As everyone knows, I just spent the last couple days at convention and at Clergy conference. Our featured speakers at both was Jack Jezreel, the founder of Just Faith, so I have to admit that I enjoyed the last three days. In fact, I know people here are not thrilled about going to diocesan convention, but those of you who have been before should give it another try. The last couple years we have tried to do away with resolutions that have no measurable action point and have tried to do a better job of telling our stories. Many of you know that Mike Wagner and Lydia and probably Lacy did yeoman’s duty trying to get the parish ministry “commercials” finished in time for convention. Those of us gathered around the table for Indaba remarked how fun it was to learn what other parishes were doing. There was the orange clad “Bucket Brigade” that fights hunger, several churches engaged in gardening, a FreeStore for battered women, jail ministries, healing ministries, and other ministries and their impact described at length. Some crazy church had a choir that went commando! We worshipped and we told stories. There was not much not to commend to you regarding the gathering. In fact, next year, if you have time and finances, you really should consider giving convention another try. That’s right. The one who hates pointless meetings the most among us commends a meeting to you!
As with all change, there are invariably vestiges of the past. We had one resolution this year. It was a resolution which asked the national church to re-translate Scripture, take another look at our Holy Week liturgies, and to create resources that would help us to be better at interfaith relations. The impetus for the resolution seemed to come from the belief that there are people in our pews preaching hate against Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others. I found it a rather ironic process, truth be told, that this was the primary resolution in the midst of a convention in which members of the diocese were committing themselves to the commands of Jesus in Matthew 25. As a diocese, we were affirming our call to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to heal the sick, to visit those imprisoned, to free slaves, and to do any number of other ministries in the effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, nobody was speaking against the resolution. For my money, I wish it had asked the national church to create resources which would make us more effective missionaries to those of Jewish, Muslim, and other faith backgrounds. Then again, I cannot imagine an Episcopal priest preaching specifically against the Jews.
Yes, as we will look in a couple minutes, the Jewish leaders were determined to bring Jesus down in the eyes of the people. Yes, the Jewish leaders eventually plotted to kill Jesus. Yes, the Jewish leaders tried their best to silence Peter and John after Pentecost. Yes, leaders of the Freedmen synagogue scattered many in the early Church after the stoning of Stephen. But, lest we forget, Jesus was a Jew. Yes, that is correct, salvation comes from the Jews through the seed of Abraham. The early Apostles and the vast majority of disciples were, of course, Jews. The author of the book that we are reading was, that’s right, a Jew. Even Paul, who held the coats while the Freedmen synagogue leaders stoned Stephen was Jew. It is hard to be faithful to Scripture and be anti-Semitic. Jews and Gentiles do horrible things; and Jews and Gentiles also do some amazing things which honor our Lord.
That being said, the idea that we do not have an obligation to make disciples of Jews and Hindus and atheists and Muslims is simply misplaced. If Jesus is Lord, all owe allegiance to Him. If Jesus was raised from the dead as so many witnessed, then He alone is worthy of praise. It is a difficult question. It is a question which has not gotten easier to answer with the passage of time.
Our story in Matthew today picks up on Tuesday of Holy Week. The Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees have all had their turn to take the Galilean yokel down in the eyes of those visiting the Temple in preparation of the Passover. Now, a teacher of the law takes his turn by asking Jesus which law is the most important in the torah. Human beings being human beings, there had been an effort over the centuries to determine which laws were more important than others. We should not be too surprised by this effort to pronounce some sins not so bad and others unforgivable. In some traditions, we have mortal and venial sins. In our own, we tend to have our sins and those committed by others, right? Our sins are ok; it is the sins of the others that necessitated His death on the Cross, isn’t it? I know, I know, the mote and log are another reading.
