This text and the sentiments that Jesus expresses are very, very familiar. We’ve heard it many times. Mike talked very ably about what it means to love your neighbor. This is familiar and well-loved territory for Mennonite believers – for all Christian believers. We’ve heard it before a million times. I literally found over a million hits on Google and almost to million in Google images for the phrase ‘love your neighbor.’ It’s become a part of common parlance – it’s one of those expressions that even non-Christians know and might not know comes from the Bible.
We don’t necessarily remember that the Jesus spoke these words in response to a question posed by the Pharisees gathered in the temple…that it was a part of a trap.
Did you pick a fight with someone because you thought you would win? Or did you enter a situation thinking “I’ve got this one covered”? Or did you approach a topic or issue with your spouse or friend thinking, “I’m pretty sure I’m getting my way here.” And then when you’re in it, things unravel. It doesn’t go as you think it will. This has happened to me any number of times in conversations or arguments with Joe. I rehearse my position in my head thinking that it is irrefutable, thinking that I know what the response will be. Instead I end up being the one silenced.
He we have a story like that. The Pharisees are threatened by and distrustful of Jesus. They are mounting an attack. An NRSV Bible says that they ‘gathered together’ and that ‘one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.’ The Message version of the text puts it like this: “They gathered forces for an assault.” This captures the sinister nature of the encounter. They are not playing around. And small wonder.
The context for this conversation is this: Jesus drew attention on himself, the new-style Messiah as he rode into Jerusalem in a kind of anti-triumphal entry, he cleared the temple and proclaimed it a den of thieves, scuffled with the temple powers that be over his authority, provoked the chief priests and scribes to the point where they wanted to arrest him, reminded people that only a few would be chosen by the ‘king’ to come to the wedding feast, shot down the Sadducees in rhetorical debate, and now engages with the Pharisees. They are too fearful to arrest him, but they will try in every way they can to better him.
But Jesus dives right in and proves that two can play at that game, so to speak. He knows the Bible, just as they do and he knows all the 613 laws in the Torah: 365 ‘Thou shalt not’s (prohibitions) and 248 ‘Thou shalt’s (commands). He knows the answer to their question and yet he doesn’t give them just one answer. He refuses to be pinned down by them or by the law. And now, we know the answer. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind/strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
On these two laws, hang all the law and the prophets. These two sum it all up. A few years ago in the high school Sunday school class, we brainstormed for ‘class rules’ together. We came up with several: I don’t remember exactly what they were but something like, don’t interrupt, don’t use bad language, don’t use violence, etc. etc. But we figured out that all these ‘thou shalt not’s boiled down to one ‘thou shall’: ‘Respect each other.’
Jesus was not discounting the law; he was summing it up. He took those laws and packages them into two. We are not a people of law, and yet these words are still meaningful and full of depth. ‘Love your neighbor’ is deceptive in its simplicity; it’s Jesus does not claim that it is easy to love your neighbor. His neighbors the Pharisees were setting a trap for him with malicious intent.
This past week, Weldon and I spent four days at a camp in southern Michigan, meeting with other Mennonite and Brethren pastors from Supportive Community Network Churches. These are congregation who publically affirm lgbt persons as members in their congregations. It was a time of supporting each other, having fun, hearing from speakers and being educated. We heard about ‘queering’ Mennonite history, holistic teaching of sexuality in congregations, body-ritual in worship. While I came away energized for continued witness in the Church, I was also grieved, especially for our Brethren sisters and brothers. From them, I heard depression and weariness and even fear. Because they have really been set up in a trap. This summer at their annual assembly, a death threat was made by a fundamentalist person or persons against a lesbian woman, a lay leader in one of their congregations. They, and we Mennonites were uncertain about how to respond when power places traps of rhetoric and of fear. It feels impossible to love the people who put us in the trap in the first place.
But what about the second part of the text. That’s when Jesus asks a question about who is the Messiah (or Christ). That’s the part that seems to have totally gone unnoticed in consideration of this text, at least in my previous readings and in sermons that I’ve heard on this text. And it seems to have nothing to do with the first part of the encounter.
It’s the part that that Jesus turns the assault/trap onto his attackers and proves not only his own superior knowledge of scripture but stops outs himself in his identity as Messiah. I want to read the version of this story from the Message version of the Bible, because it was this version that helped me understand a little better Jesus’ rhetoric and to sort out the language that doesn’t make as much sense in the NRSV English.
34-36When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?”
37-40Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
41-42As the Pharisees were regrouping, Jesus caught them off balance with his own test question: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said, “David’s son.”
43-45Jesus replied, “Well, if the Christ is David’s son, how do you explain that David, under inspiration, named Christ his ‘Master’?
