Sunday, October 29, 2017
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25)
God's Story, Our Stories
Almighty God, your Son has shown us how to love one another. May our love for you overflow into joyous service and be a healing witness to our neighbors through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
'The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
"If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
All Readings For This Sunday
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
1. In what ways might you relate to the Pharisees in today's passage?
2. Why do you think rules matter in our lives?
3. What kind of love can be commanded?
4. Have you ever had your feelings shaped by your actions?
5. If "the basic reality" of God's life is love, what is the basic reality of your own life?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew is only one small piece of a conversation we're overhearing, between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It's a little bit like listening in on a family argument, but with higher stakes. The displeased leaders uncomfortably recognize Jesus' parables as "speaking about them": "They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet" (Matthew 21:45-46). Feeling offended and "disrespected" and perhaps threatened, they fight back with the only weapons they have: their learning, and their way with words.
Like our modern presidential debates, these exchanges appear polite on the surface, but the tension underneath is hard to miss. In Matthew's descriptive account in chapter 22, the authorities "plotted to entrap him" (v.15), and "Jesus, aware of their malice," calls them "hypocrites" (v. 18) and tells them that they "know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (v. 29). Perhaps we might understand Jesus' hostility if we (as always) consider the setting: after his triumphal procession into Jerusalem, he immediately "cleansed" the temple and confronted the religious leaders who then questioned his authority to teach on their turf. Clearly, they're not fans.
Jesus knows what he's talking about
Jesus hasn't applied for a license to preach or passed their test of orthodoxy, and yet his answer today to a question about the heart of the law, the heart of his people's tradition, shows that he is an utterly faithful Jew. On round three of theological questions, the Pharisees have sent in their "big gun," as Beverly Zink-Sawyer describes this legal expert, to get to that heart of the matter. Richard Swanson continues the image: "The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload." The lawyer has asked a "Do-You-Have-A-Clue-About-Being-Jewish? question," Swanson says, and "Jesus clearly has a clue about being a Jew."
If we turn to a baseball metaphor instead (painful for a Cleveland baseball fan this week), we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. Even though the Pharisees want to trap Jesus in heresy (i.e., saying the other 612 laws are less important), scholars seem to agree that Jesus isn't the first to put together these two laws about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). But as always there's a twist in the way Jesus interprets the tradition, a twist that turns our perspective around today just as much as it "confounds" his listeners long ago. (Isn't that one of the most important roles, and gifts, of a good teacher: to turn around the perspective of their listeners?)
What the Law is about
Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, Jesus paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that "hangs together." Even more, Thomas Long tells us that Jesus sees the law very differently than its experts do, and his response, rather than understanding the law "as rules and regulations," emphasizes "love"; the law is "about really loving God and one's neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk."
We might begin our closer look at these two commandments by asking how humans can indeed be "commanded" to love. Some of us might ask what kind of love it is if it's forced. And then we might look more closely at how we tend to define love mostly as a feeling that then causes us to behave in a certain way. When we don't feel love, it influences and even justifies our behavior, or our lack of right behavior.
Love as a setting of the heart
We claim that no one can force us to feel something we just don't feel, but Douglas Hare notes that Jesus is talking about "biblical love," a love that is marked not by "warm feelings" of gratitude but by "rather stubborn, unwavering commitment." And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two.
This kind of love, a setting of the heart, a decision to act that then affects how we feel, may involve giving generously to support our church (and finding that we then love it more), or faithfully prioritizing the needs of our spouse or children, no matter our mood or inclination at the time (and finding those relationships deepened), or perhaps learning to forgive as a spiritual practice that makes us more forgiving people.
A thing of mystery
It seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God's way of getting us to do what we need to do, what's good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it's a thing of mystery.
The great scholar Marcus Borg has famously called these two commandments the "great relationships," and he even ends his excellent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, with this "remarkably simple vision of the Christian life. It is not complicated, though it is challenging." It's as if it all comes to this, for "at the center of a life grounded in the Bible is the twofold focus of the great relationship."
Two great relationships
So at the heart of being a faithful Jew, and at the heart of being a faithful Christian, we have these two great relationships, intertwined in yet another mysterious mingling for people of faith. Beginning with the second, we know that we're called to love one another, not just the people we feel love for, but all of God's children, which is where justice comes in, what Borg calls "the social form of love" in the Bible. As Cornel West said, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."
The tradition in which Jesus taught and lived called the people of Israel (as we are called today) to "justice, mercy, and faithfulness," Douglas Hare writes, "forms of behavior demanded by the prophets but beyond legal regulation." We know that Jesus interpreted this law of love to cross boundaries that were in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.
