Monday, October 24, 2005

Oct. 23 Sermon: "613=2"

Sermon Text: Matthew 22:34-46

There is something appealing about what Jesus does with the Pharisees and Saducees. He is being tested. The atmosphere is not one of lively and amiable scholarly debate; it is hostile, with the intent to discredit Jesus. Much is at stake--Jesus' authority, his role and his identity. Tom Long has called this Jesus' final exam, because it will be this test that ultimately dooms Jesus in the minds of the scholarly authorities. But what is appealing is that Jesus takes something so complicated and posits a simple formula.
Jewish scholars had surveyed the Torah, counted carefully and discovered 613 commandments. Applying all 613 at once was virtually impossible, even if they could be remembered.” If one were to hang all of these laws on one nail, what nail would it be? Jesus uses two nails: love of God and love of neighbor. Matthew tells us something more that Jesus said that is not found in Mark or Luke—Jesus says, “On these two laws hang all the others and everything the prophets say. The formula is memorable and its simplicity appealing. As many of you who came to our open house could tell, we’ve been hanging a lot of pictures. When you have a picture frame with a wire in the back, it hangs so much straiter with two nails, you know. Well, I would say that Jesus believes the Law is a picture frame with a wire on the back. Two nails are needed to keep it strait. The two nails are Deut. 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
Undoubtedly, when this church created a “mission statement,” something suitible was considered to be short and easy to remember. We thought up, “WUMC is a community….” Jesus here takes the entire Jewish life and makes a mission statement. Love God and Love your neighbor.
This is probably one of the most familiar passages in the Bible isn’t it? I have thought of it at some introspective moments about my own practice of religion. When I wonder why we do things differently than other Christians in the world, I’ve often thought—“Well, Jesus said quite simply, Love God with all your mind, soul, and heart.” The second law is like it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The differences between us seem a lot less important when we are able to see people of all kinds adhering to this simple formula.
It is good to know something by heart. I bet many of us could have whispered under our breath how Jesus responds to the Pharisee as I read the scripture this morning. However—with familiarity sometimes comes a hardening of the ears. It seems that when we hear something repeatedly, we lose sight of just how special and important it is.
Understand that the Pharisee asking Jesus this question would be tantamount to someone asking in this day and age: What is the most important thing in life? You see, there were no lines of demarcation between a person’s religious life and personal or social life. By the pharisee asking Jesus what the most important law was, he was asking Jesus the point of life itself. What is more important in life than Loving God with all that we have and all that we are and then applying that love not only to God but to the world around us?
Notice that Jesus presupposes a healthy and fulfilling respect and love of one’s self as the root of our love of neighbor. This is probably a challenge for some of us here today. Some of us have been blessed to live in circumstances that have afforded us to have a great sense of self-esteem. Others of us have not had such fortune—the path toward self-love has undoubtedly been filled with potholes and ruts. For some of us, the concept of loving ourselves seems like a distant and far-fetched not-very possibility. To those of us in this family of faith who may be on this side of the spectrum, perhaps you might find inspiration in the idea that God’s overflowing well of Life and Light and Love is waiting to spring forth in your life and fill you with a deep sense of self-esteem—but years of damaging words and thoughts to the contrary can sometimes be hard for us to see through. Sometimes we are filled with God’s love for us even if we can’t understand why anyone would love us. Please understand that Our ability to love others will be enhanced by our acceptance of the fact that God loves us. This is not to say that those of us with low self-esteem are not able to love others in a fulfilling way—I am simply saying that if are able to find a source of love within ourselves, it will be like finding a power outlet in our heart--it can generate a tremendously powerful love towards others as well.
After Jesus is asked the question about what is most important in life, Jesus responds with a probing question of his own. The second half of today’s Gospel lesson is probably less familiar, but essentially Jesus is asking the Pharisee “what is the meaning of the Messiah?” As is commonly lifted up in Christian churches, especially around Christmas time, the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a Son of David—perhaps a reincarnation of David. The main expectation was that the Messiah would lift the Jews out of oppression. The Jewish people had been dominated by some empire for the entire history of Israel, except for a couple rare occasions—One was during the idealized reign of King David. The Pharisees were not wrong in assuming that the Messiah would come as a King to liberate the people of Israel—indeed the Scriptures spoke of the Messiah in this way. The name “Messiah” even means “annointed one.” The profession which was most often linked with annointing was that of a King.
Jesus quotes a Psalm to throw the expectations into disarray. He is not saying that the Messiah is not a king—he is simply doing what he does best—confounding expectations so that we can get beyond them to a larger truth.
The question is a kind of riddle. I wonder if Jesus smiled as he asked it. Riddles are great levelers. So long as you puzzle for answers according to acquired, predictable and "right" ways of thinking, you will be stumped, as were the Pharisees. "No one was able to give [Jesus] an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions" (22:46). We could say that Jesus "won." But I suspect that, as with riddles and parables, the real point has something to do with different ways of knowing. Maybe Jesus is saying that the important thing is not so much having the right answer as changing direction or orientation. St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, "Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything." Jesus seems to be trying to usher the Pharisees toward wonder.
The question about what law is most important is filled with expectations and presuppositions. Jesus doesn’t answer that one law is the most important—Matthew tells us that Jesus says that the entirety of the Law is contained in two laws. 613=2. What is most important about the law is Love, because “God IS love.” 1 Jn 4: Says “The one who does not love does not know God, because God is Love.” If we live with a fiery and vibrant love, If we live toward our neighbor and our God in Love, then we live the Law of God. God’s law was given in love, Paul’s theology of transcendence of the Law was based on the idea that Love is the key. As Virgil said, “Love conquers all.” 613 laws fill the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus gives us the “Cliff’s Notes” version.
Love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. It is the simple answer that refuses to be turned into a concept and idolized. It is a truth that cannot be cornered and owned. It simply creates in us a sense of wonder and beauty and awe. The messiah will not simply come to liberate us from one earthly empire. The Messiah will come to liberate our souls from the oppression of sin and death. The messiah comes to liberate our ideas from rigidness and hollowness. The messiah comes to love. The messiah comes to infect the world with love.
Thanks be to God! Amen


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