God said to my Master,
“Sit here at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
“Now if David calls him ‘Master,’ how can he at the same time be his son?”
46That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of these public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good.
What these two parts have in common is that both the question about the greatest kind of commandment and the question about the Messiah are two very, very common questions that were debated in the synagogues and circles of the religiously learned. The first translates well into today’s language. We still have an understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. We can ask each other the question, what does it mean to love our neighbor, even when the neighbor is unfriendly or unkind or unlike us. But this business of who the Messiah is has lost its context and has gotten lost in the 2000 year old translation.
Jesus is quoting from Psalm 110 – a Psalm which is alluded to more often than any other in the Christian scripture and it’s a building block of New Testament theology – that of Christ (the Messiah) sitting at the right hand of God, for example. It was assumed that the speaker/writer of the Psalm is talking about the future Messiah. It is also assumed that the Messiah is/will certainly be the son of the great Kind David. Jesus reveals in his questions the emptiness in the Pharisees’ assumptions. The Messiah is greater than David, not his son, who would be subservient. The messiah is more than just a human descendant of king David. That is the rhetorical twist that silences the Pharisees.
For Matthew, the image of Jesus as Son of David and Son of God is an important combination. And in this instance, Jesus in not necessarily arguing against his descent from David’s house, but he is emphasizing that as Messiah, he will not act as they would expect a human king to act. And, in fact, he will be, as he demonstrated in the procession into Jerusalem, that he will be precisely the opposite of the oppressive kings that the people are used expecting. He will also not engage in expected ways in the rhetorical debate. He doesn’t give one commandment, he pairs up two. He doesn’t let their questions corner him, he continues the conversation.
Another thing Jesus doesn’t do is make any pronouncements. In his engagement with the trap setters, he is just asking questions: “I’m just a no-nothing, hick kid from Nazareth, who’s trying to understand. What do you think about the Messiah?” And as he continued his questions, they had nothing to say.
I’m sorry to saw I have been in that position – and it doesn’t feel very good. Humiliating, embarrassing, infuriating. I have wondered about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and about his own motivations. How loving was his response to his neighbors the Pharisees? He set a trap just as they did, didn’t they? He just told them that it was most important to love your neighbor. Didn’t he just do exactly what they did? Is that okay?
When I read this text last week and tried to get my head around the 2000 year old rhetorical arguments – and why Jesus would turn around and act the same way as his adversaries, I heard this response from my pastoral colleague Jonathan: “When your cause is righteous, the opposition doesn’t stand a chance.” Jesus questions were out of righteous right-ness.
Now, we have, in these past weeks and months and almost a year, been advocates for shelter for our neighbors who sleep outside. Melanie and Jon and others in this neighborhood have been trying to establish a year-round shelter in the fire-hall in Lake City and many in the neighborhood have mobilized against us. It is in that context that Jon quoted Larry Scheffler about the opposition. It is not being un-loving or un-neighborly to establish shelter, it is creating cleaner, safer and more neighborly environment, but some people, like some Pharisees, are unable to see God at work under their noses. Instead it makes them more angry and determined. (I think we’ve achieved shelter…ask Mel?)
The thing about conflict – even conflict with ‘neighbors’ is that it’s easy to be trapped by argument and by claims that they are the righteous and the right. Someone said this week (maybe Weldon) that there’s a difference between being unsafe and being uncomfortable. As in, lgbt persons having been unsafe in the church because of having to fear attack (verbal or physical) or having to defend themselves because of a core part of their identity. And people who, in an affirming environment are (not unsafe but) uncomfortable because they do not believe that people are created to be in love with someone of the same gender, or as a different gender than their biology suggests. The difference in power and prejudice means that those in the minority would not in fact be unsafe.
The Pharisees are feeling very, very uncomfortable but, these powerful people are still the ones with the power and Jesus has not changed that with his questions. The Pharisees and he are still neighbors, but he is challenging them. And we are challenged both by Jesus’ call to love our neighbor and to be knowledgeable and righteous, to reveal the arguments of the Pharisees to be empty.
One of the joyful stories I heard come out of a conflicted conference was the exuberance with which Pink Menno participants exposed the ridiculous and empty arguments of protestors. In response to the hate-filled placards of protestors, Pink Mennos had signs that read ‘God hates Unicorns!’ When protestors shouted slogans, one pink Menno responded, “Where are the donuts, I was promised donuts!” I think that these responses are in the Spirit of Jesus, both loved and challenged in righteous right-ness.
May we be equally joy-filled and loving of our neighbor, may we be revealing of the falseness of the argument.