PENTECOST 23 (October 23, 2005)
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Saducees, 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?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' That is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
While the Pharisees were gathered together, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘the Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my feet until I put your enemies under your feet.” If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he then be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
SEARCHING FOR BETTER QUESTIONS
Whether you are a teacher or a student, and all of us have at times been either one or the other, what do you think is the most important question that students have about their learning experience? I gave that question some thought recently as I read through the course evaluations for a course that I recently taught at the university. These evaluations are fairly comprehensive, asking the students at the end of each course to complete an evaluation of 36 questions followed by some narrative responses of their own. Teachers are naturally interested in what students think of their learning experience and I am no different. As I read through their comments, I discovered that their greatest concern about the class had to do with the questions on the tests. A number of them felt that the right answers had not been given them in class and that they were expected to answer some of the questions based on information they would have acquired by doing outside reading, something that many of them apparently had not done or had little time to do.
Although it was troubling to me that this was one of the students’ major concerns, I understood some of the reasoning behind it. Many of the students in this particular class are full-time working adults. They don’t have a lot of time to do extra reading. Additionally, their course fees are often paid for by their employers, providing that they make acceptable grades. Getting the right grade, therefore, is sometimes more important than having the right answer. The bottom line is not whether your learning has been substantial, but whether someone regards you as acceptable.
There is a counterpart to this in the school of life which most of us have experienced—and which our text explores today. Matthew is giving the context to the questions and answers in today’s text—and he does it in a way we have come to recognize as very combative from other contexts in Matthew’s Gospel. He places the Pharisees, strict interpreters of Jewish law, in a controversial debate setting with Jesus. They test each other with carefully worded, you might call them trick, questions. The result of the questions leaves one of the parties “silenced,” so there is no question here for Matthew as to who is “in charge.” If the Pharisees had been giving course evaluations, they might well have said that Jesus didn’t answer their questions exactly nor did he give them all the information they needed to answer his questions. Jesus, on the other hand, was less interested in getting or giving the politically correct grade and more interested in the context for the questions. But that’s getting ahead of our story, so let’s review each of the two questions and answers and see if we can understand what was going on here.
The Right Answer to the More Important Question
The text starts with a question posed by the Pharisees. It’s a trick question from Matthew’s point of view, and the Pharisees don’t necessarily have an answer in mind when they ask which is the most important commandment? What they really want to know is whether Jesus was kosher, whether he was placing proper emphasis on all the commandments, or whether, he, like we, had his favorites, emphasizing some and ignoring others. If that would be the case, they would have him where they wanted him and could accuse him as a teacher of being heretical. They could give him a bad evaluation.
Jesus’ answer is complex at a number of levels. In the first place, although they asked for one commandment, he gave them two. Secondly, his two-fold response was nothing they could contradict, for loving God and loving neighbor were two matters at the heart of Jewish thought and practice. Jesus gave the right answer even if it was not the exact answer to the question that the Pharisees had asked. And the way in which he combined the two commands about loving God and loving the neighbor showed that he understood a larger question than the Pharisees had asked.
Today’s Old Testament lesson from Exodus (22:21-27) provides some help in understanding why these two commands are interrelated. Whenever someone is wronged, hurt or forgotten, God is there and he hears their cry. Whenever one fails to regard the needs of the neighbor, he or she has broken trust with the God of compassion. After all, the Exodus text reminds the hearer, you were once strangers and foreigners yourselves. The same God who took compassion on you now looks to see his own spirit of compassion living on in you. The God of love first and foremost draws us into a loving relationship with himself.
Secondly, there is nothing ambiguous about this compassion. Sometimes God’s people are great at being compassionate in general, but not at all in specifics. We celebrate the love of God in vague generalities, but this text in Exodus gets specific about widows and orphans, foreigners, borrowers, and those who need clothing in desperate times. Such language makes it clear that we are not just talking about religiously pious matters (as James says—2:17, “I wish you well, keep warm and well fed,”)-- but about economic and political issues. Why is it that we are to be concerned about such people? Because they are powerless, people without a voice, those who have no one to take their side. Those with advantage (perhaps people like you and me) tend to regard the existing order as appropriate. However, being compassionate involves more than kindness. It is the passion to develop strategies and structure to lift up those who are down. If our political and economic systems allow the marginalized to fall between society's cracks, then we who have been loved into action by a compassionate God are encouraged to challenge the existing order or to find ways to alter their predicament. To fail to do this is to lose God in the chaos of society.