In any event, the expert in the law asks Jesus which law is the most important. Jesus answers quickly with the Shema. The Shema, taken from Deuteronomy 6:5 was supposed to be prayed twice-daily as a reminder of the obligation of each Jew to Yahweh and to His commandments. Such would not have been too surprising as a number of the lawyers listening; nor would have Jesus’ continuing statement which brought in Leviticus 19:18. Since at least the time of Rabbi Akiba (not to be confused with the Rebel Alliance general in Star Wars), some lawyers had considered Leviticus 19:18 to be among the most important principles in the torah. Given that Jesus has already given an answer like this in chapter 7, most who heard the statement were likely not too surprised, though those who were hearing it for the first time might have wondered at the commitment He was demanding when loving God and loving our neighbor. Whether the lawyer had a rejoinder for this answer, we will never know, as Jesus follows up His answer with His own question.
Jesus asks those experts assembled to identify the Messiah. Predictably, the experts answer that the messiah is the offspring of David who will lead them. As we have discussed repeatedly around here, the leaders of the Jewish people often expected a political or military leader who would lead them to freedom. Naturally, the messiah would come from the lineage of David. Certainly, Scripture seemed to support this view. Prophets such as Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah pointed to such a figure, so the answer would have seemed obvious.
Jesus, of course, understands the paucity of their messiah when compared to Him. So, He asks a follow up question. If the messiah comes after David, why does David call Him Lord in Psalm 110? Perhaps only Pauline understands this among us, since she is from the blessed land of England. Can you ever think of a time where a king or a queen calls a child, “Lord”? I’ll save you some frustration. You won’t. Authority passes down in lineage. Princes and princesses call their mothers and fathers by such an appellation, but never does the king or queen make obeisance to their children. What David is saying in Psalm 110 makes no sense from a human understanding. What did Solomon call his father? At official functions, it was probably Lord. What would Solomon’s children have called David? Lord. At no time would a descendant have outranked king David. Yet Psalm 110, which the Jews knew to be made in the Spirit of Yahweh, has David talking about a descendent as one who outranks him. And, lest you think it is a problem of translation, the Greek version of the Psalm uses kyrios for both lords in the Psalm, while the Hebrew uses Yahweh (The Lord) and Adonai (my Lord) to express the lords. Experts in the torah would see the difficulty immediately. It would not make sense to the way the world works.
Those who really study the Scriptures, or perhaps returned to them after Jesus’ question, would note the remarkable relationship that David describes of his Lord to The Lord. Adonai bears a special relationship to Yahweh. He is not just related to David; He is somehow related to God. He is unique. He is special. He is messiah, the Anointed One. Those of use who have studied Jesus’ titles or the book of Daniel would be hard-pressed not to identify the Son of Man with the Son of God. In Daniel’s prophesy, God sits His Son at the right hand and declares that all the world will obey Him. In short, Jesus is teaching the teachers of the torah that the Son of Man and the Son of God are unique and special. Better still, they are combined in Him! The messiah is not just a human descendant of David come among them to free them of Roman or Assyrian or Babylonian rule. The messiah is not just some figure who rides at the heads of armies or sweeps aside all political foes. The messiah is a human descendant of the House of David who bears a special relationship to God. In essence, Jesus is asking how they can trap Him, how they can judge Him, if they cannot even understand the Scriptures they have been given.
Not unsurprisingly, the lawyers have no response to Jesus’ question. Matthew records that His question and its implication so unnerves them that they cannot think of anything to say in answer to His question, nor did they have the courage from that point forward to ask Him any question in public. Who would in their shoes? They understand the implication of Jesus, probably better than many of us today, yet they are unwilling to voice the truth He has just revealed.
Matthew’s narrative has been building to this point with respect to Jesus’ identity. Jesus has performed various miracles which testify to His unique relationship to God. His feeding of the people with fish and bread, His casting out of demons, His healing of the cripples and the blind, and His raising of the dead should now make sense to all who heard this question. If no one has ever done such as this, what does it say about Him? Peter grasps it in His confession back in 16:16, but he lacked the training of those who are confronting Him in the Temple. In His questioning of the lawyers, Jesus has merged the identity of the Son of Man with the Son of God, and He has used the Scriptures to demonstrate such was the plan of God. How do they respond?
