later Christian reformers who believed that our bible could and should be read by laypeople and in the common language of laypeople and not simply read and therefore interpreted by clergy alone.
Even more pertinent to our understanding today—there is a story that a gentile student approached Shammai requesting that the entire Torah to be taught to him while standing on one foot. It was another way of someone saying, “Look, I want to learn scripture, but save me some time and condense it for me, ok?” It reminds me of people wanting a 30 second soundbite for the whole of the Christian faith, rather than actually “being” church, as if faith could be reduced to our words alone and not our practice. In any case, Rabbi Shammai turned that particular student away. But when the same student then approached Rabbi Hillel a similar request, Hillel purportedly summarized the entire Torah by saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.)
If this sounds like the “golden rule,” it should. These two schools of thinking also informed Jesus. Why? When the lawyer in our story, a Pharisee, comes to test Jesus, he is likely trying to ascertain with which of the two schools of rabbinical thinking Jesus is more aligned. “Teacher,” he asks, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds by sharing the Shema—“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Both schools of Pharisees would have said the same; yet Jesus also adds the statement, “And a second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” In doing so, Jesus aligns himself with the House of Hillel as Jesus was quoting the teaching of Hillel in this story. As the scholar James Tabor has said, “It is common to think of Jesus as the bitter enemy of all Pharisees; when in fact, many of his views on Jewish law reflect the more accommodating positions of Rabbi Hillel.”
So where does that leave us? In terms of the differing schools of thought, we might consider how we can have constructive conflict with those with whom we disagree. For all their disagreement, families of the House of Shammai and members of the House of Hillel still intermarried, still befriended each other, and still shared meals with each other. Jewish interpretation of these two schools have highlighted that one can have constructive disagreements for the sake of heaven. How? The commentator, Daniel Roth, suggests four basic considerations in constructive conflict:
- Debate the issues without attacking people. Maintain good relationships.
- Check your motivations. Are you trying to win a disagreement or are you trying to solve a problem?
- Be open to admitting that you might be wrong.
- Consider that both positions might be right/correct, even with opposite positions.
If we look back to our passage, the lawyer who questioned Jesus sought to “test” him which might give insight as to his own motivations for this debate. The lawyer would have known the bit about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind…but prioritizing loving one’s neighbor may have been less familiar, depending on whether he professed his allegiance to Shammai or Hillel or some other school of thought.
In any case, what Jesus stresses is that loving one’s neighbor in the particular—not abstract—is akin to, and inseparable from, loving God. One may talk about love in the abstract, but when that love takes the form of one’s stubborn uncle or a really annoying friend, or a stranger who believes and acts entirely differently from you, or a person who seems “unworthy” of your own school of thought, or the enemy who ran over your cat and did not stop, well, then we are seeing where the love of God meets our perceived limitations and obstacles.
Because sometimes we simply do not want to love God if it means that we must love the human form that God takes. And if we do not love ourselves properly, if we have no love or respect for our fellow human beings, then we might find our love of God much too narrow and limited. Likewise, if we – like the lawyer—are trying to figure out which commandment is the greatest to follow, we might clearly be searching for a loophole to disregard all the other commandments. The commandments—and by this, I mean, all of God’s injunctions to us as told through the prophets– are much easier to keep when one loves God as a priority and not secondary to something else, like the motivation to win the argument, or harass an opponent, or to obtain power for power’s sake, or obtain recognition, etc.
We might wonder if those that sought to “entrap” Jesus in debate saw the self-limits of their love regarding Jesus. If I am seeking to entrap an opponent, what does that say about my motivation or lack of motivation to understand his or her viewpoint? Likewise, though scholars have shown how Jesus was more aligned with Rabbi Hillel, what and how much is lost when we prematurely seek to put people in boxes—whether Shammai and Hillel, rich and poor, male and female, Democrat and Republican, or some other polarization? What happens when we limit people’s creative responses and motivations in this way? What part of their story do we miss hearing while we are jumping to conclusions about their likes and dislikes, reasons or rationale? What happens when we test and debate with each other before putting ourselves to the test and understanding where and how and when we have come to our own self-definitions and examined if they truly “fit” us?
While Jesus was influenced by Hillel (and Shammai), he was also shaped by his own experiences, his upbringing, his cultural context, and his own hard-won understandings. We, too, have our own influences and not all of them good. We might spend some time sorting through the worldview that we have developed over time and how it has served us, as well as how it has potentially limited us. Perhaps after doing this work, we might be more ready to love someone who has chosen to live life by a different perspective and worldview.
Friends, this Sunday is typically observed as Reformation Sunday. And while it is true that the Church overall has had to make huge changes in recent months, we have often focused on changing the institution without likewise trying to understand the people inside and outside the Church. Institutions change as people’s needs and desires and priorities change. Sometimes that change is rapid, and sometimes it moves at a snail’s pace. But none of it is possible without people recognizing and holding each other’s fundamental dreams, hopes, and experiences in a loving manner while we change. We love our neighbor as our very self…which means that we afford to that neighbor the very same grace, mercy, dignity, attention, and worth that we would give ourselves. Is it easy? NO. Is it necessary? YES.
Loving God in the abstract doesn’t say much about us as a church.
Loving God through loving the particular people who cross our path, whom we take the time to know in the way we would want to be known, and who show us something of the complexity and diversity and sheer mystery of human being—well, that is something that can define a church. Even in such a time as this.
 James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, p 119. Qtd. here: