19th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30
October 23, 2011
Matthew 22:34-46, Leviticus 19: 1-2,15-18, Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Driving home from Seattle I was able to hear the whole of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Kiellor was talking about Pastor Liz, the new Lutheran pastor. She explains to someone that it is not so hard to find something new to say from the pulpit every Sunday, because no one ever really listens, and also because the sermon becomes the same story repeated week after week. I was thinking about Jesus and this session he is undergoing from the Temple leaders of various theological persuasions in these passages from Matthew over the last few weeks. Actually, Jesus has been saying pretty much the same thing from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel – telling people that they have missed the real story about what their religion is and that he is saying what the prophets have said for most of their history.
The Church lawyers and scholars as well as the Temple leaders are down to their last question in this morning’s reading, and we see Jesus as firmly grounded in his own tradition and able to preach on it with mastery. We are so used to thinking of Jesus as the originator of a new religion, and we are used to writings on the emerging religion about him. This morning we see him steeped in his own ancient religion, one with God at its center and not Jesus.
He quotes Deuteronomy with the most ancient and powerful command of God to God’s people, a quote that you will hear in every Jewish gathering to this day: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone, You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then he connects it with the passage we have from Leviticus: you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. This is the core of what God requires, this is the core of what God has said.
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. Anyone who is in a long-term relationship knows that love is not about wooing words or that special magic when you’re around the one you love, it’s about actions. It’s about the day-to-day consideration and companionship and faithfulness to the person you have committed to love. It’s about remembering them above all the other distractions that entice and entertain you. Our ability to do what is right is rooted in right resemblance to God. It is God’s holiness which is reflected in our ability to be in relationship beyond our own self-concern. One of my commentators notes that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is unique among other ancient law codes. It is also unique in many of our modern understanding of “enlightened self-interest.” It is as if a geometric proof is offered here: the true test of our love of God is in how we treat God’s people.
It’s all pretty simple, right? Ah, don’t you wish! It is clear that we fail to live the sweet life God intended for us, just as God’s people have always done. Luther described our hearts as turned inward, and the light of Christ as being able to free us from that deep slavery to our own whims and distractions. I’m afraid that Pastor Liz was right about preaching the same story every week. Jesus has been telling the story from his earliest preaching, and we come down to it almost every week as well. Just as God’s people have always failed to live the sweet life of love that God intended for them, so we fail to hear and obey the sweet commands of God to be holy, to give God our complete love and devotion, and to let that love lead us to love those around us with the love that Jesus would offer them.
But Jesus, in his parting words, gives us the key to living the life of promise God is able to deliver. “What do you think of the Messiah?” he asks. By quoting their own Scripture to them again, Jesus draws the connection between the Messiah as Son of David and the Messiah as Lord. Jesus stretches the concept of Messiah to include himself as the evaluator of God’s law, “Love the Lord your God.” He is no mere rabbi, he is the One who has the power to defeat the evil which keeps us from being able to life the which is commanded of God’s people. Here is our right relationship. Seeing God’s love for us in the presence of God’s own self in our world, we confess our failing, and we accept the forgiveness offered by Jesus’ defeat of evil and blessing of new life guaranteed in his resurrection. We see our bearing grudges and judgments against others, the mean words, and little favoritisms as the betrayals they are of our call to be loving as God is loving of us. Our struggle to be God’s people is ongoing, but we never need to fear that our failure to live according to God’s commands will keep us from God’s love. Jesus has brought us to our knees in order to raise us again. May you live in the assurance that your sin is forgiven so that you can live in love and with joy.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.