God’s Story, Our Stories (October 17-23)

Sunday, October 23
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
God’s Story, Our Stories

Weekly Prayer
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.

Focus Reading
Matthew 22:34-46

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
Matthew 22:34-46

Focus Questions

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. Is it possible to command people to love?

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?

by Kate Huey

This week’s passage 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” (Matt. 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 hasn’t applied for a license 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, we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. After all, 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 confounded 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?) Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, he 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 “undermine[s] the whole notion of the law as rules and regulations. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules, 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 might ask, How authentic is a love that’s forced? And then we might look more closely at how we 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. We claim that no one can force us to love someone else. “In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused,” Douglas Hare writes, “it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment.” And commitment can certainly 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.

An example during what is stewardship season in many churches: several years ago, inspired by the witness of two older women, longtime and faithful members of the church who told me their stories of tithing, I decided to take the step of increasing my own giving to the church I loved. Increasing to a tithe was a challenge but it surprised me that my feelings followed after the action, or after the commitment, if you will. I found that I loved my church more when I gave more to it, much as we love our children more after giving of ourselves to them over many years. So 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 two “great relationships”

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.”

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 (in another book, The Heart of Christianity) calls “the social form of love” in the Bible. The tradition in which Jesus taught and lived called Israel (as we are called today) to “justice, mercy, and faithfulness,” Douglas Hare writes, “that is, forms of behavior demanded by the prophets but beyond legal regulation.” We know that Jesus interpreted this law of love to cross boundaries in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.

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, and how comfortably we live on this side of those boundaries, 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.

What are our “rival centers”?

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 (in Jesus: A New Vision), “the character of the heart depended upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered in…what 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.” Two thousand years later, we might ask whether nationalism has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God. We might ask whether God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives. And, if we truly decide to follow in the way of Jesus, we should be prepared to be called a radical, too.

Two writers (among many) have provided exquisite reflections on these two great commandments. In his book, The God of Jesus, Stephen J. Patterson describes the “basic reality” of God as love, for “to love God is to love love itself. That is why Jesus embodied love in his own life in a more radical way than the simple love of neighbor might suggest. 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. To love God is to be devoted to a basic and fundamental reality that runs through all of life and creation.” 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. This is the reality that beckons us to live better than we live. This is the reality that 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.”

Finding love, finding joy

We’re not surprised that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love 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” (Many of Merton’s beautiful writings can be found in A Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, editor).

The long and contentious debate between Jesus and the religious experts ends, fittingly, with a question about the Messiah, one 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. But 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, finally accepting its limitations and succumbing to the powers of fear and hatred that crucified him. 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”?

For further reflection

C. S. Lewis, 20th century
To love at all is to be vulnerable. 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 thing….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.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.