A Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost (25/10/20): The Last Two Questions

The Last Two Questions
Matthew 22:34-46 

Something is happening in Jerusalem. It is one of those moments when everyone knows that a crisis is coming. Like one of those hot heavy afternoons, when the air feels thick, close and dense, that can only end in a thunderstorm before evening. Jesus arrived in the city on Sunday. He’d come, surrounded by thousands who were singing songs of hope and expectation. They had welcomed him like a liberating hero. Everyone knows that by the end of this week the storm will break. The decisive moment will have come. Each of the differing groups within Israel knows something dreadful is about to happen. What they all want to know is: Is this the day of the Lord, or is this just another of those senseless disasters that seem to afflict them? And whichever it is, whose side is Jesus on? Before that crisis unrolls, all of the interested, rival parties are manoeuvring for position. They are trying to decide from which direction the wind will blow. They are trying to figure out where they must stand to weather the crisis which Jesus is creating, and how they should respond to him. Singly and in groups the differing parties within the national life of Israel come to Jesus in these days while he is teaching in the Temple. First come the chief-priests and the scribes who were dismayed by the cries of “Hosanna!” which Jesus had prompted. Then the chief-priests come back, this time accompanied by the elders of the people, and demand to know by what authority Jesus is acting. The chief-priests come a third time, on this occasion with the Pharisees, when they realise that Jesus’ pointed stories are pointing at them. After that the Pharisees come back, this time the Herodians come too, with a trick question about paying taxes. Then the Sadducees show up with a convoluted question about the resurrection. And on each occasion Jesus gets the better of their questions and defeats their attempts to make him define himself according to their agendas, as an enemy or as an ally of any of them. Jesus remains an outlier from the groups vying for power among the people of God. He continues to speak, as he has from the beginning, with a voice and an authority that is all his own.

The Pharisees approach Jesus one last time. They have seen Jesus get the better of their bitterest rivals, the Sadducees. The Pharisees still suspect that Jesus might be persuaded to take their side. This is why they have kept coming back to him so often throughout his ministry. They still hope he might join them, and bring the crowds with him. One of them, a lawyer, approaches Jesus as he is teaching in the temple.

“Teacher,” he says, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

This question about the law stands like a bookend to the whole of Jesus’ teaching ministry. When he started out, when people, the Pharisees amongst them, had first begun to wonder about Jesus, he told them:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

The law and the prophets are the defining teaching of God’s people. To be God’s people is to hear and obey what is written in the law. To be God’s people is to hear and live by the judgements and promises  that are spoken forth by the prophets. The question that has been raised by Jesus’ ministry all along in the minds of the Pharisees, as well as in the minds of the chief-priests and elders and Herodians and all the rest, the question raised by Jesus for all who would be God’s people is: what do those things mean? Is Jesus in continuity with those things, or does his ministry bring about a fundamental break with the past? The Pharisees define themselves by their meticulous adherence to the law. They are that strange combination, they are both radical and conservative. They take hold of the law, with all that has been handed down with it for 1400 years. They grasp it with a fierce passion, and they demand the same passion from everyone around them. The lawyer’s question asks one last time: is Jesus with them?

But even this question is not altogether straight-forward. It still contains something of the deceptiveness of the questions which the Pharisees have been asking Jesus all the way through his ministry. In the Pharisees’ minds the answer to the question, “which commandment is the greatest?” is “all of them!” The commandment which regulates the fringe on their robes is as important as the one which tells them not to commit murder. Every commandment comes from God, and therefore every commandment must be obeyed with equal determination. Paul, who has something of a Pharisaic turn of mind, knows and later points out that to break one commandment is in effect to have broken the whole law of God. But as the Pharisees, and their friends the scribes, amply demonstrate, the law (and the prophets) is always subject to interpretation.

Jesus’ answer though does not come as a surprise:

“You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

And Jesus, as he always does, gives more of an answer than his questioner is really looking for:

“And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

There is no controversy here. No one among the people of God disputes that these commandments stand at the forefront of the law. Their remit is so extensive as to include the intention of every other one of the 612 commandments in the law as well as everything found in the prophets. To be God’s people, in the time of Moses, at the moment Jesus stands in the Temple, and in all eternity, requires one thing: to love God. It requires that his people attend to reality, to what is really real, to what stands behind all that we experience in history and in each moment of our lives, and to know that it comes from God. To be God’s people is to know that this is all what God has done, and that it is good, and we shall love God for it.  And God’s people will love God with the intensity of heart, soul and mind, with the singleness of purpose that the Pharisees and Jesus both demand.

