No More Questions
| Matthew 22:34-46
||Sun, October 27, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This past Wednesday a group of us gathered to host the text for today. We read this story from Matthew. As one of our number finished the reading he said: “That’s it? That’s the reading for Sunday?” And we laughed, imagining the lector concluding the reading from the pulpit not with the words: “This is the word of the Lord” but instead by saying: “That’s it?”. We laughed, but we understood. This brief text holds together two short pieces of narrative. First, Jesus replies to the Pharisees with words that are so well known that they have become almost a cliche - the two great commandments: love of the Lord God and love of neighbour. Then, second, Jesus challenges the Pharisees with his own question - one that seems so obscure that it is barely remembered by any of us: “Whose son is the Messiah?”. One half of the reading is almost too familiar. The other half is almost too obscure. One can guess which half of this text is the most likely to receive the majority of attention in pulpits today. And it is not the latter half! Perhaps that is only fitting. Love of God and love of neighbour are, after all, in short supply. One can hardly blame preachers for hammering home that theme one more time, for good measure. Doubtless you have guessed that we will try not to succumb to that temptation this morning. Instead, I want to invite you back into the world of the text for awhile. Perhaps here, in the world of the text, we will be persuaded by the end of the reading not to say, with perplexity, “That’s it?” but to testify boldly: “That’s it!”.
To be honest, this text easily loses its voltage when separated from the story that it is telling. Instead of drawing us on in the page-turning plot it withers, becoming lifeless ... a curiosity rather than a living word. After reading this snippet it is little wonder that we say: “That’s it?”. Allowed to live within the plot that is the gospel tale, the text recovers energy, vitality, power to transform. The truth is, this text concludes a climactic episode in the story. With its last verse the story is propelled forward to its incredible conclusion. These final two encounters end the argument that has been growing in intensity as Jesus’ prophetic challenge threatens the status quo. The text relates the dramatic climax of a heated exchange. The doctors of theology are intent on catching this maverick rabbi in their theological traps. But Jesus will not be easily cornered. Their questions are impossible riddles to solve. They are guaranteed to catch Jesus in error. Instead, he outfoxes them at every turn. The scene is familiar to any that know what it is to be placed under intense scrutiny. Imagine a grandmother whose children and grandchildren mock her for insistence on the priority of worshipping God. Or think of a student who struggles to explain what it is that draws him here when he could be asleep or at play. This text portrays Jesus’ own struggle to survive the derision of those who know better.
Today we enter the story with the third trick question that is posed to Jesus. He has parried the Pharisees’ question on taxes to the Empire. The Sadducees have failed to catch him in their convoluted challenge about death, resurrection, marriage and divorce (talk about loading a question with trouble ... try bringing that up at your next dinner party!). Now the Pharisees regroup. They hear of the Sadducees’ abject failure to embarrass Jesus and set out to demonstrate their superior theological skill. After careful consultation they send a representative. The text calls him a lawyer. It means a doctor of theology (just a bit close to home, don’t you think?!). And this theologian knows the ultimate impossible question: “Which moral law, which divine law, which holy law that has been dictated by God is the greatest?” Imagine a world in which there are 613 holy laws - 248 positive commands (equal to the number of parts of the body) and 365 negative commands (corresponding to the days of the years). Remember a world in which there is an ongoing and intense debate between those who emphasize the “moral law” and others who give priority to “ceremonial law” (think criminal law and civil law). Now you see the mine field that is opened by the question about which is the greatest and most important of all the laws. Which is more important - keep the sabbath or do not commit adultery, do not worship idols or do not murder, do not abuse the name of God or do not give false testimony? See the problem that faces Jesus: all of these are divine commandments. They are not listed in order of priority. All of them tell the ways of God, the ways to keep the forces that warp and seduce human life at bay. Giving a single commandment priority opens up the charge of not valuing all of God’s ways equally.
Jesus’ answer seems self-evident to us. That is because we have heard it so often: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (or, in Eugene Peterson’s evocative translation: “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence”) ... And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” It is what follows that clinches the argument. Jesus continues: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Here Jesus manages to avert the charge of heresy. He names not one but two central commandments. One is vertical - to God. The other horizontal - to neighbour. Together he says they form the interpretive key to keeping all of the laws and to listening to all the prophets. In other words, Jesus manages to turn the danger of becoming a heretic into the chance to solidify his place as the most orthodox of rabbis! Christians have too often sought to forget Jesus' self-description as one who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. I have lost count of the number of those who call Jesus their teacher who tell me that they have no interest in the Old Testament - the very scripture that Jesus claims to keep and to complete. Now, to be fair, the entire question of how to love God with all one’s passion, prayer and intelligence is a huge one - so big that even an entire lifetime cannot possible answer it. Of course, that is precisely what a Christian or Jewish life is meant to be - a lifetime of loving Yahweh with ones’ entire being. This love is, you understand, as far from sentimental love as one can imagine. This is not a matter of warm feelings for God. It has to do with keeping promises and living faithfully - with covenant love, steadfast love over time through much trouble. It is about fidelity, not romance. And the same goes for the love of neighbour that Jesus accepts as the primary obligation of any who love the Lord God of Israel. Since, according to Jesus, these neighbours include even enemies - especially enemies - it is clear that loving neighbour has nothing to do with feeling affection or even with liking neighbour! This neighbour love is the obligation to provide every neighbour - even the despicable ones - with surprising hospitality.
The temptation to continue the ethical discussion here is huge. We rightly want to ponder just how love of God and love of neighbour is to be manifested in our life together. Is the keeping of the sabbath commandment really as critical to God as that which says “No killing”? Jesus says yes - love God and love neighbour. Killing sabbath time, like killing life, wounds God. Like I say, we are tempted to linger here ... but the text moves on, the text moves on! Now the questioners fall silent and Jesus asks a question of his own: “Whose son is the Messiah?” The Pharisees answer rightly: “The son of David”. They know what we know - that Bethlehem, royal birthplace of King David, is to be the site of the new Anointed King (read Messiah, read Christ ... the words are synonyms). Jesus doesn’t disagree. But he wonders how, then, to read David’s own song - Psalm 110 - which begins: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’.” This confounds the scripture teachers and theologians. Jesus wants to know how David can call one who is his offspring his “Lord”. Surely David is the great one whom the youthful descendant must call lord. How can the order be reversed by David in these, his own words? We wonder what all the fuss is about. It seems such an arcane argument. But see this, the first verse of Psalm 110 appears in the New Testament not once or twice but thirty-seven times! In fact, this brief verse is cited more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament passage. Here Jesus quotes the heart of the faith of the early Church ... and this quote wins the day. Here Jesus announces that the new Messiah is, according to David himself, even greater than the great King David, sitting at the right hand of the Lord God. The moment that Jesus turns the tables in this way he silences his opposition. Then “no one was able to give him an answer, not from that day did anyone dare to ask any more questions.”
It is a high point in the story. Rabbi Jesus of little Nazareth has come to Holy Jerusalem and silenced the authorities. Yet soon it is he who will be silent. From now on when he is asked a question by those who seek to find him guilty Jesus will not answer. From now on he will accept their judgment without responding. It is clear that he could triumph in such an argument. But he does not. The Messiah who is greater than King David himself, loses the argument and the trial, is branded a false prophet and is sentenced to death. The Messiah’s teachings finally do not win over the teachers or the crowds. Instead he is overwhelmed by the controversy and by them. This is hard for us to hear. We want to imagine winning arguments about the truth with the culture and in the church. We like thinking of the moment when opponents dare not ask any more questions. But the triumph of this Messiah does not have to do with winning. It has to do with losing, and in losing with bearing the suffering of all losers. Somehow this Messiah saves by sharing the story of a world of losers. The conflict that he endures on that saving path of sorrow testifies to his truthfulness. But he does not, finally, save by winning. He saves, in the end, by trusting Yahweh to raise him up in new life. Could this also be the story of a church of disciples that places its trust in him? Might we be called not to win or to be right but to share in loss and to wait in faith and to be raised up in newness? We gather here, at the foot of the answer to that question. On Friday the cross is the place where Christ’s community grieves the defeat of all that is precious. On Saturday the cross is the place where disciples of Jesus learn to wait through the long season of absence in deep hope. On Sunday the cross is the place where grieving losers and determined hopers discover the power of God to make all things new - even these lives of ours, even this church of Christ’s, even this lost world that is God's beloved creation.
That’s it! Amen.