As we all know, Jesus will be dead before three more days pass. Those who fear a loss of power or prestige, those who fear that the Romans will come down hard on the people of Judea, and those who cannot accept His identity as being unique with God will combine to have Jesus killed. Yet even that is not unforeseen by God. Jesus, in a striking rebuke of the knowledge they have rejected Him, will pronounce His woes on all those who reject Him as the Messiah, the Lord. Better still for us, He will allow Himself to be handed over to them and to die for our sins. By that Sunday morning, we know that His identity will be proven true. By that Sunday morning, we will know that their understanding of messiah will pale behind the reality of His glory. By that Sunday morning, we will be free not of worldly powers and rule like Romans and Babylonians and kings and emperors, but of the consequences of our sins. By that Sunday morning, we who call upon Him as Lord will know true freedom! By the end of this Holy Week, we will know the true meaning of love!
Who is Jesus? Your answer to that question will singularly determine how you live your life. If He is just a good man, a wise teacher, a gifted rabbi, your life should look little different from those of other faith traditions. Each of those traditions offers ways of life that can be admired. If, however, you take Jesus at His word and identify Him as God’s Messiah, as the fullness of David’s prophesy in Psalm 110 and of Daniel’s prophesy of 7:14, then His commands on your life, on all our lives, is inescapable. The words of Matthew 25 become less a suggestion for good living and moral uprightness and more evidence of a Resurrected life, a transformed life, a cross-bearing life that glorifies our Lord!
Make no mistake, our answer to that singular question has repercussions which transcend our lives. Loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves means there is a cost. Those who accept Jesus’ claim as messiah must commit everything to Him. Love, in this context, is not just an emotional assent, and intellectual agreement; it is a commitment, reminiscent of God’s commitment to Israel and our Lord’s work on Calvary, that works hard to draw others into His saving embrace. Loving God means that we value our relationship to Him above all things. Loving God means that we we value His relationship to those around us above all things. All that we do, all that we say, all that we hold dear is to bring the world into right relationship with Him. That ability only comes through our commitment to Him and through our relationship in Christ. We feed the hungry not to assuage their stomach pains, but to remind them that God and we love them. We visit them in prison not to assuage their loneliness or isolation but to remind them that God is with them and we have not forgotten them. We clothe them not to cover their nakedness but to remind them they are of more value to God and, thereby to us, than the lilies of the field. We work to free them not because we find captivity abhorrent but because we recognize we were created to be free, free from walls, free from chains, free from sin! All that we do, all that we are, honors Him and draws them into relationship with Him through our Lord Christ. Anything less dishonors Him. Anything less runs the risk of allowing them to face eternity apart from Him.
Yes, it is difficult to understand that God would become human. Yes, it is difficult to accept that God loves us to the point of dying for us even when we do not accept Him or even fight against Him. Yes, in this world of lots of little “truths” and political correctness, it is difficult to proclaim His Truth and His authority. But is no more difficult today than two thousand years ago nor, I suspect, any time in between. If Jesus is who He claims to be in this passage, then you and I have a unique message, a Gospel, to proclaim. That we might understand the truth of His claim to our Lord, He was raised that amazing morning so long ago! And now, just as He did to those who sought to trap Him 2000 years ago, He puts the question to us and to all whom we encounter in our daily life and work. What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he? If He is merely of human origin, then He is no different than any moralist who has ever lived. He is worthy of admiration; He is worthy of respect. But if He is the Son of God, then all authority does, indeed, belong to Him. He deserves our worship and our service as befitting the fulfillment of the Great Commandment! Almost as importantly, the claims of the Second Commandment means that our lives ought to be dedicated to introducing the world around us to Him, that all might be saved!