Sunday October 24,
1999 ~ 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster
Today's reading from Matthew is the last time there will be conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and temple officials. There is one last question from the Pharisees which Jesus turns aside with another of his dazzling insights that confounds his critics.
Now Jesus turns the tables. He asks a question. A question none of them can answer. From this day on there will be no exchange between Jesus and these leaders. Jesus will speak only to the crowds and to his disciples and the religious leaders will lay the groundwork for elimination of this "trouble maker."
The delightful thing about all of these encounters we have been exploring as Matthew draws his gospel to a conclusion is that they have all been public. They have been designed to humiliated and belittle Jesus. The setting for much of the encounters is the temple courts where the Pharisees, priests and learned teachers would engage in give and take.
Jesus is simply an unlearned, laboring class itinerant teacher from Galilee. His followers don't have a semester's worth of theological credits between the lot of them. His critics, on the other hand are professionally trained leaders of Israel's spiritual life. The Pharisees are studious practitioners of every detail of Jewish law.
And now, as Jesus turns the table and asks a question that goes to the core of Israel's life -- and the "experts" are speechless, unable to answer. As Matthew puts it, "No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions." The silence is not a peaceful quiet, but a deadly stillness. It is only a matter of time until the crowds will be persuaded to call for the life of this teacher.
There are two questions that take us to the heart of this last exchange between Jesus and his adversaries. In light of the extraordinary circumstances out of which they came -- there are important learnings to be had by examining them.
What is the essential core of religion?
All of us know people who get all tangled up in the web of "little things" and thereby miss the "big things."
There is the young professional couple with two little children who were simply trying to get ahead and provide for their young family. "I woke up one day," the mom said, "And my son was on his way to college and my daughter in her last year of high school.
There is the older couple in their mid 70's who are still working 12 hour days in their lucrative family business. Both still are enjoying their health. They commented to some friends, "We're thinking we need to slow down a bit and enjoy life." "You had better get busy!" the friends answered.
We do it to life and we do it to our life of faith. We let the "little things" push out the "big things." How many religious groups have emerged from controversies over minor issues? How many churches have been divided over issues that are in the large picture absolutely insignificant?
I want to suggest one question that can help us determine where we are as a church -- finish this statement... "Our church is best known for _________________ ." If we are on target as a church, the completion of this sentence will relate directly to what Jesus identifies as the greatest commandment of all.
In the final question Jesus faces from his critics, they try to push him into a corner by asking that he pick one commandment out of all Jewish law as being the most important. When he picks one however, he will immediately be confronted by one or another of the "experts" who thinks he has neglected a more important law. The original ten commandments of Moses had been expounded in literally hundreds of interpretations and amplifications. This was surely a "no win" situation for Jesus.
Jesus' answer takes us to the essential core of religion. "It's the love!" Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind and neighbor as self. "Everything else in scripture," Jesus says, "Relates to these two things." St. Paul would later write, "...love is the fulfilling of the law." [Rom13:10] Or again, "....if I have not love, I am nothing." [I.Cor. 13:2] One of the strongest statements of all in the scripture is this, "Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars..." [I John 4:20]
Jesus' last answer to the Pharisees and their cohorts amounts to the most egregious charge that could be leveled against them.
They do not keep the most important commandment of all! Those who purport to be the most committed law keepers of all are guilty of missing the heart of Israel's faith!
This will send Jesus' adversaries into high gear to get him eliminated!
What is the meaning of Messiah?
Israel's greatest hope was that Messiah would come and bring the redemption of God to Israel. The Roman legions would retreat to Rome and the glory days of Israel would return.
Having closed the mouths of his adversaries on the issue of the greatest commandment of all, Jesus turns the tables and asks a question of his own. A question that addressed the bottom line of Israel's hope. The question opens up the issue of "What is the meaning of Messiah?"
If there was anything these leaders and teachers should know it is the subject of Messiah. Jesus sets them up for a huge -- embarrassing fall!
"What do you think of Messiah? Whose son is he?"
Any good Jew would know how to answer that one. The Messiah is "The Son of David." Jesus shows them from scripture that this view, thought not entirely wrong, is too simple. His quote is Psalm 110:1. (Ps. 110 is the most quoted Psalm in the N.T.) The issue is clear. If David calls the Messiah "Lord," how can Messiah be David's Son. You can only imagine what it must have meant for the "experts" to be brought to a screeching halt in their ability to answer Jesus. The silence was deafening -- and chilling!
"No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions."
Whose son is Messiah? Son of David is one way Messiah is described, but Matthew has himself already given an answer that hangs mysteriously in the silence of this confrontation, "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' " [Mt. 3:17]
There will be no more debate or interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders who will now work day and night to hasten the day when Jesus is eliminated.
One of the crucial lessons in this passage is that getting lost in the picayunish details of religious enterprise can not only cause us to miss the heart of things -- it can cause us to miss God entirely!
The Pharisees do not understand the meaning of Messiah -- Israel's greatest hope. This should send a signal. You have seen the same thing happen with people's concept of God. My idea of God is not God. My concept of God is not God.
If my heart is not open, my mind is made up, my commitments are without room for reflection, or I live my life without self-examination -- I put myself in the very precarious spiritual position of missing the point altogether.
The point is simple. We are to love with all we've got and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In other words, we are to do what seems at times to be impossible. As mortal beings we are going to fall on our faces when it comes to this complete and total love. How can we possibly do it?
