Why we know to love, but not how or when. We often think of love as the antidote to chaos, but it isn’t so related to the chaos.
Proper 25A | Matthew 22:34-46
This year, we gathered at the river for Convention. Down in Jeffersonville and New Albany, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, we convened for the first time with our new Bishop. We were welcomed, celebrated, danced, and made blessed community with one another as the gathered Diocese of Indianapolis.
Jennifer, our bishop, spoke of the water and learning about us and the love we already show one another. The ways the rivers run through our land and connect us with the water of life. We heard a message of love in the midst of chaos.
Hers was a powerful message we all needed to hear. As a diocese, as Episcopalians, as people of faith.
And she said she had given us our sermons: for those who hadn’t written them yet. I’m not sure this is precisely what she had in mind.
Because she was speaking about love in the midst of chaos and that is precisely the nature of this gospel story from Matthew. One, we often take out of the chaotic context.
The Pharisees and Temple leaders hate Jesus. At this point in the story, they
- try to trap him, to humiliate him,
- trap him to charge him with blasphemy
- and conspire to have him killed.
Saying anything less than that they hate him and want him dead is underselling their opposition. So we need to take in that Jesus is surrounded by hatred, bigotry, dishonesty, deception, capitulation with Empire, collusion and a wealth of evil.
Jesus is surrounded by evil, pressing against him, trying to have him killed, and in the middle of all of this, Jesus tells them to love.
Another trap, another dishonest trick, yet one more chance to show their hatred: a lawyer asks
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
And Jesus ties in the first commandment with Leviticus 19–the compassion chapter at the heart of a book many use to propagate hate. A book used today by pastors to condemn children made in the image of God has in its center, a call to compassion and love for everyone.
Jesus joins them together in the most famous teaching of them all:
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
A teaching which transcends and crystallizes everything so perfectly, we don’t know what else to do with it.
Maybe Jesus has something else in mind.
A teaching which Jesus follows with a chapter long condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. We might say Jesus went off on them. Verse after verse of scathing commentary about their hypocrisy and deception, Jesus keeps naming how terrible they are.
And the reader in 2017 may struggle to hear these blistering statements coming immediately after Jesus calls us to love our neighbors like ourselves. It seems so incongruous.
Or we may strain the definition of love to include harsh condemnations as an expression of “tough love”.
But both responses fail to ring true. Not fully. And not given what Jesus has been teaching the crowds in the Temple. Not in light of the swirling hatred surrounding Jesus two days before his Passion.
In that light, we turn to an image. The image Jesus has been sharing this whole time: the kin-dom.
An Undivided Faith
If we step back to the passages in Matthew 22 right before this one, we see the traps and the dishonesty. A trap about taxes and another about marriage. And given what the lawyer will do, asking about the greatest commandment and Jesus will reply, not only with the first of the ten, but with a prayer. The Sh’ma:
Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
Before that, they try to trap Jesus into either discrediting himself or get in trouble with Rome. But Jesus outsmarts them. He reveals their idolatry and devotion to a graven image. With greed and selfishness, they break the second commandment.
But Jesus isn’t only focused on the 10 Commandments. Remember, he breaks Sabbath law to protect the divine character of the Sabbath. So Jesus has a much bigger focus.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes:
Jesus is not recommending in his response to the Pharisees that we learn to live with divided loyalties, but rather he is saying that all the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.
Hear that! Not internally divided loyalties. He continues:
Just as Jesus knows no distinction between politics and religion, neither does he know any distinction between politics, economics, and the worship of God. Those who have asked him whether they should pay taxes to the emperor are revealed to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess.
Focused on the Kin-dom
Hauerwas names how Jesus consistently compels his hearer to see the whole of themselves in devotion to God through God’s mission. Earlier in this gospel, we are reminded that one cannot serve two masters: God and wealth.
So Jesus’s focus isn’t so divided.
Jesus is focused on the Kin-dom. Which to him, is the blessed community made real in our midst. It is the fulfillment of the Law, which includes feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, and protecting the widow.
It also means living out the Jubilee conviction of restoring a just world and forgiving the debts of others.
This is Jesus’s picture of love. This is what Jesus has in mind when he talks about loving our neighbors as ourselves, because who among us would see love in prison or slavery? Who would see love in being indebted to another? Would any of us feel loved if we were the subject of hate and ridicule; the object of derision?
This goes beyond the golden rule and speaks to the really hard truth: that the society we are building and perpetuating fails to express the love in our hearts. But it sure justifies retribution and offering pain in response to pain; hate in response to hate.
“The Second Coming”
Our culture swirls the hate around us, driving it faster and faster like centrifugal force. We can hear this in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” And like the poem, our hatred seems likely to yield a new villainy upon us. Like the uncertain world of the time right after the Great War when Yeats wrote this masterpiece of poetry.
Even the image, like an anti-Christ, a masked savior cheats creation out of its promised restoration.
But that is just our fear and anxiety speaking. That’s what the Kingdom of Earth threatens, but it’s not what Jesus offers us.
Jesus offers love
Love. Jesus offers love.
And upon that love hangs all this other stuff we pretend is important to us. Jesus stands in the center of all this unregulated evil. And he offers love despite the deafening winds starving his message of oxygen.
Jesus doesn’t try to pass off hate for love: but the Pharisees do.
Jesus doesn’t try to masquerade his rebuke as love (it’s not love, it’s a rebuke)–but a rebuke of what prevents love.
His love doesn’t breed evil or give birth to chaos. But all this hatred and evil which surrounds Jesus won’t be able to destroy the love of God in Jesus.
That’s why we can say that everything hangs from this love: because it has to start with love. Not with safety, patriotism, or being nice to each other. It starts with love because love is at the center of the kin-dom. And the kin-dom is about restoring our beloved community.
Called to Love and Restore
Those who’ve followed along with our Daring Read for October know that restoring our relationship with God was the centerpiece of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. And why Luther began with a call to repent: to turn again toward God and away from sin.
Even though 500 years passed, we are still calling one another to repent and restore our community. As we find ourselves surrounded by hate and bigotry and evil, we are called to restore this commandment in its most Jesusy form!
Called to love God with everything we have.
And likewise called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
A calling which stretches our capacity, pushes against the swirling gales, and brings us into disharmony with that selfish and bigoted world from our place at the center of the storm. But the music we make sounds like rushing water, with deep currents of love and new life to the thirsty. Music which turns pub songs into hymns, broken vessels into new pots, burned prayer books into embodied liturgies.
A love song for all of creation. Restored, renewed, and given to the world to love.