The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Before we were interrupted by our celebration of our friend and patron Saint Ignatius of Antioch, we left Jesus having just told the chief priests and Pharisees the parable of the wedding feast. This story, you will recall, ends with that inscrutable incident of the king tossing out the guest who, while invited off the street at random, was not wearing a proper “wedding garment.” I suggested to you that we need to see this story as Matthew’s harsh rebuke of the leaders of the people and a lesson to all of us that just turning up at the banquet is not enough. We, who know the whole story, who can be prepared to receive God’s call, must, when we arrive, participate fully, engage the work of the kingdom and not simply sit back and enjoy the banquet.
If the chief priests and Pharisees had not liked the previous parables Jesus told against them about the two sons and the vineyard and the tenants, they certainly did not like this story. Already, having been called out on their hypocrisy, they were thinking they needed to do something about Jesus, arrest him even, but they were held back by their fear of the people’s reaction. Now that they have heard this further tale of the wedding garment, they were really annoyed, and in last week’s appointed gospel, which we missed in favour of John for Ignatius, we read, “Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle [Jesus] in his talk.” Before, they were passive listeners, receiving Matthew’s critique through Jesus’ words. Now they are ready to do something; and what do they do? Rather than arrest Jesus or challenge him outright, they seek to trick him, using oily flattery, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” You can just see them, laying it on thick, wringing their hands. But, of course, “aware,” as he was “of their malice,” Jesus is ready with his response, and said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus provides an unassailable answer at which they marvel.
Jesus and Matthew are not done, however, with this relentless, withering attack on the leaders of the people. Perhaps Jesus has silenced Pharisees for the moment, but now the leaders of the Sadducees take their turn. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. This was a lively and ongoing theological debate within Judaism in Jesus’ day, and it must have seemed a good point on which to test Jesus. Which side was he on? Whom did he back? So they ask him an arcane and long-winded question about an hypothetical seven-timed widow who married seven brothers in succession and which of them will be her husband in the time of the resurrection. Jesus again offers an unassailable answer: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” While Jesus’ response does imply belief in the resurrection, perhaps pleasing the Pharisees,(1) it none the less undermines the perspective of the questioner. In doing so he not only pleases the people, as Matthew reports, he also redirects the Sadducees, as he did the Pharisees, back to the more important and timely issue of how we are to live in the here and now. To whom should we pay heed, in this moment, at the inauguration of the Kingdom of God?
All these testing questions by the chief priests, the Pharisees, and now the Sadducees were meant to make Jesus look bad, get him into trouble, yet in Jesus’ answers he avoids falling into their traps. At the same time he offers us the key to living in right relationship with God. And that brings us to today’s Gospel:
But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Here we have a serious question, one you might in all earnestness and without guile ask a scholar and teacher well versed in Torah. In Mark’s gospel this is exactly how it is presented, as part of a friendly conversation between Jesus and the scribe. Matthew, however, is playing with his source material, explicitly turning this issue into a point of contention and creating a moment of confrontation.(2) This should be no surprise, as it is completely in keeping with the Matthew’s perspective and the way in which he has organised this entire section of his narrative, the dispute with the authorities in and around the Temple. Posing their question with a hint of malice and the assumption there would be fireworks, the Pharisees must have believed that given the 613 commandments in the law, Jesus would have to choose one over the others, creating room for argument and disagreement. Perhaps Jesus’ choice might even imply that there were commandments that could, in fact be disregarded.
Jesus makes his reply without hesitation in words familiar to us from the opening of our liturgy:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
As simple as this may seem, Jesus is doing something novel by taking two commandments from Scripture and linking them in a new way. He thereby creates an hermeneutical tool, a theory of interpretation, for all of Torah. Jesus rejects none of the commandments, nor does he rank them any further. Rather, he offers a guiding principal not only for understanding the law, but for putting it into practice. As ready as the Pharisees were to have a fight with Jesus about this, Jesus’ interpretation seems to silence them, as his answer about the resurrection had silenced the Sadducees. Indeed, there was nothing they could say. Jesus’ own interpretation was both traditional and orthodox, and, in fact, very similar to that offered later in the first century by Rabbi Hillel and others. Matthew’s inclusion of the story within the context of an argument with Jewish authorities suggests, however, that the question of how to understand the law was not fully settled either amongst Jews or between Jews and Jewish Christians.
In Matthew’s world, in the last quarter of the first century with the destruction of the Temple, the law had taken on a new significance. In this environment, Matthew clearly saw the interpretation of the law through the lens of loving God and loving neighbour as a reasonable and sound way of navigating those 613 distinct commandments.(3) More generally, and as it continues to apply to us, Jesus’ summary of the law provides a means to interpret everything we do, each action, each choice we undertake. We are to love God and love our neighbour. Those are the works to which we are called in our baptism. Our whole life need be oriented to this task and whatever we do can be evaluated, marked, understood in relation to this standard. It is the very foundation for the ethic Jesus will lay before us in Matthew’s vision of the last judgement that we will explore in greater detail in a few weeks.
Today, however, partially on account of the Lectionary’s inclsion in today’s Gospel of Jesus’ question to the Pharisees following his declaration of the Great Commandment, I want to pursue Jesus’ argument with the authorities just a little further. This subsequent exchange is key for Matthew’s whole understanding of Jesus. He tells us:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
At first hearing, and to our ears, there seems no way that this obscure theological dispute regarding the interpretation of Psalm 110 could be as important as the question about the law and Jesus’ answer that the standard by which we live our lives is love.(4) For Matthew and his community, however, it was a cornerstone for understanding Jesus’ identity.
Matthew needs to assert that Jesus was more than simply the “Son of David.” His identity had to be more significant than that. He was not only “Son of David,” but also Son of God, Lord, the Messiah. This exchange provided proof to Matthew’s community that Jesus could not only best the Pharisees in the interpretation of Scripture, but that he was indeed this Christ, the one whom God sent to redeem Israel.(5) This argument was the nail in the coffin for the leaders of the people, who had been unwilling and unable to answer Jesus’ questions, and were so fearful of the crowds, so faithless, “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.” The silencing of the Pharisees with the words about the great commandment and the identity of the messiah set the stage in Matthew’s gospel for the devastating denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees that follows, and that precedes Jesus’ proclamation of the judgement that is to come at the end of time.
It is also the culmination of the narrative course of the scriptures we have been hearing over the past few weeks. We have heard the parables of the two sons, the vineyard and the tenants, and the marriage feast, and today the great commandment and the teaching about the Son of God. Together they tell the story of who Jesus is and what our relationship with him is like. It is a road map, albeit a winding one, to help us understand our connection to him and our responsibilities in return.
Salvation, Jesus makes clear, is not simply something that just happens. We are not predestined for redemption or damnation. Jesus and the Father are one and the same. Jesus is not only the expected son of David, but so much more. God has sent Jesus to bring us into relationship with God, with that which is the source and meaning of all things. We are all invited, all included, all potentially swept up in this process. Not all of us, however, will accept the invitation. Many of us are too blind, or arrogant, or rigidly fixed on our own views and expectations. Many are too self-interested or greedy.
In Jesus, God is making something new and we are called to be open to it and participate in its great works, which are like both a harvest and a banquet. We have to do our part, we have to engage, we have to use our wits, the tools we are given, which, as we learn today, include the active interpretation of God’s word through the process of discerning what is loving to God and what is loving to neighbour. It is a tall order, and one that the leaders of the people have failed to heed, but we can do it.
The failure of human leaders, is, in fact, one of the greatest themes we have encountered. We are called, to follow, select, and sometimes become leaders who make God’s priorities of love our highest aim, just as we are called to live our own lives in this way. We have the chance in the coming weeks, even now, to participate in the works of love in the selection of leaders who will put the love of God and the love of neighbour above their own interests. Having been invited into the Kingdom of God, we must participate actively in the vocation we have been given and, forewarned and forearmed with the tools we need to live our lives, not be caught without that wedding garment clothed, as we already are, with the love of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 24 October 2020
(1) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 315.
(2) Harrington 2007, 315.
(3) Harrington 2007. 336.
(4) Harrington 2007, 318.
(5) Harrington 2007, 318.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume