Sermon for the 18TH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY - 2016
1 Corinthians i:4-8 | St. Matthew 22:34-46
Sean Cochran, postulant
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost - Amen
Imagine with me this morning that you had the chance in person to ask Jesus just one question. What would you ask? -- I think that your question would say something about you, maybe what you’re struggling with or anxious about this week.
Right now I am preparing to be examined by the bishop and the committee on ministry as part of my canonical exams, so I have quite a few questions I would love to ask our Lord, about theology and ministry, and a whole host of things.
The question you or I would ask might also have a lot to do with who else was in the room or crowded street around us. In order to appreciate what I mean, imagine now that Jesus were to call a meeting with the leaders of all the large Christian denominations. Over here in the corner is a Lutheran minister giving the stink eye to the Roman Catholic bishop sitting across from him. In front - an Evangelical pastor, sporting denim shorts and an acoustic guitar, sits on his stool.
Then the Roman Catholic stands up and asks, loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Lord, when you said upon this rock I will build my church you really meant St. Peter, and that means universal episcopal primacy, right?” Just afterwards the Lutheran asks pointedly in front of the Evangelical: “Jesus, when you said this is my body, you weren’t - like - kidding, right?”
The 7th Day Adventist asks: “Despite everything you said to the Pharisees about the Sabbath, we still have to observe it strictly, right?” And one of our own, an Anglican gets in a final question: “Lord, there’s an eighth sacrament, right - the coffee hour?”
The Sadducees’ Question
This morning our gospel lesson begins right in the middle of a very similar type of episode. For St. Matthew writing later to Jewish Christians it was especially important to capture the Jewish context of who Jesus is and how he relates to the Law and the Prophets. And this is one of the best stories where we see that.
Jesus has recently returned to Jerusalem after his triumphant entry and cleansing of the temple - and after teaching in parables, he begins to be challenged by the different Jewish groups - first the Pharisees and Herodians, then the Sadducees, and then the Pharisees come back for round two. At this time there were several different Jewish sects or parties and they differed greatly in some respects, and we can imagine their attitude towards one another when certain topics of religion or politics came up would be quite similar to our example of the Christian denominations and their arguments.
It’s important to remember that the two groups we see most often mentioned in the gospel - the Pharisees and the Sadducees - differed at least in the following ways. First, the Pharisees were most commonly associated with the common man. The reason we see Jesus and his disciples encountering them more often is because Jesus would have rubbed shoulders with their social circles more than the elitist Sadducees. Regular Jewish people went to the Pharisees not just to tattle on Jesus but also to seek their advice for their daily life: Rabbi, is it OK for me to do this? Is this kosher? Pharisee means ‘separated’, and they saw it as their responsibility to keep themselves and others separated from the Gentile immigrants and from irreligious Jews by “binding” certain behaviors and practices.
This leads to the second important difference. The Pharisees held to the Oral Torah, what has become known as the Mishnah or Talmud. The Oral Torah included the oral tradition not written by Moses and which was handed down through these experts in the law as they expounded on the books of Moses and the prophets and tried to apply these teachings to daily life in the Hellenistic-Roman world. Some within the Pharisees’ party would have believed that the Oral Torah held equal authority to the the books of Moses - and perhaps, theirs did too?
Meanwhile we might think of the Sadducees as having the original “solo scriptura” view - that is, they held to the written Law without any thought given to traditional oral teachings. That is why the Sadducees infamously denied the doctrine of the resurrection, not seeing passages like Job or the prophecies of Ezekiel as explicitly teaching that there was any hope for resurrection after death. When the Sadducees challenge the doctrine, Jesus responds with the written Torah: “I am the God of Abraham...of Isaac...of Jacob”, that is to say: He is the God of the living.
The Pharisee’s Question
We have to imagine that the Pharisees would have been happy to hear that a man believed by some of the common people to be a prophet had publically embarrassed the Sadducees, and they then decide to ask their question: “Which command is the most important?”
St. Matthew writes that the lawyer asked this in order to test Jesus. They had already tried to trap Jesus outside the oral Torah regarding the Sabbath and also politically in their question about taxes to Caesar. I wonder what was the lawyer hoping Jesus would say or not be able to say here.
Whatever they had hoped would happen, Jesus’s response looks to leave them also in silence. Perhaps they were surprised that when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replies that the second commandment - to love your neighbor - was to be set alongside the first, and more than that Jesus says these two commandments don’t just summarize the ten commandments; they summarize all the Law and the Prophets - i.e., the entire Jewish Bible. But the point is all of this shouldn’t have been a surprise to experts in the Scriptures.