The One who silenced the Pharisees is the one who comes to pour out his very life in self sacrifice and love for his followers. Within minutes of this last conversation, they are out engineering the death which will absolutely change the world. It is this love which came in the flesh to lead us to the heart of God that will finally fill our own hearts.
Then... and only then... will we embrace and embark upon living out the Great Commandment!
Connections in the Texts
Love of God and neighbor are bound together so tightly in the Judeo-Christian tradition that one can not be genuine without the other. It might be countered that it is possible to love neighbor without loving God and that there are examples of wonderful people who do just that.
Yet, the Jewish and Christian scholar would insist that these two "great commandments" do indeed belong together and in the precise order Jesus gives them. Love of God is primary. It stands first because it is the thing that nourishes the other. If we love God, we will of necessity love what God loves and God loves each one as though they were the only one.
Jesus brings love of God and love of neighbor into full expression in his incarnation, death and resurrection. The love of God is fully given as Christ pours out his own life so that "whosoever believeth" will find their spiritual home in the Lord. Then, the one who receives the life of Christ is bound to love neighbor on behalf of Christ.
Matthew spells out the two great commandments. Leviticus focuses on the practical implications of loving one's neighbor and Paul brings a kind of personal flavor to loving neighbor -- in this case the members of a church he grew.
One of the ways to use these texts is to weave a meditation which keeps coming back to the idea that the reality of our love for God is evidenced in the quality of our life together as a community of faith. The only way the world has of seeing God's love is to see it in the character of our relationships together in the church. The adjective that describe such a church run along the lines of: inclusive, accepting, supportive, nourishing, forgiving, loving, encouraging... A fellowship which breaks the great commandments will be described with words like: judgmental, unforgiving, exclusive, gossipy... The conflict between Jesus and official Judaism reflects the "commandment breaking" characteristics of the latter and this lies behind the "spiritual disaster" we have been looking at through Matthew's eyes as we close out this church year.
Note: The lectionary gospel reading for this week skips over Matthew's account of the Sadducees' interrogation of Jesus with respect to marriage in the Kingdom of Heaven. Luke's version of the interaction is found in Luke 20:27ff and there is a full text sermon on the passage at: "A View From Beyond the Grave"
When asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus answers with two commandments and not just one. The second, he suggests is "like" the first. In context, "like" (homoios) suggest more than similarity. We might think in terms of: "Love God with all your heart.... and along with that, love your neighbor as yourself." Perhaps we can think of Jesus as bringing a much needed correction to the idea that one can isolate loving God from our relationships with those around us. While the O.T. frequently enjoins justice and care for the poor, the stranger, the despised and dispossessed -- the behavior of the religious leaders of Jesus time turns away from the love of neighbor which breaks down barriers and overcomes prejudices.
We can not, therefore, get away with saying, "I will love God -- but I can not love those around me." Loving God compels loving neighbor. Loving neighbor is a reflection of loving God. The neighbor will see a reflection of the love of God when they look at us. If there is no reflection of God's love in my countenance -- well -- you recall the old horror movie theme that the devil and its cohorts have no reflection in a mirror.
In the NCL and Episcopal readings the question of Jesus regarding Messiah is asked. Most commentators agree that in this question, Jesus addresses the limited idea of Messiah that the Jewish leaders have. There is more to "Messiah" than the simple idea of the Son of David who will come as a mighty military leader who will give Rome the boot. William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study Series remarks that in this pericope, Jesus makes his greatest claim. Although the people gathered that day could not have understood all that Jesus meant, Barclay writes, "...even the densest of them felt the shiver in the presence of the eternal mystery... in this man Jesus they glimpsed the very face of God." [Mt. Vol.2, p.310] Eugene Boring the the New Interpreter's Bible does not go as far in the transformation of the idea of the popular idea of Messiah -- but he does suggest that the use of "Son of David" is given new content.
Either way -- Jesus silenced his adversaries. They had no answer for his question and indeed had no questions for him at all from this point. At the very least, the issue of who Messiah is has been opened up and the remainder of this last week in Jesus' earthly life would bring a whole new answer.
If the passage from Leviticus has anything to say to us at all, it wants to make sure we remember who the Lord is. Seven times in these verses the phrase is repeated, "I am the Lord!" There is a good question here. "Do we need to be reminded that God is God?" That there is no other God besides God?
Let's not answer too quickly. To affirm that the Lord our God is really God in our lives has to do with: consistent worship, refraining from worshiping anything other than God, how we treat the poor, and whether we treat all persons equally.
You could call this pericope from Leviticus a "reality check" on the second great commandment.
"What you see is what you get." Paul came to the church with a message he had been given by God and he came without pretence or gimmicks. His motives are simple. He believed he had been "entrusted" with the message of Good News and his sole task was to deliver the news.
Yet, he did so with tremendous affection for the people. It is interesting to note that Paul uses the image of a mother caring for her own children (the NRSV translates "trophos" as nurse -- the NIV as mother -- actually the word is "nourisher" -- a nurse or perhaps nursing mother. In any case, a striking image)
There is one line in this passage that rivets my spirit. It is a thought that seems to me to go to the heart of parish ministry. It is one thing to teach theology, administer the denominational program or write for pastors. It is another thing entirely to take the Good News and personally live among the people who are recipients of that news. Listen to this essential core of what it means to be a parish pastor:
Who can say more than this? This is a wonderful illustration of keeping the two great commandments. To love God is to embrace and then deliver the Good News. To love neighbor is to share your very self as well as the news because you have come to love the people.
A Call To Worship (Adapted from Psalm 16)
Leader: How blessed are those who love
A Prayer of Dedication
Lord, you have called us to love our neighbor as we love