(a sermon for October 26, 2014, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 22:34-46)
There’s no pretty way of saying this, so best to come right out with it: our text this morning represents a fervent effort to expose Jesus as a fake!
It’s true; our reading this morning from Matthew is in fact the culmination of several attempts on the part of the religious “powers-that-be” of the time – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – to question Jesus’ authority and to seek to discredit him amongst the people. And in all honesty, looking at it from their perspective who could blame them for trying?
Remember, all of this is taking place soon after Jesus has made his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, which in and of itself was pretty much a subversive act; and then almost immediately, Jesus turns over the tables of moneychangers in the temple, he curses a fig tree as though to put the whole religious establishment on notice, and then he goes on to tell at least three parables that were thinly veiled denunciations of the so-called righteousness of said “powers-that-be!” It’s no coincidence that no sooner than Jesus had finished his teaching, those who would put Jesus to the test started to arrive, and not kindly: isn’t it true, after all, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, that “when those with prestige and position are challenged, when their presuppositions are upturned, they react with hostility and fear?” Better, they reason, to try to trip Jesus up with impossible questions and humiliate him in front of all the people than perhaps actually have to listen to what Jesus is saying and realize that maybe the world – and they – will need to change because of it; in other words, if Jesus is made to look like a fake, then he goes away, life goes on and the status quo is maintained.
And like I said before, I understand; I get why they would do that; because the truth is, I’ve lived it. And so, I’m guessing, have you.
Pastorally speaking, it’s there in the experience of having someone tell you that they’d never go to church because it’s filled with hypocrites; or else, when they let you know that while God is very well and good, they’ve got a real problem with “organized religion” (at which point, I am always tempted – but never quite dare – to reply, well, then, why not try our church, because we haven’t managed to get ourselves organized yet!). More seriously, I hear it from those who’ll back themselves far away from faith because of all the sorrow and suffering that goes on in the world; why would a just and loving God ever let that happen, they reason. And besides, aren’t there “religious extremists” in every kind of tradition out there, and isn’t that really the problem in the world today?
Friends, I can certainly attest to the fact that in this modern era, just as in every one that’s come before, there are always those who would put Jesus to the test; people in the midst of the predominant culture and the politics of the time who will look at what we believe, what we stand for and who we follow, and wonder if it truly is “the real deal,” or if there’s a way to be found for it all simply… to go away.
What’s interesting is that leading up to our reading for this morning, the Sadducees and Pharisees had been doing their dead level best for exactly that to happen! First, in order “to entrap” Jesus, the Pharisees “sent their disciples” (aka, their lackeys!) to ask a question about taxes being paid to the emperor (Matt. 21:17). And then the Sadducees, who were famous for not believing in resurrection, came along to try to trip Jesus on a tricky question about what would happen in the afterlife if one widow ended up married to more than one brother in a family! It was all about creating an impossible riddle for Jesus, but each time they try it, Jesus not only avoids the trap, but does so with theological depth and finesse. In short, their attempt to paint Jesus as nothing but a charlatan and rabble rouser, so far had failed miserably.
But then they decided, why not get to the heart of the matter; this time, the Pharisees would come to Jesus in person and ask of him a single question; one that, by the way, happened to be a pretty common topic amongst the faithful of Jesus’ time: “Teacher,” one of them asked (and you have to know that the title of “teacher” was dripping with what is often referred to these days as snarkiness!), “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” It was the perfect question, at least as far as the Pharisees were concerned: they figured that whatever commandment that Jesus chose, they could then assume that apparently Jesus didn’t really care much about the other nine; and so then they could proclaim to everybody in Jerusalem that not only was this Jesus a flagrant commandment breaker, but a blasphemer as well (and I have to imagine that at the end of this proclamation, they’d end with their own version of “we’re the scribes and Pharisees, and we approved this message!”). Simply put, no matter how Jesus responded, they’d have the goods on him at last.
But then Jesus answered the question.
