Challenging the lawyers

Sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and Matthew 22:34-46

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him.” As Matthew relates the story, this is the fourth time that members of the Jerusalem establishment have attempted to discredit Jesus. He’s only been in Jerusalem a very few days, but he has made his mark; riding into the city to the sound of those “hosannas”, very publically denouncing the money-changers at the temple, and appearing openly in the public square as an increasingly popular teacher. With the Roman soldiers looking on with increasing suspicion at this maverick teacher and his followers, the time has come to deal with him. Yet each time one of these scholars attempts to back him into a rhetorical corner, Jesus rather deftly sidesteps the trap and turns it right back on his questioner.

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You needn’t think he’s being merely evasive, unwilling to show his hand and declare himself for who he is. No, he’s engaging his questioners on their terms, skillfully employing the accepted way of religious discourse. And he’s evidently good at it, for as today’s reading comes to its close Matthew comments that, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

The question that the lawyer asks—and here we should think of the lawyer as being more a biblical scholar and theologian than a legal professional in the modern sense—is “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The answer Jesus gives is frankly so traditional that not a one of them could have been much troubled by it. “Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” He’s citing the shema of Israel, from Deuteronomy 6:5; a verse that is meant to be not just recited, but prayed daily by torah-abiding Jews. “This is the greatest and first commandment,” he adds, and then citing Leviticus 19:18 he continues, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The whole of the torah and everything spoken by the prophets must be understood in light of these two essential things—love of God and love of neighbour.

You just don’t get a whole lot more traditional than that. Not only is he quoting scripture to them, but he’s actually placing himself in line with a much respected rabbinical reading of the torah. There’s just nothing here that is going to get him into trouble.

It is useful for us to consider what Jesus might have meant when he spoke of love of God and love of neighbour. For English speakers the word “love” almost inevitably implies something about our emotions and affections. Whether we’re speaking of how much we love our romantic partner, our kids, coffee, chocolate, the mountains, winter vacations, a particular book or movie or musician, the word “love” always suggests some sort of emotional response or attachment. So what if I don’t feel much like loving my neighbour? And just what does it mean to feel loving toward God? I mean there are certainly times when I am powerfully moved in worship and in prayer, but as a steady way of being?

Here the comments of Clayton Shmit are helpful. Noting that the Greek word translated here as love is agape, Shmit notes that “[C]hiefly it refers to what can be called loving-kindness. It is not passive emotion, but active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity… both acts [being] generated by the one who loves. In short, loving is a choice, not a feeling.” “A choice, not a feeling,” to which I might add that it is a choice that can in turn generate new feelings or experiences of patience, generosity, warmth, kindness in the one who chooses to love. Paul actually expresses this in the passage we heard read from 1 Thessalonians, when he writes that, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” (1 Thess 2:7-8) Perhaps to his own surprise, Paul has discovered that by choosing to care about this little church community he has found himself wanting to share his very self with them, like a woman nursing her own child at her breast.

In other words, the mandate Jesus issues to love God and neighbour is a mandate to choose that way of being in the world; a choice that is always transformative of the one who loves.

Yet this discussion doesn’t end there, for now he will turn to them and ask a question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” The answer they offer is a solidly traditional one—“They said to him, ‘The son of David’”—but then he comes back at them with a second question that to their ears must have sounded almost wildly unconventional. I don’t know how carefully you were listening to the reading, but I suspect that for many of us at least, the back and forth of the dialogue sounded rather foggy.

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?

You got that right? Clear as… mud? When Matthew concludes that “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions,” it might be tempting for us to think, “no kidding they didn’t dare to ask any more questions… they had no clue as to what he was talking about!”

Yet they did have at least some clue, because as soon as Jesus launched in to this question, they’d have recognized that he was again citing scripture, in this case Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ This is a psalm attributed to King David, in which he envisions the Lord God speaking a word of promise to the longed for priest-king or messiah who would bring Israel to its fullness. Citing this psalm verse, Jesus hits them with something of a riddle: if David has called the promised messiah his “Lord,” how can he also be his son? Put another way, how can David’s son also be his master? The riddle might strike us as a bit of technical word play that only those Pharisees would have heard as being a particularly strong finishing point in their argument with Jesus, and maybe at some level that is the case. Yet Matthew also has an insight here as to the deeper point being made.

You see, as they listen to Jesus’ questioning riddle, the Pharisees assume there must be an either/or answer, yet from the very opening verse of his gospel, Matthew has openly identified Jesus as both “Messiah” and “son of David,” and as his story unfolds Matthew frequently calls Jesus the “Lord”. So long as the Pharisees think of the Messiah only in terms of a Davidic style of conquering warrior king, this riddle will keep them quite stuck. But Matthew knows—and wants his readers to know—that the way through the riddle is to affirm the Lordship of Messiah Jesus, and to affirm it as one defined by agapic loving-kindness and active mercy; by a life lived in consistently choosing to embody love of God and love of neighbour. Seen through Matthew’s eyes, the ones who can actually laugh at the riddle are those who can catch the delight of the divine joke—that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” as the defining act of God’s gracious and merciful love. Until the Pharisees begin to see that—until we begin to see that—the whole of the gospel remains but a conundrum; an unsolvable riddle

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