Opening prayer: Lord, may our mere human words be faithful to your written Word, and point us to the Living Word, Your Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ. [attr to +John Pritchard]
I guess I am stating the obvious when I say, ‘We live in interesting times.’ In the late 1930s, a British ambassador to China was told by a friend that there was a Chinese saying: “May you live in interesting times.” It was not a blessing, but a curse. In fact, the real expression is (“宁為太平犬 莫做亂离人” (nìng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luàn lí rén), which means: “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period.”
Thankfully, in this part of the world, we do not face literal war, but the wars of words in politics and society as a whole seem to be getting hotter. As we pause for breath after harsh words at the UN, de algemene beschouwing na Prinsjesdag, the Senate hearings on the nomination to the US Supreme Court, I hope we look to see how Jesus calmly, faithfully and brilliantly responded to his fierce critics. I yearn for more wisdom and leadership like His!
Jesus came to earth, stooped down to our level, to share His Father’s ways and wisdom with us, in order to lift us up to his level, through his grace and love. Thanks be to St Matthew and others for preserving his timeless teaching that we may continue to learn from it in each generation and era.
Near the end of his life, indeed, provoking it, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, having seen that the Holy City had become a hell-hole of hypocrisy and warring tribes. He courageously stepped into the fray, into the cross-fire, determined to point people back to the ways of his Heavenly Father’s Kingdom.
He was attacked on all sides by various religious parties, who had little in common aside from their fear that what he was teaching was true. Yet despite what he faced, Jesus remained faithful, thoughtful and firm. They threw trick questions at him, hoping to trap him in heresy, so they could convict him and stone him; but his prayerful and peaceful replies stunned them.
He is an example of how to respond when faith comes under fire.
Just before our passage today, he’d answered one set of critics (the Sadducees) about one of their pet-peeves: the Resurrection. His answer alluded their pointless question about marital status in heaven and refocused them on the loving, living God, the great and eternal ‘I am.’
Turning now to another rival sect, the Pharisees, he tries to call them too back to the core purposes of God. They’re obsessed with details of the great Law Code handed down from Moses. Yet Jesus brilliantly reminds them of the beating heart of love at the center of the wisdom of the Law. He reminds them that the Law was intended as a tool to get people closer to God and each other, not to become an over-technical, distracting gadget for self-gratification, badly in need of repair.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” [Mt 22:34-36]
Just the kind of question that probably featured regularly in Pharisee debating clubs. So, which one out of the 693 laws would you choose?
The first part of Jesus’ brilliant answer is actually no surprise. He cites the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.5), which every Jew, from school child to octogenarian, would have known by heart: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [and some versions add ‘and all your strength]. This is the first and greatest commandment.’ Easy-peasy. Everyone would have said that. But then he adds: And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Plucking a small verse from the Holiness Code of Leviticus and putting it on par with the Shema was not only divinely-inspired genius, but an in-your-face reminder of what living the faith is all about.
Jesus’ choice of a verse from Leviticus 19 is not at all random or without implications. In Leviticus 19, no less than 15 times, after this or that instruction about holiness, including the one to love one’s neighbor, we hear the saying ‘I am the Lord’. The point here is that living out holiness brings us closer to God. So loving our neighbour is a core part of our calling to become more like God, and build His Kingdom.
This is reaffirmed in St John’s 1st letter in the NT, where he writes that God is love. And he reminds us that ‘Love of God’ — vertical love, to put it metaphorically — is inseparable from horizontal love — love of one another. In 1 John 4 he states:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… [But] Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
This is what makes religious hatred, extremism or violence, whether Christian or otherwise, totally contradictory. It is impossible to say you love God and hate another human. Punt. This is why the anger and antipathy that the Pharisees had for the Sadducees and vice versa was completely wrong. Why the anger that various parts even of the Christian church have with others is also anathema. I’m not going to venture further into the realm of today’s politics either, but we should ask ourselves and our leaders about proper behavior, yes?
Jesus had the courage to say all this in the Temple precincts. The heart of religion in his day. As one commentator puts it: ‘Jesus comes to Jerusalem having endorsed the teaching of the prophets that mercy is much more important than offering sacrifices (Matthew 9.13; 12.7). His priorities lie with the fundamentals – the nature of God, the centrality of relationships and community-building values – rather than beliefs and practices that set one group against another.’
And then, after his summary of the Law, Jesus changes the subject — or does he? Whose Son is the Christ, the Messiah, was the question thrown at him? It’s sort of an ownership question. David was a warrior who paved the way for the building of the Temple. He was official heritage. A messiah who is ‘son of David’ should therefore probably continue to use weapons of war to defend the nation, would give pride of place to a temple whose separate areas for Jews and Gentiles, women and men, and lack of hospitality towards disabled people and children (see Matthew 21.14-16) would endorse a divided world.
So Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to show a new possibility. ‘By calling the messiah ‘lord’, the psalmist actually brings the analogy of ‘like father, like son’ to an end. Lord David shows deference to a new Lord, opening up new understanding. What kind of messiah should God’s people look for instead? What will His new world — the world of the Resurrection — look like? What difference will a messiah who does not follow exactly in David’s footsteps make in a world divided by privilege, learning, beliefs, race, gender, and health? Jesus’ messianic questions silence an audience bent on testing him. But, well, the issues he raises remain to this very day.
Before preaching, I began with the prayer that we connect to the word of Scripture and be pointed to the Living Word, Christ Jesus. Just like when Satan challenged him at his temptation, Jesus responds to critics who threw details of the Law and Scripture at him. He demonstrates that mere knowledge of the words of the Word is not enough. Knowing Scripture, being able to cite chapter and verse is one thing. But truly understanding God’s deep wisdom in it is another, and, actually having faith, and living its core principles, by the grace of God, like Jesus did, that is the point.
So in these interesting times full of fraction and friction, let us not lose faith under fire. But let us cherish and ponder how exemplary Jesus’ loving life and message truly are, and let us pray that we may follow his example more and more in all we think, all we say, and all we do.
Thy Kingdom come in our hearts and in our world, O Lord.