A Sermon for October 26th, 2014. The text for this week was Matthew 22:34-46.
The Weightier Matters of Faith
While a lot of people might choose to spend the last week of their life quietly at home, or maybe vacationing somewhere they’d always wanted to go. Jesus chooses to spend his last week in the Temple arguing with priests, elders, and Pharisees. The Gospel of Matthew records him hanging out in the Temple and taking all comers. One after another the chief priests, elders, Pharisees and Sadducees all come to Jesus to embarrass Jesus in front of the crowds. And one by one each of them finds themselves on the receiving end of the humiliation.
In our story for today a Pharisee challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment; Jesus responds with two. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he adds a second commandment, from Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments,” he says. This is the second-to last encounter between Jesus and the powers that be. The next time he interacts with the chief priests and the elders, Judas will greet him with a kiss. So how do we get from this interaction to the next?
What is it about these commandments that so upsets the powers that be? Surely they can’t be that upset the commandments, for both are found in the law and were widely seen as among the most important. Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus’, was famous for saying that he could recite the entire Torah standing on one foot. When asked to perform the feat, he lifted his foot stated Leviticus 18:19, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” And then put his foot down. “The rest is commentary,” he said. So how did we get from Jesus giving a fairly conventional and uncontroversial answer to a question of law to the chief priests and elders meeting to plot his death.
The answer is found somewhere in the next two chapters, which I like to call Jesus’ discourse on love. I’m probably the only one who calls it that. And to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend you read them at a wedding: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Probably better to stick with 1 Corinthians 13. But it is about love because Jesus is talking about what it means to follow the law of love, and what it means to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The two commandments Jesus’ offers are hardly objectionable. But Jesus has a very different ideas about how those commandments should be applied, and it becomes clear as he lays into them about spiritual practices and matters of the law.
In the chapters that follow, Jesus’ blasts the legal scholars of the day for making the law impossible to follow except for a select few. Jesus says “they tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.” The purity codes and laws, the tithes and sacrifices required all added up to more than the average person could handle, which meant that they were condemned as impure and unholy. And that of course meant more fees, offerings, and payments to the priests for purification of sin.
But what Jesus says is that they have missed the point of the commandments. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” The Pharisees claimed to take loving God so seriously that they even tithed on the plants they grew in their window gardens, but yet they benefitted from a society that denied justice and mercy to those who needed it most.
What Jesus is saying is that the law of love and the law of justice are inextricably tied. What Jesus is saying is that you cannot love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself. The second is like it, he said. And what Jesus is saying to the powers that be, is “Look! Look around you. Look at your neighbor, and tell me that you are loving your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.”
This is what made Jesus dangerous to the chief priests and the elder. It’s not that Jesus believed in love. It’s that Jesus believed that you cannot have love without justice, you cannot claim to follow the law of love if you neglect its weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith. That is what turns an agreement on matters of the law into a disagreement. That’s what turns a teacher with beautiful ideas into a teacher with dangerous ideas.
Because tying love to justice is a dangerous idea. More often love is divorced from justice, and coopted to silence its claims. A pastor brings a woman into his office and says, “You need to forgive your husband for what he did to you last weekend.” And when she says, “I’m not sure I’m ready to do that,” he says “that’s not very loving of you.” Forcing victims to console their abusers coopts the language of love for the purpose of avoiding conflict. A parent is angry that her special needs child is being neglected by the school. She comes to the principal’s office, but is denied a visit. “I can’t talk to you until you stop being angry with me.” Justice delayed in the deference to manners.
Love divorced from justice can be coopted to tell us that we have to love oppressors and oppressed in the same way, so that we tolerate systematic abuse and abject poverty. Without justice, love can be coopted to silence dissent: if you love me you wouldn’t criticize my actions, some say. Or if you love your country you shouldn’t acknowledge its failures.
We’re much more comfortable thinking of justice and love as separate concepts that are unrelated. But love without justice and justice without love both bend towards brutality. One it toothless, covering the sins of the powerful at the expense of their neighbors. The other is nothing but teeth, and lacks the potential for reformation and resurrection. And neither, Jesus is saying, lives up to the fullness of God’s call to us.
What upsets the Pharisees, then, is neither the command to love our God with everything we have, or to love our neighbors the way we wish to be loved. Neither of these is controversial or arguable, then or now. What upsets the powers that be is the implication that they are the same thing. That’s what got Jesus in trouble so many years ago. And if we’re serious about following him, that’s where we’ll look for trouble now.