Thursday, November 03, 2011

Yeah, But...

Matthew 22:34-46

Preached Sunday, October 23, 2011 in Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist Churches

Sometimes I distrust the lectionary designers. I will grant that it must be quite a task to be able to fit four gospels, all of the epistles and the rest of the new testament, the Psalms, and about 60% of the Old testament into three years worth of Sundays, say about 156 Sundays, and have some set aside for 3 Christmases, 3 Advent seasons, 3 Lenten seasons, and 3 Easters. Frankly, they have done an excellent job of providing access to the breadth and depth of the Biblical witness, but…

Some Sundays I do wonder what they were thinking. Like this Sunday-what do these two stories possibly have in common? They seem like two completely different ideas, and somehow Matthew or the later editors have decided that they need to be put next to each other. Perhaps it would be better to just preach one of them.

And then I started reading the commentaries, and realized that there was a reason; there was an idea.

The first chunk is verses 34-40, and what has happened just before is that Jesus has answered the Sadducees’ questions so succinctly and cleverly that they are now silent. So, here come the Pharisees, looking both the get at Jesus, and show up their theological rivals. The representative guy asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. He might be thinking about the Decalogue, the first ten laws that Moses brought down from the mountain, what we know as the Ten Commandments, or they may be asking him which of the 613 laws that are listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the most important.

Jesus’ response doesn’t actually even come from the Ten Commandments, or the 613 laws; he answers them from the central prayer of belief for their culture, time and place, the one that Pharisees, Sadducees, Jesus and his followers, John the Baptist and his followers, and everybody up to Herod himself agrees to; The first and strongest thing we believe is that you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then he adds to it, And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

He has answered the question, and has even used the texts, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that the Pharisees would have expected. But he has not chosen his favorite-he has summarized the whole law in a way that reminds them that they have perhaps missed the boat on the laws.

Next, he has a question for them. It’s a funny little puzzle, but gets to the point of the issue that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees have with this guy.
“Whose son is the messiah?” that’s easy for these guys. It’s like asking a Christian what the name of the Book is that we read from every week. They probably even hesitate a minute, thinking it is some sort of trick question. But here is only one right answer, that the messiah comes out of the line of one of their most heroic Kings, David.

“so,” he says, “in Psalm 110, which we all believe were written by King David” ( which he doesn’t say, but everybody listening knows), “ how come it says that our Lord God says to the Lord, the Messiah, come sit at my right hand? Why is the author of the Psalm calling one of his descendants, a great grand child maybe, his Lord. Why does he subordinate himself?

Now, Jesus could be making several points here, but what I think might be happening is that the Pharisees and Sadducees are feeling a little high and mighty in their time and place, and Jesus has reminded them that the guy they all say is coming is going to be a guy with the lineage they want, but even David acknowledges that the messiah will be greater than he. It must be that he is seeing these religious leaders looking to themselves for their spiritual leadership, to their interpretations of Scripture, to their own ideas as normative for their culture.

And Jesus is telling them, hard on the heels of synthesizing the whole of the law and the prophets through the prism of God’s love, that the messiah will be the best of them all, and will unify them in a way that their beliefs cannot maintain their divisions against.

He doesn’t explicitly claim that he is that Messiah. He doesn’t have to. This is Jerusalem during Passover week, it’s already in the air, these leaders are already aware, and they also know that he’s a Bethlehem boy, born in David’s line.

What is the lesson here for us? We Methodists who sit here on Sunday mornings, instead of down at the Baptists, or back in the woods in someone's barn, at some other church, find something in what we find here to keep us coming. But does that something get in the waqy of seeing God as for us all? Does that something block us from being able to see Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and everything else a matter of taste and style?

It’s a matter of cutting through the “yeah, buts.” I do not believe that Jesus saves us for all time merely by us being baptized once, and we can do no wrong after that. I don’t believe that salvation for God’s people lies in membership in the right group, having said the right words. But I can acknowledge that when the perspective is proper, these are both ways of discussion how we respond to God’s love, which is the point of church, I think. And we all respond to love in different ways, don’t we?

So, what are the “Yeah, buts” that keep you from truly, clearly, and simply saying that prayer from Deuteronomy? I will love the Lord with all my heart soul mind and strength? And what about the prayer from Leviticus: I will love my neighbor as myself?” As one commentator says, “Jesus is a faithful Jew, yet he bursts the bonds of custom that limited God’s concern to faithful Jews.” “Those who Love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges.”

What privileges, either earthly or spiritually, do you hold more dear than the love of God? These are your stumbling blocks. These are your “yeah, buts”.

May you learn some day to get rid of them all, and simply be in the love of God for all of the world.

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