Yet God is an abstract. Our neighbours are real. The first commandment in practice can only be obeyed in the second. Each neighbour is made in the image of God, it is in the neighbour that God’s people encounter God. It is only by always seeking their well-being, in showing the same loving kindness shown by God, that God’s people can express their love for him. In practice, all of the law and prophets are built on this. It is hard to know who God is. It is hard to know what to do for our neighbours. The law and the prophets tell us.

The law and the prophets are but one pillar that supports the house of God’s people. The other is the hope in God which the prophets inspire. The other is the promise that God’s people will be free to serve God in holiness and righteousness without fear. The other pillar in God’s house is the promise of peace. This is what all God’s people look forward to and live in anticipation of. And this hope had become focused in the figure of the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring about God’s reign and to establish that peace.

The crowd has already made up its mind. When they sang “Hosanna” as Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days ago they declared their belief that Jesus is the one. He is the one appointed by God to answer that prayer, “Hosanna! Save now!” This is why everyone knows the crisis is upon them. In the next few days it will become clear whether the crowd are right or not. But the chief-priests and the elders and the Herodians and all the rest are still trying to pick a side. Is the crowd right? Is Jesus the Messiah?

Is this the day of the Lord? Or is Jesus about to bring disaster down on all their heads?

Time and again Jesus has answered his opponents’ questions with a question. And he does so again.

“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

Here is the question about that other pillar. Who is the Messiah? What will he be like? What have we seen before that will help us to recognise him when he comes? The answer to Jesus’ question, like the answer to the Pharisees’ before it, is hardly controversial. Everyone who has paid half-attention to the prophets knows the answer to that:

They said to him, “The son of David.”

There is no one among God’s people who disputes this. This is what God’s people are looking forward to: The establishment of God’s reign on earth under a king who has the same quality of closeness to God as the great king of the past. A thousand years ago a king reigned who gave to God’s people a brief period when they were free to worship God with fear, and when among them there was peace. Of the titles which people gave to Jesus, “Son of David” was prominent among them. Though as it happens it is not a title which Jesus uses of himself. Jesus doesn’t disagree with the Pharisees’ answer, but he does wonder what it could possibly mean. He has one last question, the final exchange in the long to-and-fro between Jesus and his opponents:

“How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord?”

Jesus reminds his questioners of a time when speaking prophetically in a psalm David had said:

“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’”

Everyone agrees that David is talking about the Messiah there. God says to his anointed one to sit in the place of honour until all that God is seeking to accomplish for him is finished. But in that sentence David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Yet a son cannot rule over a father. The replacement cannot be greater than the original. At first sight Jesus appears to have disappeared down the rabbit hole of obscure word games that the scribes and the lawyers seemed to find themselves in. But he is in fact pointing to a fundamental contradiction in the way the Pharisees were believing in God. Indeed Jesus points to a problem for all God’s people. Being God’s people is a “tradition.” That is, it is to receive something that is being handed on. This is why the question of the law and the prophets is so important. They are the substance of what is being handed on. Loyalty to those things are what define God’s people, there is no disputing that! But the problem with tradition, the problem with receiving what is handed on is that it tends to make God’s people (small ‘c’) conservative. They look to the past and allow it to shape their present and their future. But the past is too narrow a vision to understand what God is doing. It is not enough to call the Messiah “the Son of David,” even though Jesus’ followers are still right to use that title for him. Jesus is never just a replacement, a copy, of an illustrious original. At first sight the question: “How can the Messiah be David’s son if David says. . .” at first sight that question seems like a strange, obscure question to finally silence Jesus’ opponent. But it does! It does because it finally and conclusively demonstrates that when Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” he means something different than when the chief-priests and elders and Herodians and Pharisees and everyone else who looks to past mean when they say they are looking for the kingdom of heaven. And it is an irreconcilable difference. Jesus has not come to restore anyone’s idealised past to them.

By the end of the week, the storm breaks. Silenced, the opponents of Jesus, chief-priests, scribes, Herodians and all the rest conspire together. They contrive to have Jesus killed by the Romans. By Friday evening Jesus is dead and buried. On Sunday morning God does what God has never done before: he raises Jesus from the dead, to die no more. God gives a sign and a promise to all who would follow Jesus that they will share in his life. Jesus is vindicated. His opponents picked the wrong side. This is the day of the Lord

To be God’s people is to receive what has been handed on from the past. The law and the prophets stand unchanged and everlasting. Loyalty to that teaching is what defines the people of God. Their life is founded on, and built up from that double commandment: Love God; love your neighbour. And Jesus is the one who brings about the fulfilment of the promises made by the law and the prophets. Jesus does establish God’s reign in which God’s people can worship without fear and in which they can experience peace. But the past gives too narrow a vision of what God can do. God’s action in the world is never simply a repetition of what has gone before, nor is it ever a restoration of what is thought to be lost. What God does in Christ is new every morning.

Amen.

Creative Commons Licence
The Last Two Questions by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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