“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
In the name of the Father…
How weary Jesus must have been of that word “greatest”. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” “The disciples disputed among themselves as to which one of them was the greatest.” Time and again Jesus signals to his disciples that this mode of thinking, with its relentless circling back to the question of who or what is the greatest, will not be adequate to bring them to an understanding of the kingdom he has come to proclaim, that it is, on the contrary, a kind of trap, a kind of mental and spiritual quicksand, from which no amount of struggle within the same framework of thought will be sufficient to free them. So when Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest among them will be their servant, he is not offering them a new set of criteria by which to determine which one of them is the greatest, he is trying to get them to see that unless they get beyond this entire mode of thinking in terms of greatest and least, then the kingdom of heaven will remain a closed book to them.
And this is a dilemma that we encounter again and again in the gospels; that what the kingdom of heaven requires of those to whom it is proclaimed is a kind of quantum leap in their spiritual understanding, a quantum leap, however, which they are singularly incapable of engineering for themselves. What we see in the scribes and Pharisees who come to question Jesus, and in Jesus’s own disciples, is a group of people who have been brought to the very limits of their existing spiritual faculties, who have reached a kind of glass ceiling in their capacity to understand what is being presented to them and yet who go on demanding that Jesus speak to them in terms they recognise and accept. That is why Jesus so often refuses to offer the scribes and Pharisees what we would regard as a straight answer to their questions, because you cannot break someone out of a limited mode of thinking if they insist you speak to them on their terms alone.
Or can you? Look closer at the cryptic responses Jesus offers to the questions of the scribes and Pharisees, and what we very often find is that what strikes us initially as something arbitrary or whimsical, reveals itself, on closer inspection, to be nothing of the sort, but rather a form of teaching of a very specific kind, a form that is to be found in all the great wisdom traditions, but which is perhaps best known by the name it goes by in Zen Buddhism: the koan.
Perhaps the best way to understand what a koan is is to think of it as a kind a tool that exists for a very specific moment in a person’s spiritual development, the very moment we have seen that Jesus brings his hearers to with such devastating speed and reliability in the gospels, the moment when a person finds themselves at the limit of their existing spiritual capacity, when their existing framework of understanding has ceased to be a buttress to their growth and has become instead a kind of prison from which they need to be liberated, sprung, broken free.
In such a context, the work of a koan can be thought of as a kind of covert operation. A koan is a saying which enters into the logic of an existing framework of thought in order to break it open from within and so propel the listener beyond the limitations of their current mode of thinking. The koan, in other words, works by a kind of benevolent subterfuge. The unsuspecting listener is lured into believing they are standing on familiar ground only to discover that the ground has been pulled from beneath them and they are in free fall, or so it seems to them, when in reality a previously insurmountable barrier has been broken through, set aside, transcended.
Look closely at the two sayings of Jesus in today’s gospel and you will find something very much like this dynamic at work. Now, admittedly, at first glance, the answer Jesus gives to the lawyer’s question in the first part of today’s gospel does not look very much like a koan. The lawyer asks Jesus which commandment in the law is greatest. And Jesus tells him. You don’t get much more straightforward than that. The same, however, cannot be said for the second saying in today’s gospel, and it is this second saying that is the critical one for our purposes. So let us recap.
Jesus asks the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is. And the Pharisees respond with the reflex answer “the son of David”, to which Jesus’s response is “How can the Messiah be the son of David if David calls him ‘Lord’?” And the Pharisees, we are told, are utterly flummoxed. Now this, by contrast, is classic koan territory. Notice that what we are witnessing is not a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees over the interpretation of the scriptures. Jesus believed the Messiah to be the son of David just as wholeheartedly as the Pharisees did. The problem Jesus puts his finger on is one of a wholly different order: that however sophisticated the Pharisees understanding of the scriptures may be, however formally correct it may be, it has failed in the one task for which it was designed, to prepare them recognise the Messiah. And the reason we know this is because the Messiah is standing right in front of them and they don’t have the faintest idea who they are talking to. And so, bring forth the koan: the son of David who is David’s lord.
And now, once the cat is out of the bag, we turn back to the first saying in today’s gospel and see that it is not at all as straightforward as we first imagined. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” asks the lawyer, and Jesus replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Only now do we notice the sheer peculiarity of this all too familiar saying in which Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul and all our mind and then casually goes on to tell us to love our neighbour as well. To which we are inclined to respond “with what exactly?” With all our toes, perhaps? And yet this is precisely the point, the jolt the koan administers, because to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul and mind is not to set any kind of limit on our capacity to love our neighbour as if the two were in competition with each other. To love the Lord our God is to love our neighbour and to love our neighbour to love the Lord our God. They are, to use a venerable phrase, “not two”.
Thus Jesus delivers himself of his questioner, to the questioner’s apparent satisfaction, or at least to his silence, and yet notice what has happened to the terms of the original question, to the idea that this commandment is the “greatest” in the law as if it existed in some kind of relationship of competition with all the others: it has become a nonsense, an irrelevance, the sound of one hand clapping.
Now at this point you might well be thinking “O.k, so Jesus taught in koans, big deal. What painfully anodyne conclusion are we working up to with all this? That Jesus had more in common with the teachers of the other great wisdom traditions than we previously thought? That he is a bit more of Buddhist than we realised?” Well, anodyne or otherwise, that is quite probably true, and yet to stop here is to drastically underestimate the significance of what the gospels are attempting to present us with. And that is because, for all the brilliance of his teaching, the significance of Jesus is not finally to be found in his greatness as a teacher, but in his identity as the incarnate Word of God. In other words, if Jesus teaches in koans then it is only to prepare us for the infinitely greater and more demanding koan of himself. Christ himself, the Word made flesh, is the koan of the Christian gospel.
And yet only after this brief glimpse into the inner logic of the koan that comes to us in the teaching of Jesus are we able to grasp the astounding implications of this truth: that the medium into which the Word of God descends in order to break it open from within is not any pattern or system of thought, but the medium of human flesh. It is our humanity itself that is transformed by the koan of Jesus Christ. And to this we can only respond with the homage proper to a koan: the silent wonder of the dumbfounded.