Sermon for Pentecost + 20, October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday
Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ 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.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?
“If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
The Ebola outbreak has now claimed over 10,000 lives. It has us all worried. It is so invisible and so deadly. But we can be thankful, in our times to have science. We can look in a microscope at a blood sample and see the snake-like virus. And, perhaps by some time next year there may even be an effective vaccine. Science has made tremendous advances.
The Scientific Method
The vast majority of people have enough sense, these days, to appreciate and admire the scientific method. It is fact-based; evidence-based. Long gone are the days of theories like “spontaneous generation” – they used to believe that old rags and dark rooms spontaneously generated rats. We know better now. Only politics does that.
But the scientific world view had a struggle. In the days of Galileo, no matter what the telescope saw and no matter how the math worked out, powerful people still clung to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe.
Galileo’s observations confirmed the work of Copernicus who came before him. It is now hard to imagine what a dramatic change people had to make in their thinking to stop imagining that the earth at the center, and instead, was simply one planet among many orbiting the sun. Copernicus’ “heliocentric model” was nothing short of revolutionary.
The Protestant Copernican Revolution
This weekend we Protestants remember and celebrate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In two years it will be exactly 500 years since, as the story tells it, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the Wittenberg castle door, calling for a debate that set in motion what we might call a “Copernican revolution” – a radical change of views.
Like the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, Luther’s views were also resisted by powerful forces. Unlike Copernicus and Galileo, Luther and other reformers like John Calvin did not appeal to scientific evidence to support their views, but rather to scripture.
Ironically, the powerful forces who were resisting changing views also had scripture on their side.
Now, I think it is sophomoric and lazy to simply throw up your hands at this point, and say, “Well, there you go; people can make scripture say anything they want” – as if that means we cannot find anything reliable or useful in scripture, as many claim today.
At the same time, it is helpful to acknowledge that there have been times when people of insight have noticed that the path “the herd” has been following is going nowhere; that a change of direction is require; that a Copernican Revolution is necessary.
Rare people of insight have known that majorities can be wrong, regardless of how much power they have. Even a majority view on what the scriptures mean can be wrongheaded and therefore headed in the wrong direction.
“You don’t get it”
I do not know if Copernicus or Galileo ever said to their detractors: “you fellas just don’t get it,” but if they were doing their work today, they probably would. That phrase is a bit arrogant, but sums it up. When someone can stare the facts right in the face and not see the conclusion, there is something there that they are just not getting.
I am so glad Jesus never said “You all just don’t get it” but I imagine he felt like it many times. He actually did come close once. He was so frustrated with the religious leaders of his day who believed their religious duties gave them an excuse to ignore human need that he said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe [your spices], and but neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and trust. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matt 23:23-24)
You can almost hear him thinking “You just don’t get it.” Jesus did everything he could to help people “get it” about who God is and what God wants from us. He told stories – parables – comparing the kingdom of God to all kinds of situations in the hope that the light would come on for us and we would have an epiphany, an “ah-ha” moment, and finally “get it.”
The Literalness Proclivity
But people are funny. I guess we always have been. I think the biggest obstacle to “getting it” has been the same for centuries. We humans have an odd proclivity to over-literalize. It is like we have a compulsion to be natural-born fundamentalists. I believe this was true of the people Jesus was in conversation with, and just as true centuries later of the church that gave Galileo such a problem.
Psychologists tell us that as children, we think in concrete categories. If someone tells a 4 year old, “my love is a sweet, sweet rose,” the child thinks they are in love with a flower. It takes time and some maturity to get metaphor and smilies, to think abstractly and poetically.
So, when Galileo spoke about what he saw through his telescope and how it confirmed the theories of Copernicus, the response from the powerful church at time was that his view did not match the poetry of the bible about how the world God created is “firmly established and cannot be moved” (Psalm 104:5).
They clung to a childish literalism, as if poetry was ever supposed to be read that naively, in spite of Galileo’s data and of the scientific method. They just didn’t get it.
Jesus’ Struggle Against Literalism
And this is exactly what was going on in the gospel text we read. They ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment. Already you can see how stilted their perspective was – as if the main thing God is concerned about is commandments. But anyway, he plays their game and gives the answer they all recognize as correct. Jesus says,
“‘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.”
