A Homily for
October 29 2014,
Year A, from
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading continues the Hebrew religious leader's response to the series of Jesus' parables that we are calling the parables of provocation.
This ongoing argument between Jesus and the pressure groups (N.T. Wright) of his day has now turned deadly serious, as Jesus knew it would, with the heat being steadily turned up on him by these leaders in their attempt to degrade the people's view of him, even as they plot his final destruction.
As noted in last week’s text, these leaders had had enough. One could push these men of power only so far, and Jesus had pushed them over the line.
First it was the Herodians and the Pharisees who sought to trap Jesus like one traps a bird or wild beast (A.T. Robertson) with their question tax paying to Rome. Then came the Sadducees with their question about marriage and the afterlife. And now, finally, it is the Pharisees turn again, this time with a question regarding TORAH.
Here is the test:
"a scholar of the law tested him by asking, 'Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?'"
Now, it seems unclear exactly how this is a test to Jesus. Matthew Hare, in his commentary on Matthew's Gospel, tells us that this is no honest question, but is instead "a devious attempt to entrap Jesus." Dr. Hare goes on to say:
"Perhaps the Pharisees of Matthew's narrative...are trying to temp Jesus into making a statement that will eliminate a part of his popular support."
Anyway, Jesus does not hesitate to answer:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
That is, of all the laws of the TORAH, the greatest is the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deut.6:4-5)
And then Jesus vitally links this to Leviticus:
"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:18)
To see the depth of what is at work here, I want to quote Professor Hare one more time:
"In an age when the word "love" is greatly abused, 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. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. to love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously."
If this understanding is true, and I think it is spot-on, then the response with which Jesus confronts the Pharisees is nothing less than a call to action, a call for something to be done that displays loving GOD and neighbor, or may I say loving GOD through loving neighbor.
What I have in mind is summed in these powerful text from 1st John:
"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." (1 John. 3:16-18)
And then again, a little later, St. John writes:
"Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)
This must be heard and declared in the church over and over again: We show our love for the LORD, GOD -- we show its reality and its depth -- in how we sacrificially love our neighbor.
I must confess, I find this text both deeply challenging and highly upsetting, and may I also say, if you do not (and I say this in love as your pastor, but it must be said), if you do not I wonder if you understand what it means to really follow Jesus.
Clearly, this is the challenge that Jesus left his 1st century followers, and we have been pounding away at it from the very beginning of our unpacking St. Matthew's Gospel from the beginning of this church year:
From Matthew 5:
13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Mt. 5:13-18)
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:20)
39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...(Mt. 5:39-44)
From Matthew 6:
9 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;
20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
From Matthew 7:
13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.21 "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' 23 Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' 24 "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!"
And these few texts are just from the Sermon on the Mount!
The upshot of this is very simple: GOD's Kingdom project includes the building of a new humanity, a new way to be human, a way not built on selfishness and self projected power, but instead a way built by offering GOD — as found in the Christ — our allegiance and our very lives, which is most clearly displayed by how we give of ourselves to others.
Let it be said, that, apart from the Holy Spirit writing GOD's laws on our hearts, we cannot hope to live this way.
Finally, what must not be lost in this passage is how Jesus lived his life exactly by these two commandments! What we see in Jesus is that "stubborn, unwavering commitment to GOD," and his taking seriously the needs of his neighbors and even his enemies. Here is the pattern for a full and lively humanity! Here is the pattern for a clear and decisive discipleship. Here is the pattern for our lives.
What we discover is that GOD is not up there in the sky somewhere, fatigued by it all, but rather we find, in the Christ as offered to us by Jesus of Nazareth, a GOD engaged, a weeping GOD, a GOD vitally interested in the reclamation of his good creation through his the Jesus-People living the Jesus-Way.