"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sunday Sermon Matthew 22:34-46: Jesus, the Pharisees and the existing order

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

There is no debate like a religious debate. Religious disputes are extremely difficult to handle because everyone engaged in a religious dispute claims to have the Word of God and the will of God on his or her side. Everyone involved in a religious debate claims to speak for God, and when a person is convinced that he or she speaks for God, there is really not much, if anything, that anyone else can say. When a person believes that he or she knows the Word, has the Word, reads the Word, and speaks the Word, there's not really much room left for open dialogue and critical reflection on what we believe and why we believe it. No wonder that throughout history, every religious reformer, every person who attempted to challenge, reinterpret, or broaden the traditional long-standing religious views of the faithful met with virulent and sometimes even violent opposition-opposition that was mounted and advanced by religious people who sincerely believed that they were defending the Word and the will of God from being altered, contaminated, or changed by something or someone considered to be new, different, or strange, not just as history, but into the present: only this week we’ve seen the problems a reforming Pope has had dealing with entrenched theological conservatism.

In our Gospel today there is tension. There is pressure. The religious authorities repeatedly try to trap Jesus with their trick questions. But every time, he evades the trap. He refuses to be caught by their either-or options, their rigid theological categories. At every turn, Jesus’ answers unsettle the ordered and controlled world of the authorities. Jesus disrupts their interpretations of Scripture, and he rearranges their theological certainties. Our text begins and ends in silence. Here we have the final episode of an extended exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities. Jesus has already silenced the Herodians and the Sadducees. So the Pharisees gather to question him. But by the end of the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, again there is silence. No one can answer Jesus’ query. Nor from that day on does anyone dare to ask him any more questions. Silence is the consequence of Jesus’ speech.

Silence. And this silence is not golden. It’s an eerie silence. It’s the silence of the “powers that be” as they regroup and retrench. It’s the silence of wagons being circled and theologies hardening. It’s that silence that arrives when the time for words is over and something else must be done. And this silence is deadly because the next time we see the religious leaders, they will be plotting to kill Jesus.

Back and forth, back and forth, they verbally duel over critical matters of theology and biblical interpretation. And the exchanges take place in the temple, with a large crowd watching the entire time. And there is an irony here: the Pharisees generally get a bad press but we need to understand that they were the good guys of their day. They cared about the spiritual health and status of God’s people but they were hidebound by a theological orthodoxy that could not entertain an alternative perspective.

We met such people in the church today. Times don’t change much do they? We have the same backwards and forwards; the same toing and froing today theologically as the church debates poverty, the role of women in the episcopate, human sexuality, peace and conflict and any number of issues which at the same time preach the Gospel of Good News and cloud it in increasingly bad tempered exchanges which largely confirm and entrench clearly held doctrinal positions: we sometimes feel as if we are battling for the soul of the church.

It’s not that Jesus’ initial reply was in any way controversial, “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 first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This is perfectly consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament prophet Micah when he says, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8) It is perfectly consistent with the teaching in Leviticus which notes in Chapter 19, following a summary of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”

And finally, at the culmination of the exchange, Jesus offers a little riddle of his own:

“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Jesus asks.

And the Pharisees answer, “The son of David.”

I suspect the Pharisees probably mumbled their answer, almost whispered it. For the crowds had been calling Jesus the Son of David. Remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds had shouted. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9).

The Pharisees are on dangerous ground here. But no other answer is possible. The suspense builds.

And Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone. Instead, he continues, quoting the Pharisees’ own Scripture -- Psalm 110.

“How is it then that David by the Spirit calls [the Messiah] Lord, saying,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If David thus calls [the Messiah] Lord, how can he be [David’s] son?”

With his little riddle, Jesus interrupts the Pharisees’ nice, neat theology. The old categories simply don’t work here. A person cannot be both son and Lord to David. Something new is here, something that can’t be contained in the old frameworks. The riddle cannot be solved -- except by recognizing and following Jesus.

And that response is impossible for the religious authorities. It would rearrange their entire world. It would mean a loss of control and authority. So they don’t answer. And they don’t dare to ask any more questions. Instead, they are silent. And they circle their wagons and harden their theology. They plot to kill Jesus.

I’m beginning to think the gospel itself has this unsettling character. The gospel itself is a kind of jester. All the way through the gospel we find paradoxes and riddles and parables that melt the solidity of the old age that is dying and call us into an unsettling new creation that is being born. There’s no solving the riddle with the old categories and the familiar ways of thinking. Rather, we have to enter a new world where those old categories are melting away and a new, unsettling life beckons. Think of these juxtapositions:

Crucified Messiah.

Good Samaritan.

Blessed poor.

Love your enemies.

Footwashing Lord.

Weak power.

Foolish wisdom.

Last first.

First last.

Paradoxical riddles all of them. They can’t be solved as if they were a nice, neat mathematical problem. Rather, they create a new reality, which we live into by following Jesus.

In Jesus Christ the new covenant has interrupted the old age. As several New Testament scholars have noted, Jesus’ interruption of the old age creates a kind of threshold space, like the threshold space between two rooms. This space is unsettled; it’s an in-between space. A threshold is neither fully one room nor the other, but it contains a merging of each. On the threshold we are moving, always moving in between. The threshold is neither stable nor secure. It is the opposite of circled wagons and hardened theologies.

That’s the kind of space Jesus creates when he interrupts the old age with his teaching. He creates a threshold space in between the old that is dying and the new that is being born. And he calls us not to solve the riddle by trying to plug it into the old categories. Rather, he simply calls us to live into that unsettling threshold space. It’s odd, really. Jesus doesn’t call us to stability or security or certainty. Rather, Jesus calls us to follow him, always on the move, always on the way from the old to the new.

And maybe today we are in a position to appreciate this unsettling, in-between gospel. For we belong to a church that is in transition, that is in between - between the old ways that are dying and the new that is being born, even though we cannot fully discern its form yet.

And we live in a nation that is in transition. We sense that something is happening: something old is dying, and the future will be different from the past.

And the world itself seems to be in transition - political, cultural, environmental - moving toward something new and at times frightening. In such a context, the great temptation is to circle the wagons, to secure ourselves.

In the book of Philippians, St. Paul advised us to work out our own salvations with fear and trembling: that’s how the prophetic voice of the church is heard. My challenge to myself as much as to you in this threshold time when we do indeed seem to be fighting for the soul of the church is not to sit quietly being satisfied with the old certainties and ways of looking at things, while occasionally muttering our dissent in corners. No, rather it is to take up the fight; to engage and join in with those debates in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognising that the old ways of thinking sometimes really won’t do; that circling the wagons and hardening our theologies as a reaction to the threat of change merely leads to entropy and irrelevance.

And how do we do that? Well, I think the Pharisees gave us the first part of the answer, Jesus the second and St. Paul the third,

From the Pharisees we need to ask ourselves the question, are we hidebound by a theological viewpoint that isn’t open to an alternative perspective?

From Jesus we need to heed the challenge in the way we speak for God and to other people, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and you are to love your neighbour as yourself.”

And from St. Paul we need to hear the challenge to find our own prophetic voices, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”