The great Norwegian novelist, Johan Bojer, makes that point powerfully in his story, The Great Hunger. It happened that an anti-social newcomer moved into the village and put a fence around his property with a sign saying, “Keep Out.” He also put a vicious dog in the fence to keep anyone from climbing it. One day, the neighbor’s little girl reached inside the fence to pet the dog and the dog grabbed her by the arm and savagely bit and killed her.
The townspeople were enraged and refused to speak to the recluse. They wouldn’t sell him groceries at the store. When it came time for planting, they wouldn’t sell him seed. The man became destitute and didn’t know what to do. One day he saw another man sowing seed on his field. He ran out and discovered it was the father of the little girl. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.” The father replied, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.”
It is a profound story because you and I know that our petty jealousies and animosities make favorites with those commandments we choose to obey or disobey. When God is not alive in us, when his compassion is not ruling us, we can favor deceit of our neighbor on Tuesdays, coveting of our neighbor on Thursdays and theft from our neighbor on Saturdays. And the rest of the time, we can believe that we are good and acceptable. Remember, that when the Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them, which of these sins were the worst. Jesus, avoided such a simple-minded trap by reminding that that if you love the Lord your God, then you will look for ways in which to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus rewrote the test, you see, asking us not which law was the most important, but about the motivation for compassion—asking us whether we can love others as God first loved us. And that question got the Pharisees—along with you and me—to thinking.
The Question Which Keeps Us Probing More Deeply
Thinking is what this text is all about. Matthew now tells us that after the Pharisees felt stymied by Jesus' rephrasing of their issue, Jesus took them a step deeper. His question to them seems like a venture into trivial pursuit, but you need to know what they knew in order to make sense of it. He asks them whose son the Messiah will be. They knew the right answer—“David’s son.” This was the traditional assumption. But then he reminds them that in Psalm 110:4, the psalmist, looking forward to the new age, refers to the Messiah as his “Lord.” “How,” asks Jesus, “can the Messiah be both David’s son and his Lord?” It’s a typical rabbinical pilpul, the kind of question that students of the Law loved to debate—and for which there was no simple answer, in fact, perhaps, merely another question. Knowing that Jesus had them by their spit curls, Matthew tells us that no one asked him any more questions.
Once again, however, Jesus is not just looking for right answers. Rather, he’s pressing hearers to ask the right questions, to probe and think more deeply. In this setting, he is asking them, perhaps, to think about whom he himself is. It would be one thing for the Pharisees to acknowledge Jesus as that descendent from Jesse, David’s greater son. It would be quite another matter for them to regard him as the one Thomas later names in John’s Gospel as “my Lord and my God.” The larger question, which Jesus was pressing the Pharisees to ask with this controversial question, was “Who do you say that I am?” And saying it, “how does such knowledge call you to act?” The Pharisees were still a long way from answering this question in faith, but you and I know the answer. From the other side of the resurrection, we can tell not only who Jesus is for us, both Savior and Lord, but what it means to be a follower of the one who has destroyed death’s power and cancelled the curse of guilt with his forgiveness. Equipped with such faith, you and I know where Jesus’ question takes us, and which questions it encourages us to ask? If Jesus is, in fact, Lord, who then are we? How then shall we live and die? What confidence do we have as we face the future?
One of the more moving films of our time (1999) is a production which deals with the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the outset of World War II, Snow Falling on Cedars. It is a love story, but at a deeper level it is a story about love waiting to be grasped by human beings. The astonishing thing is that almost all of the Japanese Americans who were placed in concentration camps at the beginning of the war were citizens of the U.S. Almost everyone seemed to agree with the government’s position at the time, that these 26,000 Americans should be deprived of their liberties, their homes, their possessions and, in some cases, their families. The heart of the story is a trial in which an innocent Japanese-American stands accused of having killed a white man. The defense attorney sums up the jury’s dilemma by saying to them: “Every so often humanity is called upon to give a report about how far we have come from the jungle. Will we repeat the prejudices and hatreds of the past? You will decide.”
Such decisions are ours to make daily, and some are even more profound. As Christians, we are called to ask what Jesus means to us, what our compassionate God has done for us in Christ? And then we are challenged to claim this Jesus as our Messiah, in word and deed, as we seek to represent his love in our world. Daily we will ask ourselves Christian questions about the challenges that are put to us? And the world is making its report card as it decides whether for you and for me following Christ’s way of the cross is for us real or just talk? It is the most important question we ask ourselves. And it keeps pressing us to ask other questions. Questions like, what will I share of myself this day? And with whom will I share it? And will it matter if that person knows he or she is my neighbor? And will it matter if I know? The Christian life is a search for the better questions. And it is my belief that without Jesus, we will have a much more difficult time asking them.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus