Proper 25 (23rd of October)
Our Gospel reading today is the last of a series of three challenges. You remember from last week the question about taxes. Several factions of the Jews are trying to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble. The reason they’re trying to do that is that they want to get rid of him. He’s ridiculing them in these stories that he tells, like the one about the tenants in the vineyard. He is a challenge to the status quo. And they like the status quo. It’s not that any one faction is in total control. The Sadducees control the temple, the Herodians control the delicate secular political situation with Rome, and the Pharisees control the religious teaching. Each faction has issues with the others, but they have reached some sort of equilibrium with which everybody is more or less comfortable. And they don’t like this upstart Jesus coming in and spoiling their system.
But they can’t just go and throw him in jail, because the people think he’s a prophet, and they might start a riot. So the Pharisees and the Herodians go together to ask him about taxes. He slips through their trap with “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Then the Sadducees give it a try. They think they can trip him up with a question about marriage in the resurrection. So they ask him that question about the woman who was married to seven brothers. He tells them that they do not know the scriptures or the power of God and proceeds to silence them by demonstrating his superior knowledge of both.
After seeing that the Sadducees are stumped, the Pharisees give it one more try. They push one of the lawyers out front to ask Jesus a test question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” He answers in that passage that we quote in the preparation for every Mass, the Summary of the Law. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
He goes on to confound the Pharisees yet again with his question about Psalm 110. The messiah is understood to be a descendant of King David. But David himself calls him “my Lord”, which presumably he wouldn’t if he were his descendant. Of course, we understand that Jesus was a descendant of David in his human incarnation, but the Lord from all eternity. But the Pharisees couldn’t account for that. The Pharisees are silenced once again, and no one tries to trip him up with questions anymore.
But there is this moment, with the summary of the law, when there seems to be agreement even between Jesus and his challengers. In Mark’s version of this story, the lawyer who poses the question even commends Jesus for his answer. The answer is a combination of a verse from the middle of Deuteronomy with a verse from the middle of Leviticus. Jesus didn’t come up with it on his own. It seems it was a standard answer for those who cared about such things.
And yet, it sits there in the middle of this verbal sparring as a signpost. This is the most important thing. Jesus agrees with the Pharisees on that. He hasn’t changed any of their teaching, really. He has just insisted that they live it. It’s the only serious question of the day, and he answers it seriously. But it doesn’t really further anyone’s personal agenda. And so it doesn’t get applause or attention. It just stands as an indictment of Jesus’ challengers, because they are hypocrites.
The commandment to love God is the foundation of all other commandments. Even the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is subject to this. God does not want bribes. He takes no pleasure in the sacrificial object. He delights in the relationship he has with the person who honors him with sacrifice. The law is intended as a way of knowing and relating to God. The same is true of all moral issues. How many of us, when faced with a moral test, think about it in terms of loving God? But that’s what it is. In every choice we make, every decision taken, we choose to love and honor God or we do not.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it. The commandment is to love God completely. With the whole heart, which is where your will resides. That’s what we’ve just been talking about. But also with the soul, the psyche, the self, the whole being. We’re also to love God with our whole mind, our thoughts. If we were to paraphrase this commandment, we might say, “Honor God in everything you choose, everything you are, and everything you think.” That’s a pretty tall order. But without a commitment to this, nothing else will do. If we do nice stuff for people but don’t love God, it doesn’t help us. We still have no relationship with our creator.
Jesus insists on the relationship between the two concepts. Our love for God means we will love our neighbor. Not the other way around. Love of God is most important. But there is no love of God that won’t involve loving others, because God is love. Many have pointed out that “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires you to love yourself as well. And that is absolutely true. We have no business despising the gift that God has given us in our own selves. But I doubt that’s really what most of us need to work on.
To respond gently when what we feel is anger, to forgive others before they even repent, to pray for our enemies and those who hate us, to give generously and joyously for the spread of the kingdom, to speak the truth when others don’t want to hear it, to keep the peace when others are being belligerent, to disturb the peace when others are being complacent, to do what is right regardless of our feelings or our reputations; these are the sorts of things that people do when they love God. Because it is God whom they want more than anyone else to please. And when we honor him with such sacrifices, he delights in the relationship he has with us.
Those who challenge Jesus with trick questions really didn’t want a relationship with God. They wanted to keep things comfortable and human. Jesus unsettled them, because he demanded that they actually face up to the great commandment. He demanded that they live what they taught and actually pursue a loving relationship with the God they wanted to use as a prop in their political schemes.
And he demands the same of us.