Sermon, October 29, 2017

Sermon.10.29.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46

 

“Go, learn!” Given the number of educators in this congregation, I suspect these words are well received. They appear at the end of a passage in which the House of Shammai is compared with the House of Hillel – two opposed schools of thought in ancient Judaism:

It happened again that a certain stranger came before Shammai and said to him:
–”I will become a proselyte [a new convert] providing you teach me the whole Torah while I’m standing on one foot.”
(Shammai) knocked him down with the builder’s rule in his hand.
(The stranger) came before Hillel who made him a proselyte.
He told him:
“What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.
That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn (it)!” (http://virtualreligion.net/iho/sages.html)

 

“What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” is the expression of the Golden Rule as it appears in Judaism. We are more familiar with the Golden Rule expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Our gospel reading for today continues the account following Jesus’ entry of Jerusalem. Let’s look at a few of these events. Matthew 21.12-13 (NRSV) says, “’Jesus entered the temple, and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” What’s going on here? What about this “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

When Jesus entered the temple the next day, the chief priests and the elders confronted him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21.23; NRSV). Jesus said he would tell them if they would answer a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus had them on the horns of a dilemma. If they said from heaven, he could ask why they did not believe, but if they said of human origin, they feared the reaction of the crowds. When they refused to answer, Jesus refused to answer the question pertaining to his authority. What about this “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jesus then proceeded to tell a series of parables which the Chief Priests and Pharisees realized to be directed at them, so they began to plot how to entrap him through a series of questions: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Referring to the emperor’s image on a coin, Jesus told them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22.15-22; NRSV).

The Sadducees then raised a question pertaining to the resurrection of the dead – “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh…In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be?” Jesus told them they were wrong, that they knew neither the scriptures nor the power of God. In the resurrection, there is no marriage, as with the angels in heaven. Jesus added, “And as resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22.23-33; NRSV).

The last and final test, after which they began to plot how to kill Jesus, comes from the Pharisees and appears in today’s passage: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 2234-40; NRSV). As Hillel said, “That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, Learn!” All the other commandments merely define what loving God and our neighbor looks like. If you love God, you will not take God’s name in vain.  If you love your neighbor, you will not murder. If you love your neighbor, you will not steal, nor will you bear false witness. If you love your neighbor, you will not covet his possessions or his wife.

We could stop here and simply address this first part of today’s reading. If we were to do so, we would miss something important.

Jesus then asked, “’What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 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 my enemies under your feet”? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22.42-46; NRSV).

This last exchange invited the Pharisees to consider the nature of the Messiah – does the Messiah come from man (David) or from God? In a sense, Jesus was inviting them to open their eyes, to look more closely, to learn.

Who is this Jesus? How do we square his actions with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? I suspect most of us would not look upon these confrontations as loving actions! Where is the warm regard for others? Where is the gentleness, the meekness, we have come to associate with Jesus’ love?

Perhaps our understanding of God’s love is too limited! Perhaps in our attempts to be nice to everyone, we have cozily consented to overlook certain aspects of God’s love. The highest form of love, God’s agape love, is a sacrificial form of love in which one acts for or on behalf of the other in a manner which leads to fullness of life. Agape love is not a warm, fuzzy emotion. Calling someone to the fullness of life is an awesome responsibility. Agape love also demands that we be willing to confront evil, to speak truth to power. Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech may serve as a contemporary example.

God’s love is a transforming love. As we come to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, we are forever changed. We cannot comprehend this change through rational analysis. Such love transcends reason, for although the fullness of our mind is engaged, so is all our whole heart and soul. Our deepest experience of the love of God is mystical communion in which we become one with Christ. Agape love involves a commitment to a living God, not to a set of beliefs or creeds. In growing into agape love, we take on the very nature of Christ. As we take on Christ’s nature, it becomes impossible for us to hate our brother. Such love is profound – it is tough – when necessary, it is downright confrontational. God’s agape love calls us to accountability, and as we love others through God’s agape love, we care enough to be confrontational. This, I submit, is the lens through which we are called to ultimately understand “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This radical love calls us to fullness and wholeness of life; it wants what is truly in the best interest of the other viewed from the standpoint of eternity.

In God’s agape love, we do not judge or criticize others from a sense of moral superiority, for the experience of God’s love is humbling.  In humility, we call our brothers and sisters to account so that we may sorrowfully and compassionately walk with them more deeply into God’s purifying love.

Jesus’ confrontation with the Chief Priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes was an act of love. Jesus was calling them to a new order grounded in God’s agape love – an order which they chose to reject in favor of the order of this world. We, too, are called to that new order. If we are wise, we will “Go, Learn!”

Amen

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