This was one of those easy weeks when I knew from the get go from which reading I would be preaching. This week was so clear that I am sure blind Bartimaeus could have seen it. As I shared earlier with the Vestry this week, there were continuing wrestling matches over my sermons. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the contrary. A number of conversations this week were about the struggles of living as one stamped in the image of God and treating others as if they, too, are stamped with His image. As the week went on, though, other conversations confirmed for me that I should focus on Matthew this week. At the Cohort meeting, we talked about the importance of this passage to the New Testament, with Ron suggesting that it might be the most important teaching of the New Testament and me wondering whether the entire Bible. In Bible Studies, I discussed the torah and how this passage caused a Bible Study six years ago at St. Alban’s to begin to explore the truth of Jesus’ claim that all the torah hangs from these two commandments. We discussed the uniqueness of Jesus’ claim and teaching at Wrestling with Faith. I even found myself in conversations with non-Adventers distraught over the current political climate fascinated or shocked at my confidence or naivete, depending on the person, that my hope is that I am called into a monarchy.
If you find yourself a bit lost or scrambling to catch up, don’t worry. To remind you where we are in Matthew’s story, we are in Holy Week. Most likely the events described today and last week take place on Tuesday of the week before our Lord died. If it seems weird to you that we are reading the stories of Holy Week during October, consider the end of this season. We are building to Christ the King Sunday. We will remind ourselves and proclaim in a month that our Lord is, indeed, King of kings and Lord of lords. That will be the culmination of the Church year. And it makes sense that we remind ourselves again that the path to His throne included the events of Holy Week and the Cross.
Right before this passage, last week in our time, the Pharisees and Herodians put aside their differences to try and trap this itinerant teacher from Nazareth. As I explained last week, their divide would make our Republican Party / Democratic Party divide seem . . . childish. Few modern politicians claim to speak with the voice and authority of God; fewer still claim the authority to condemn or release in His name. I know it happens in some quarters today, but such politicians are generally seen more on the fringe of good politics than mainstream. In any event, Jesus not only thwarted their trap last week, He exposed their hypocrisy in front of the crowds at the Temple. The very people whom they were trying to impress saw them for who they were, for a few minutes at least. Following that public failure, the Sadducees step up to the plate. If they can defeat Jesus after His stinging defeat of the Herodians and Pharisees, the Sadducees can rise in the public opinion of the crowds and be seen as the leaders they think they are. They, too, fail.
Now, one of the members of the Pharisees asks Jesus which law is the most important. This was one of those important academic discussions in the Temple and synagogues, not unlike the fight among academic Christians in the Middle Ages trying to figure out how many angles could dance on the head of a pin. It was also nearly as important. God had consistently taught that the torah reflected what a holy, righteous life in full communion with and pleasing to God looked like. Failure to keep one was to walk apart from God. Human beings being human beings, though, we like to figure out which sins are more important than others. You chuckle, but admit it. We like to think our sins cost Jesus a whisker or maybe some spittle from a soldier. Some of us might even admit our sins caused Him to take a punch for us. Few of us like to admit that He really died for our sins. They aren’t really that bad, are they? To use a compass, if God is positioned at 0 degrees, a white lie gets us moving at 1 degree west or east. We may not be perfectly pointed at God, but we will certainly graze Him and His glory only off by 1 degree. Compare that to murder or rape or the bad sins, you know, the ones that cause us to go at 180 degrees.
Jesus answers by pointing the Pharisee and the crowd to the shema: You shall love the Lord your God with everything you have and everything you are. The answer would have startled no one. In fact, an earlier rabbi whose name escapes me is generally credited with summarizing the torah in that fashion. So far so good, right? Not really, but we will get to that in a moment.
Jesus goes on to say that the second great commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Again, such a summary would not have shocked his audience too much. In the Old Testament, God reminds His people that He loves the widow and the orphan, that they are to treat aliens conscious of the fact that they were aliens in Egypt, and that the righteous poor are special in His sight. Like us, many of the Jews forgot God’s heart, but most in the audience would have accepted Jesus claim. Some would have wanted to engage Him with counter-proposals. Nobody would have been shocked, though.
I wonder though, how much we miss what Jesus is teaching in this lesson. What does it mean to love God with everything and love one’s neighbor as oneself? Post-modern Americans seem to be intent upon equating love with desire or consent in a sexual relationship. To be sure, Jesus’ audience would have understood eros far better than we, but they would have heard Jesus words in a categorically different way. You and I think of love as an emotion, a warm feeling, that flock of butterflies in our stomachs as a result of our proximity to or thought about someone else. We think our emotions reside in our heart, that our reason resides in our brain, and our will is somewhere in the body. Jesus’ audience, though, would have drawn no such distinction. The kardia was the locus of emotions, the locus of reason, and the locus of will. The kardia was that place where one made rational decisions, where one made emotional decisions, and then acted on them. What made us who we are was tied to our kardia. So when Jesus speaks of loving God and loving the neighbor, He means something far more significant than warm feelings or butterflies in the stomach. When God speaks of circumcising our hearts, He is not talking just about our emotions or passions.
In the ANE, but especially for the Jewish people, love was a commitment. God’s love, hesed, being the chief example. Those who have studied the OT in Bible Studies around here can speak to this as well, but God commits Himself to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants. No matter what they do, He is committed to them. Though they play the harlot and chase after idols, He will still bring them to Himself. Though they cheat widows and trick orphans and enslave the poor, He will get them back to the Garden. Though they dishonor and embarrass and act as anything but a people redeemed, God will redeem them because of His love, hesed, for them. He is committed to them.
The same, of course, is true for us. We know God’s hesed fully, unlike the Jewish people. At least they could claim confusion when they got to the throne after death; you and I have no such claim. We know the length to which God will go to save us, to redeem us, to demonstrate His love for us. When we did not want to be redeemed, when we did not know Him nor His commitment to us, still He went to that Cross! Can you imagine that kind of commitment?
When Jesus speaks to the Pharisee, the crowds, and to us about loving God and our neighbors, He’s really speaking about total commitment. Can you imagine being totally committed to God or another human being in the way Jesus is describing to us today? I joked at 8am that they deserved an extra gem in their crown in the kingdom to come for showing up this morning. Hopefully, you all were asleep when the woke up, arose, and got ready for church today. It was dark. The sun wasn’t just not up, the clouds were thick. And it was cold. To put it in other words, it was perfect weather for sleeping. Yet many of our 8am Adventers came to church. Many came, but several did not. Why? No doubt some were sick. Maybe a few were feeling the aches and pains of the weather. Maybe a car did not start. I’m sure there are good reasons for absences this morning, but I am equally certain that some just did not want to fight the urge to stay in warm jammies. The truth is that there is always an excuse. How many skip church to play golf? To shop? To sleep in? Some of us even go so far as to pretend, with indignity, that we can worship God while we golf, while we shop, while we sleep, while we do anything other than come to church. I get it. Some of us multitask. I like to pray while riding a bike. I know lots of ladies who knit while participating in Bible studies. We can worship God while doing any number of other activities. But in the immortal words of Bishop Lambert who spoke to the men back in July “we can, but we don’t.”
We claim to understand the cost, as best as we are able, that Jesus came down from heaven, suffered under Pilate and died for our sins, yet how many of us really live a committed life that reflects that understanding? How many of us are truly grateful, truly thankful for what God has done for us in Christ? My guess is that if we really understood, more than 1 in 5 self-identified Christians would go to church weekly. My guess is that if we truly understood, far fewer Christian women would be telling us their #metoo stories as the hands of Christian men. My guess is that if we really understood, Christians would have no tolerance for those who espouse racist views under the guise of nationalism or religion. My guess is that if we really understood, we Adventers would not worry that four services on December 24 (Advent IV and Christmas Eve services) might be too much. My guess is that if we truly understood, we would be inviting and wooing all our friends and family members to join us here as we celebrated God’s redeeming work in our lives. My guess is that if we really understood, we would be a joyful people, a forgiving people, a people that would have the world around us wondering what has gotten into us.
Don’t squirm too much. I know. Truly understanding what God has done for us in Christ is meant to be life changing, transforming even. Like Jesus’ audience that Tuesday so long ago, we tend not to be too self-aware, too self-examining. The great thing for us and them is that He loved us any way! Even though we are who we are, still He loved us to the end. He committed everything to show us just how much He loves us, and He demonstrated that first and second Great Commandment in its fullest sense. Jesus walked this path on earth knowing we would reject Him and knowing that we would fail to love one another.
Had Jesus stopped there, the Pharisee and the crowd and we would have had enough to chew on. There’s a great lesson examining oneself in light of what God has done in Christ for us. But Jesus, being Jesus, pushes even further. In some sense, the second half of this reading deserves its own focus for the week. But I understand the lectionary editors’ decision to lump it in with this week. On the one hand, it makes narrative sense. Jesus asks the question of the Sadducee who first questioned Him in front of the crowd. On the other hand, Jesus’ reminder of who He is really causes us to struggle with the consequence of His teachings, this one as well as the rest.
In Wrestling with Faith, participants will struggle with various questions. Consider this your commercial encouraging you to join Robert and Jim and Tina and Elizabeth and Pam and Gregg and others on the fourth Thursday of each month. Chief among those questions asked, though often in the background, is a question of whether God or Jesus really said something. Now, sometimes they touch on subjects from the world at large where sweeping claims are made about what God has said that I, quite frankly, can find no evidence. But when we get to things that are included in the Bible, there is a wonder whether God really meant it, or we got it wrong, or some other excuse. Jesus’ piercing question helps us understand who it is that is making these statements that seem crazy to the world. Jesus is not just a rabbi with good insight. Jesus is not just some humanist with an actualized self-consciousness that allowed Him to grasp teachings that seem far ahead of their time. Jesus is not a charismatic lunatic who managed to find gullible fishermen and wealthy women and laid the foundation for an organization that would make lots of money and have lots of influence centuries after His death. Who is He?
Jesus asks that question of the Pharisee and crowds. When Jesus quotes the Psalmist here, He is citing the axiomatic passage that caused everyone in the Jewish community to accept that the messiah would be a descendant of David. Everyone agreed that the passage written by David was inspired by God and spoke prophetically of the great son of David who would inherit David’ throne. Make no mistake, the Jewish leaders argued over whether the messiah would be a political leader, a king, a military leader, and any other version they thought the messiah might embody. Nobody, however, argued over whether the messiah would be a descendant of David. As much as the Pharisees and Sadducees and Herodians and Temple priests argued among themselves, they agreed that the messiah would be a descendant of David!
Even armed with that knowledge and certainty, though, the leadership of the Jews was woefully unable to reason their way to Jesus. God becoming man was outside their research, beyond their teaching, and above their understanding. Jesus’ question serves to highlight this. We hate kings in America. In fact, we rebelled against a bad one to found our country. You may not know this, but princes and princesses are never called lord by their parents. The princes and the princesses call their parents lord or liege. In the ANE, of course, there were mostly kings. Abdications were unheard of. The king was the lord. Everyone owed him respect, and he enjoyed the authority to command him. Yet, buried in the Psalter, at 110 to be exact, was this famous passage that Jesus quotes. It is this passage which caused the Jewish leaders to know that the messiah would come from David’s lineage. Nobody, it seems, thought to pay attention to the passage.
Jesus essentially asks the Pharisee and the crowds and us how this prophesy, if inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, can be true. How can David be prophesying about his lord? David could only speak historically about a lord, were Jesse or some other ancestor a king. Yet here is David speaking of his Lord who comes after Him. How can this be?
Understandably, neither the Pharisee nor the crowd has a response. Like the Herodians and Pharisees, they do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. It cannot happen that way. David will always be lord to his successors, from a human perspective. You and I, though, live on this side of Holy Week and Easter. We understand, as best we can, the truth of the Incarnation. We know that Jesus came down from Heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit was made man. Though He lived on earth after David, He was from the beginning and long before David. It is through that understanding that you and I begin to understand the significance of Jesus. He is not just a teacher, he is not just possessed of some activated consciousness, whatever the heck that is, He is the Son of God, the Adon of David’s prophesy! As such, He has a unique claim on all our lives. When Jesus instructs us that we are to worship God with everything and love our neighbors as ourselves, they are not just counter-cultural teachings. They are the fulfilment of the very way you and I were created by God. Were we living in the fullest sense of our humanity, we would be joyfully giving thanks to God for His saving work in Christ and we would be sold out to make sure that the rest of the world was experiencing our joy, our hope, and our wonder. We would be doing everything could, as winsomely as possible, to get others to know just how much God loves them, just what great things He intends for them, and just how great His redemptive power is!
When we go through life keeping His love for us a secret, when we go through life miserable and grumpy and serving the same idols as those around us, when we go through life fearful or vengeful or even without purpose, we testify to the very opposite of what Jesus calls us to do today. We become compasses that are offset 180 degrees, to use my earlier imagery, that are incapable of directing others even in the general direction of God. Make no mistake, good Christians still suffer in the world. Good Christians experience privation and loss and disease and every other vicissitude that seems to rule this world. But the sufferings of Christians are tempered by the certainty that this is not all that there is, that our God can redeem all things in our lives to His glory, even our very deaths! And so, we stand at gravesides and make alleluias; we become a crying or silent shoulder as needed by those around us; we become ambassadors for His sake, telling and reminding others what He has done and what He has promised.
Sitting here this morning, you may be wrestling a bit with me. Brian, it’s too pollyannish. Brian, it’s too unreasonable. Brian, you need to be serious. Heck, the Sadducee, just like the Herodians and Pharisees before him, wrestled with the same thoughts. Matthew even reminds us this day that Jesus’ words were so challenging that no one dared to ask Him any further questions after this! Brothers and sisters, these teachings, these two great commandments, are given by none other than our Lord, our Lord who in just a few days’ time in the Gospel of Matthew will go willingly to His death that you and I might be reconciled to God our Father, that you and I might be able to finally become what He intended for each of us in the beginning. He will live out those two Great Commandments in the most complete sense. He will trust in His Father’s love and He will make it possible for you and I and every single person who has ever or will ever walk this earth to share in His eternal Kingdom! And that we might know that our Lord has the power to accomplish all that He purposes for us, He raised Jesus that glorious Easter morning, so that we who died to self in our baptism may share in that Resurrected life He offers!
My friends, who is He in your life? Do you see Him as you want to see Him? As a teacher? A cool guy with whom to hang out? A rejecter of the status quo? Maybe just a mythological figure? Or do you see Him as He revealed Himself to us, the Son of God? How we see Him will inform how seriously we take His instruction and teaching. Will we be a people indistinguishable from the world? Or will we be a people empowered by God grace, serving and forgiving at great cost to ourselves, but certain and joyful, full of hope, in the plans that He has made for each and every one of us?
In Christ’s Peace,