What boundaries do we draw?
We might also ask what boundaries we have placed around our own commitment to love our neighbor: which of God's children live on the other side of those boundaries, what kinds of walls we have built to "defend" ourselves from having to love them, and how comfortably we live on this side of those walls, all the while thinking that we too are faithful to the two great commandment/relationships. God didn't mean for us to love those people, right?
And yet Jesus made clear the reason we love even the stranger, even the "least" among us: later in Matthew's Gospel (the well-known Chapter 25), he said that we will be judged by whether we were able to see him, to see Jesus, to see God, in every single person we encounter, and he describes that love in what we do, not what we feel.
We might also consider how it feels to be on the other side of that wall, when others judge or reject us, or find us unworthy of God's love and grace, and therefore unworthy of theirs. What is most tragically ironic--and a sin--is the mis-use of religion to justify these walls, this judgment rooted in hatred and bigotry. There is no way to reconcile the two Great Commandments with such abuse. And we wonder why young people, among others, are "turned off" by religion.
Jesus was a radical
Turning then to the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we once again consider the orientation, or setting, of the very center of our being: "Within ancient Jewish psychology," Borg writes, "the character of the heart depended upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered inÖwhat mattered was the orientation of the self at its deepest level, its 'center' or fundamental loyalty." Jesus was a radical, Borg says, in teaching that we are to be centered in the Spirit, and not in the many other things that call for our loyalties, "rival centers" like "family, wealth, honor, and religion." (I have a feeling an entire Bible study discussion could be held on this paragraph alone.)
Two thousand years later, it might be obvious to ask if nationalism, for example, has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God. If God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives, that would be evident in the way we live our lives, personally and communally, as people of love and justice, not simply of symbols. But Borg's list pushes us to consider values and loyalties that are, so to speak, closer to home, especially family and religion.
Willing to bear the price
Both of these values (family and religion) are certainly good, but isn't it possible for them, and our definition of them, to take on more fundamental importance even than God in our lives? For example, religious wars/violence are the tragic but perhaps logical outcome of deciding that our loyalties and convictions require us to make others submit to our belief system. In light of our world situation and the tensions around religious interpretation of both texts and law, that particular "rival center" strikes me as especially pertinent. In response, we should be prepared to follow in the way of Jesus, to be called a radical, and to bear the price as well.
Two writers (among many) have provided exquisite reflections on these two great commandments. Stephen J. Patterson describes the "basic reality" of God as love, for "to love God is to love love itself." We have Jesus himself as a role model in that "radical" (perhaps even shocking) way of loving: "He loved prostitutes. He loved sinners, traitors, tax collectors. He treated the shamed with honor and declared the unclean clean. He loved the unlovable. He loved his enemies." (We should all be so radical.)
Jesus loved everyone he met
That was Jesus' "fundamental" orientation (to combine Borg and Patterson's language): from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met. When we're trying to figure out the meaning of life, when we're trying to make sense of everything, Patterson points us toward this "reality that can give life its richness and ultimate meaning....beckons us to live better than we live....[and] exists as already present, an Empire 'within you,' that can be as powerful in the shaping of human life and relationships as we want it to be." (I find his use of the word "empire" here so challenging: if we wrestle with whether "reign of God" conveys the same meaning as "kingdom of God," how does "empire" of God sound to our feminist-theological ears?)
We're not surprised, then, that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: "Love," he wrote, "is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God" (from A Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, editor: I highly recommend this book!).
The end of the debate
The long and contentious debate between Jesus and the religious experts ends, fittingly, with a question about the Messiah, a question that is really about Jesus himself. Thomas C. Long writes, "Jesus challenges the completeness of the Pharisees' answer," for "He is David's true son, but he is more. He is Messiah and Lord." Perhaps this reminds us of the incompleteness of all of our understanding, and the human limitations of our ability to love.
However, Patterson explores the mysterious power of love that comes from God: Jesus, he writes, "embraced that power, lived it, spoke of it, storied it into existence, and surrendered to it....This is how, even in death, Jesus could become an experience of God to others." As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the world today (the world that God so loves), how can we each day become "an experience of God to others"?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
C. S. Lewis, 20th century
"Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."
J. C. Ryle, 19th century
"All heaven and earth resound with that subtle and delicately balanced truth that the old paths are the best paths after all."
John of the Cross, 16th century
"In the evening, we will be judged on love."
Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thingÖ.The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being."
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 20th century
"I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, 'How many good things have you done in your life?' rather he will ask, 'How much love did you put into what you did?"
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
"The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them."
Antoine de Saint-ExupÈry, The Little Prince, 20th century
"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."
Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
"Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is."
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