And it was… brilliant. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This,” Jesus says, “is the greatest and first commandment.” And, by the way, it pretty much sums up the first five of the Ten Commandments; covering false worship, idols, taking God’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath, and honoring one’s parents. And Jesus isn’t done: “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That would pretty well cover lying, stealing, coveting, adultery, false witness and murder; thus bringing all ten commandments into one sharp focus; or as Jesus concludes, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I would have loved to been there to see the Pharisees’ reaction; because whether they were willing to admit it or not, Jesus had not only avoided the trap they’d set for him, but he’d also answered their question correctly; deep down, they knew he was right! The Pharisees, remember, were all about the law; specifically, following the law to the letter; and to be fair to them, following the law to the letter was for them an act of great and pious faith! But here’s Jesus now, to remind them that at the heart of all that law and deep in the midst of its interpretation and practice, is to be the one simple truth of LOVE. Loving God… and loving people. In the words of Hillel, an ancient teacher of the Jewish faith, “the rest is commentary.” Every law, every rule, every custom and tradition we have, every act of piety we embrace as people of faith pretty much comes down to – or ought to come down to – LOVE. And it’s LOVE, you see, that ultimately reveals Jesus – and our Christian faith – as “the real deal;” as something neither fake nor transitory nor empty in the face of the struggles faced in this world, but rather, in fact, that which is “the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
Now, I know that as we look at this story, it all seems like a pretty basic tenet of our Christian faith; I mean, if it isn’t all about loving God and loving our neighbor, then what is it that we really stand for as Christians or as the church? But the fact is, this story raises for each of us an important issue; and that’s whether or not we really understand how central love is to who we are and what we do? Because in truth, the reason that there are many out there who are suspicious of faith and of those of us who espouse faith is that they don’t always see, or feel, or experience the love through us or in us! What is that famous quote from Mahatma Ghandi: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That sounds harsh – and it is – but how are we ever to convey to the world the truth of our Christian faith if we ourselves are not “the real deal” where love is concerned?
Marcus Borg, the renowned Biblical Scholar and theologian, has written that so often “we have made being Christian very complex, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right. But being Christian,” Borg says, “is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple.” And basically, it comes down to this: being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves; and what God loves is the world… “not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation.” Being Christian is about our working with God to become that kind of person; understanding of course, that we’re not talking about love in some sort of passive sense, nor a love that’s wholly filled with sentimentality; for more often than not love involves steely-eyed determination, great discretion and a relentless fervor to do what’s right not matter what the cost. Love is meant to be shared actively; doing what we can do to be about the business of God’s love in the world: bringing light into darkness, lifting up the fallen and bringing them hope, doing justice in the places and amongst the people where “the power of politics, and the politics of power” seem to reign supreme. It’s about living unto the love we have for God by letting it be transformed into the love we show for others; a simple thought, to be sure, but where the law and the prophets are concerned – as well as the mission of the church and, might I add, our own Christian walk, yours and mine – it’s where everything starts and on which its success truly hinges.
You might have noticed that there’s a brief postscript to our reading this morning, in which Jesus essentially turns the tables on the Pharisees by offering up a test of his own. The question has to do with the Pharisee’s own interpretation of whose son the Messiah is supposed to be, and the exchange ends on a rather ominous note: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any questions.” It was the kind of exchange that those involved in the art of debate live for; the final definitive statement that shuts down all further argument. Of course, we know the gospel story and understand that once the Pharisees had retreated, the inevitable plan for Jesus’ death had already begun to unfold; so in a larger sense, the ending of these tests signaled the beginning of something even more crucial.
It’s all there, you know, as we continue reading on in Matthew: will we keep our lamps burning in anticipation of the kingdom to come? Will we be investing our talents for the sake of the Master? Will we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned? Will we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, loving God by doing so? And will we walk with Jesus, even if that walk inevitably leads to the cross? Will our faith, our love, our loyalty be as fleeting as that of the disciples when they scattered, or will people see in us true faith, and know that we are “the real deal?”
Seems to me that that’s a test of a whole other sort!
Let us pray that as the test unfolds in our own lives this week, we’ll be able to say that we passed!
So might it be; and thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry