Game, Set, Match

Rev. Tom Baker
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home, Ark.
October 23, 2011
Year A Proper 25
Matthew 22:34-46

There I was, doing what a lot of people here in Mountain Home do—standing in line at Wal-Mart. As I waited, the couple behind me started complaining about the upcoming presidential election, especially the debates. They talked about how politicians no longer debate the important issues of our day; instead they try to trap, trick, or outsmart their opponent. Debates, they objected, no longer have substance; it’s all about who has the best one-liner or the best bumper-sticker saying. As they criticized our modern political climate, I was quite tempted to turn around and ask them to read the 22nd chapter of Matthew, from which we get today’s Gospel reading.

All through the 22nd chapter Jesus hotly debates the authorities of his day, and it wasn’t very pretty. The winner would gain power and influence. The loser would face destruction and even death. The Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees—the grand trifecta of power—join forces in order to trip Jesus up, make him look foolish, and put an end to his growing popularity. Isn’t it interesting that the subjects they test Jesus with are still hotly debated today—money, marriage, and the law.

The Scribes serve up the first volley by trying to get Jesus to make a stance for or against taxes. If Jesus said he approves taxes, he’d become an enemy of every Jew. If he publicly said he was against taxes the Romans will be sure to get rid of him. But Jesus has a wicked forehand. He holds a gold coin and proclaims that what belongs to Caesar should go back to Caesar but all who are God’s belong to a much higher power. All that power and authority that coin represents will never hold God’s people. Caesar is secondary; God is primary. Jesus scores the first point: 30–love, Jesus.

The Sadducees then approach the net and challenge Jesus by asking him: if a man marries and divorces many times while he’s living, which wife will be his when he dies and goes to heaven? A loaded question for even the most experienced Hebrew scholar. They hope Jesus won’t be able to address the very sticky subjects of the sanctity of marriage, the difficult questions over divorce, and talk about the forbidden subject of resurrection. Again, Jesus backhands their shot and reminds them that husbands, wives, are all children of God, and resurrection is best left up to God, not us. The Sadducees, Jesus slams back, can’t label people. Our true identity comes from God alone. 40–love, Jesus.

Finally, the Pharisees—the holy righteous ones—serve up a lawyer to challenge Jesus. We all know how dangerous things can get when lawyers get involved. The question sounds simple: Which is the greatest commandment? Yet by answering it, Jesus enters very shaky ground. It would be like someone forcing you to place an ad in the Baxter Bulletin stating what you think about the bail out of Wall Street; legalization of marijuana; same-sex marriage; toilet seat up or down? Without blinking, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: “Love your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul.” You can almost hear the Pharisees laughing. That’s the kind of answer you get from a child. But then Jesus adds Leviticus, saying that we love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul by “Loving your neighbor as ourselves.”

It was quite rare for anyone to combine these two scripture verses. By doing so Jesus turns the whole world upside down. Game, set, match.

Pharisees loved checklists. For them religion was about what you did or couldn’t do. For hundreds of years, Pharisees taught that following the Law is following God. The law gave structure to their whole society. The law told them how to live; who they did business with, what they wore, what they eat, how they worshiped God. In an instant Jesus makes all the laws about purity, cleanliness, rituals, sacrifices, secondary. Jesus has just cut the privileged status out from under the feet of the religious leaders whose position depends on the law. Jesus defiantly overturns their laws and demands that love takes over.

When we hear the word love, we think about Hallmark cards with pictures of cute puppies on the cover. We think of flowers, candle light dinners, and valentines. For us, love is a warm, good, kumbaya feeling where we all hold hands and are at peace with one another.

A few days ago a man came into our hospital that can only be described as a—forgive me—a backwoods hick. He lived in a self-made “cabin” with dirt floors that had no electricity, running water, or sewage. His gray hair and beard hung down to his waist. When he came into the ICU, it took the nurses over three hours just to give him a bath. His family told us that he took pride in never getting a hair cut or taking a bath. He was who he wanted to be and it wasn’t because of a lack of money or education. He graduated from grad school and had enough money to live on. He was described as stubborn, a recluse, and always needing to be right. Before he died, his family told me, “If you want to pray for him, Chaplain, you can, but he never needed God. Heck, we never liked him either, but we loved him anyway.” When support was removed from him and he died, more than 25 people were gathered around his bed.

“We never liked him but we loved him anyway.” This is the kind of love Jesus talks about when he says, “Love your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” The “love” Jesus is talking about here is all about trust, loyalty, and enduring devotion. You may actually hate your neighbor, but you will still love them if you continue to act for their well-being, don’t tell lies about them, and refuse to cut off your relationship with them. Teresa of Avila says, “Let everyone understand that real love of God does not consist in tear-shedding, nor in that sweetness and tenderness for which usually we long, just because they console us, but in serving God in justice, fortitude of the soul and humility.”

Did you notice that our Gospel reading ends with Jesus asking a very confusing question about whose family will produce the messiah? Jesus asks the question to make the point that the messiah will never be subject to the Law but instead will fulfill the law. Jesus also asks his question in an attempt to keep the dialog open with those who were questioning him. Jesus doesn’t debate in order to win but to remain in relationship with everyone, even those who are out to kill him. Jesus may not like the Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees but he will always love them. And Jesus will always love us. And we are called to do the same—love. What is the greatest commandment then? As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s to participate in a community where, whoever you are in whatever position you find yourself; everyone is taken care of. And that means everyone.