First, notice that Jesus did not stop with only the greatest command to love God, he immediately added the second command, also from Moses, to love neighbor.
Already we see that for Jesus, if you “get it” about loving God the way God wants to be loved, you will immediately turn to your neighbor in need and you become God’s hands, God’s voice, God’s ears, God’s arms of love in action.
But this has not been the conclusion they have been drawing at all. They think you love God by keeping your hands and arms from coming in contact with messy, needy, bleeding, hurting people.
The Conundrum QED
So, to show their mistaken approach to the whole bible, Jesus pulls out an odd little conundrum. It is from a bit of biblical poetry – which – as poetry, every school-aged child should know not to read literally.
It is from Psalm 110. The author of the Psalm is accepted as David. David was the one who God promised would be the father of a future king who would bring God’s kingdom in its fullness – in other words, David was the ancestral father of Messiah. Messiah would sit at God’s right hand and enjoy a worldwide reign of peace.
But in the Psalm, David calls Messiah, who comes after him, his “lord” or master. How can Messiah be both his master and his descendant – his “son”?
Well, if you take it literally, it makes not sense at all; you simply get dumfounded. And that is their reaction, and Matthew tells us that from then on, they did not dare to ask him any questions. They had painted themselves into a literalist’s corner and looked rather foolish.
They Should have Known Better
It is so odd to that they cornered themselves like that. They did not have to. They could have read their scriptures with more adult eyes and seen the facts staring them in the face.
Think about it: they already agreed that the most important commandment was to love the Lord their God, right? This is part of the daily Jewish creed, called the “shema”. Everyone knew it was the most important.
But right there, they should have noticed that the Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement command was therefore not the greatest commandment. And this is odd, because it is clear, according to the Law, that on the Day of Atonement they had to cease all work and perform the liturgy of forgiveness. The Day of Atonement was called in scripture a “a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements.” (Lev. 23) That is about as powerful and serious as it gets.
But nevertheless, they had all agreed that more important than the liturgy of forgiveness was the call to give full allegiance to God: to Love the Lord.
Prophets “got it”
The prophets long ago “got it.” Jesus’ insight was profound, but not original. Micah had asked, centuries earlier, “with what shall I come before the Lord?” He then lists all the things you bring to a sacrifice, like you do on the day of atonement.
But Micah had concluded that these sacrifices of oil or lambs is not the main point. That what God really wants is devotion – and, get this: devotion that results in active justice and compassion. He says,
Do we “get it”?
This is exactly what Jesus wants us to “get.” And this is why Jesus used the metaphor of God as loving heavenly father to best teach it. The Jesus revolution in understanding God and what God wants of us demanded an overturning of previously over-literal readings of scripture.
Jesus’ revolution was about the kingdom – but not a literal, political kingdom as Israel had always been. Jesus proclaimed Copernican revolution of understanding.
The “king” on the throne is a “son of David” – but the kingdom is not any more physical, and the citizens are not literally ethnically Jewish. The Kingdom is present wherever God is acknowledged as reigning, all over the world.
And their main problem is not that God is angrily waiting to punish them them, if they messed up the Day of Atonement liturgy, but longing to offer them forgiveness simply by grace alone, as the Reformers re-discovered.
This is what I long to really “get” at a deep level for myself, and what I long for all of us to “get.” That the old approach to God as the angry, punishment-threatening monarch in the sky is simply wrong. I long for us all to “get it” that the most important thing we can do is to love God with all our hearts, and to manifest that love by how we love our neighbors as ourselves.
There is a love circle going on here that never stops: God graciously loves us, so we love God who fills us with love for the people God made – “all the children of the world” as the children’s song goes. In other words, to “get it” is to become fully convinced, fully engaged beloved lovers.
Jesus ended his dialogue with a question; we are left with two:
Do I “get it”that God loves me, graciously, in other words, freely and completely?
And do I “get it” that loving him back means loving my neighbors – not in some literally restricted sense, but my metaphorical neighbors, next door and all around the world?