For an example from the prophets, look at Micah who writes What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8). Although the Pharisees had taught that loving your neighbor as written in Leviticus 19:17-18 and other places only meant those of their own nation, Jesus has already challenged that teaching in his sermon on the mount when he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy’, but I say to you, Love your enemy enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-44).
The point here is that even as God desires right worship - such as in the observance of the Sabbath - He also requires right relationships, and that’s important because it’s a quality that separates the Hebrew God from those of their pagan neighbors. Jesus taught, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you... First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). In the mass we are exhorted to be in love and charity with our neighbor before coming to take the Holy Sacrament. These aren’t just finer points of religious observance; this is a revelation of who God is. The Triune God we celebrate in this Trinity Season - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - is perfect relationship, so we should seek right relationships in order to be in right relationship with Him.
Israel followed a cloud out of Egypt; during mass we follow the procession of the Cross, called out of the world to be in communion with our redeemer. Then as the Israelites were given the law, we also hear read the law or its summary, and then what happens next? We reply Lord, have mercy! because we know we have not met it. We have not loved God with all that we are, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. How then can we live as His people?
And that leads us to the question that Jesus asks.
Jesus’s Question to Them
After hearing their questions, what question would Jesus have then asked each of those Christian denominational leaders? Would he have inquired about the finer points of their teaching, or about the various practices they have created to separate themselves? Or would it have been a humbling question about how they understood him?
To the Pharisees Jesus asks an amazingly important question: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he? ...If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son? And no one was able to answer him a word.”
Here were these experts of the law who since the return from Babylon had made an art and science of keeping the Jews untainted from the wicked Gentile world - a would-be virgin bride - but all along they had missed the whole point. They hadn’t spent as much time and effort thinking about who they were saving themselves for.
If the Messiah would come from the line of David, why did David call him Lord? This must have been a mind-blowing question. Remember that the Jewish identity rested on three pillars, three figures and the historical events associated with them. Those are: Abraham and his covenant with Yahweh; Moses and the Exodus and giving of the law; and the reign of King David.
If King David will call the Messiah Lord, doesn’t that mean that he will be a greater king with a greater kingdom? If we were devout Jews really looking out for the Messiah, shouldn’t we be looking for someone who is claiming to be greater than David? Not just the king of a reunited Judah and Israel without foreign influences because David already had that! Perhaps instead a Kingdom of Heaven on earth?
Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, a treasure trove of Messianic prophecy, and there we read that the Messiah is a Priest forever in the line of Melchizedek. So the Messiah won’t just be a king greater than David, he will be a priest greater than Aaron because, as we can read in Genesis and the writer of Hebrews would later explain, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham. So then, shouldn’t we then look for someone who claims a greater priesthood of a greater covenant? Perhaps one who has been called the Lamb of God. Perhaps one who had dangerously claimed that before Abraham “I AM”.
Jesus doesn’t just summarize the Law; he is the perfect embodiment of it, and he gave his own Oral Torah when he taught what it means to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, and this Oral Torah was not later written in the Mishnah but in the four holy gospels.
Jesus’s lesson for the Pharisees was this: spend less time binding and loosening and more time spent in prayerful anticipation and hope in the coming of the Messiah who’s a greater king than David and a greater priest. As for how they were to think about the Law, I doubt like King David the Pharisees could say I opened my mouth and drew in my breath, for my delight was in thy commandments...Mine eyes gush out with water, because men keep not thy law (Psalm 119: 131, 136). In his seven woes against the Pharisees (Matt 23:1-36), Jesus angrily charges that they had neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Jesus’s Question to You
Finally, imagine that after you had your turn, Jesus gets to ask you a question. What question might he ask you this week? Being confronted by who Jesus Christ is and what that means for those of us who are in Christ is a working definition of the life of prayer, writes one Anglican theologian. And in the same way those who met Jesus experienced awe, excitement, doubt, and bewilderment as the events of the Gospel unfolded, so we too should expect to find ourselves from time to time silenced and astonished as the Sadducees and Pharisees when we reflect on the Scriptures and meet the Lord in prayer.
And we should always be careful to avoid the example of the Corinthians who, like the Pharisees, had become puffed up over their knowledge and gifts. Infinitely more important, Paul writes in our epistle lesson this morning, is knowing Christ, which doesn’t make us arrogant like the knowledge that the Corinthians (or Pharisees) claimed to have. Instead knowing Christ will enrich us and turn our lives into a living testimony to him.
The Best Question
What would have been the best question we could have asked Jesus if we had been there that day in the busy streets of Jerusalem as the crowds gathered around him in excitement over what he had been doing in their midst? I think it had already been asked earlier by John the Baptist: “Are you the one we are waiting for? Or should we wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). Jesus’s answer was Look at what is happening! If you know what to look for, the answer to that question is obvious.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.