Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oct. 23, 2011

Matthew 22:34-46
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, " "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." 43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 "The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet" '? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

When I was a young boy, there was a trick that my father liked to play on me. I would be outside playing doing whatever it is that little kids do.  I would then my father’s voice, loud and stern, yelling: “Justin, come inside, now!”  Given his tone and volume, you can better believe that I thought I had done something to get in trouble, and figuring out what that thing might have been was typically my anxious task as I made my way back into the house.  With much fear and trembling, I would open the front door and go to my parents who were in the kitchen, feeling like I was probably in trouble for mistreating my brother, not doing my chores or something else (let it be known that I never went to these meetings with a totally clear conscience.  My own question was not if I had done something that merited punishment, but rather if I had been caught).  However, when I would get into the kitchen, I would find not an angry parent, but rather a delightful surprise, typically a bowl of fresh raspberries from a bush out in our backyard.  Now, I have no idea what motivated my father do this, but I can say that the impact was to make me, a middle child who from time to time did not get as much attention as his siblings, feel loved and noticed.  In that instant, absolute terror would turn to laughter, fear melted away by the love of a father for one of his children.  Sometimes, then, getting exactly what we do not expect is actually precisely what we need.
            What is so very interesting about today’s story is that this is the same position in which the Pharisees and other religious elite find themselves, dealing with something, rather someone, who is quite unexpected, their own bowl of raspberries.  The contentious dialogue from the last several weeks continues. Having seen their interns rebuffed by Jesus’ answer about paying taxes to Caesar, and having seen the Sadducees thoroughly worked over in their misunderstanding of the resurrection, the Pharisees put in one last attempt at stumping Jesus, asking him, in essence, what is the heart of the Jewish faith?  Now, the answer that Jesus gives is not all that controversial; this time he avoids the trap set for him by showing the Pharisees that they stand on some common ground, that love of God and love of neighbor is the heart of their common faith, though they disagree mightily on what constitutes this neighborly and godly love.  However, on a very basic point they are in agreement. 
            But Jesus, mischief maker that he is,  cannot let things be, for under their seeming agreement, there is a deeper issue at work and it has everything to do with expectations and their denial.  Yes, for Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter in asking whose son is the Christ, the messiah.  What may sound a lot like word gymnastics and meaningless chatter to us is actually the real question.  For when the Pharisees answer “David,” they are doing more than reciting a bit of Jewish orthodoxy; instead, they are giving voice to a whole series of expectations as to what the Messiah, God’s chosen, would be and what he would do.  Yes, to say that the Messiah is David’s son is to suggest that the Messiah will be something of a warrior-king, throwing off the cruel rod of Roman oppression, shedding unrighteous blood as Israel’s enemies are finally exposed to the anger of God.  Yes, the Messiah as David’s son would liberate Israel, hopefully by the most wrathful means available.  
            And this, this, is really the heart of the matter for the Pharisees.  Jesus simply does not conform to their expectations; in fact, he rather disappoints them.   He forgives without limit and insists that his followers do the same.  He spends his time with the weak and weary, the poor and the unforgivable, with tax-payers whose hands are filthy with extorted cash, and women whose bodies are tired and used, telling them of the eternal tenderness named the Father.  In fact, his only sharp words have been pointed at them, the Pharisees, and not at the Roman occupiers that he, by this point, certainly should have taken up arms against.  The Pharisees just cannot wrap their minds around the notion that God could look like Jesus, could behave like Jesus, and could be in the places where Jesus puts himself.   And this is their tragedy, this is why, as Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God in front of the Pharisees.  Can you imagine a more offensive word for them to hear?  These men, so blinded by their own sense of self-righteousness, so convinced in their own moral superiority and religious correctness can find Jesus to be only a threat, only someone who does not live up to their expectations.  Like children who, perversely, would prefer punishment to gift, a grounding to a fresh bowl of raspberries, the Pharisees want  Jesus, as David’s son, to be a lot more fierce, a lot meaner, though certainly they believe that they will not be on the receiving end of that holy anger.  Indeed, they want, expect, nay, demand that Jesus, if he is really going to get the Messianic testosterone flowing, will indeed stamp out Israel’s enemies and crush them under foot.
            Though t there is considerable historical distance between the Pharisees and us, this does not mean our expectations are any more hospitable to Jesus than were theirs, clamoring as we do for God to take up arms against our enemies, be they geo-political or simply someone whom we find annoying at work.  Yes, we, too, want Jesus to put our enemies beneath his feet, and this he will do, but not through drunken violence and suffering.  Instead, Jesus will put his enemies and indeed ours,  under his feet as his broken body is hoisted upon the cross, bidding his Father to forgive even those who conspired to plot his destruction, which means that there is room even for sinners like us at the divine banquet.   Yes, this is how God, in Christ, will chose to subdue hatred, fear and sin, by submitting to it, by suffering the Father’s anger against it,  and by offering only peace and forgiveness, nothing more.  Nothing ever more.  This is how God has chosen to reign, in defiance of human expectation, contrary to our anger and fear that God’s love would reach our enemies, God, in Christ puts us under his feet, puts us at the foot of the cross, and tells us that here, here beneath this broken body, here on that blood and tear stained hill called Golgatha, here is forgiveness, here is newness of life, here is the end of human striving and here is the peace eternal.  Is it what we would expect from the God who created the universe out of nothing?  The God’s whose strong and faithful Word brooded over chaos and made of it the lovely song called cosmos?  No, this is a God, a Messiah, that we simply could not have anticipated or expected,   This is a God who does not despise our frailty and weakness, but comes to you as you are, fragile and just trying to hold this mess call life together.   But take heart, dear people of God, for to be put under Christ’s feet means to be placed at the banquet that echoes through eternity and that awaits you here in the body and blood; a goodness that, thanks be to God, does not conform to our expectations.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

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