October 22, 2014

Thoughts on Matthew 22:34-46

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41Now 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.’ 43He 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’”? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Simeon the Just was among those left from the Great Congregation. He used to say: “The world stands on three things: on Torah and on worship and on acts of kindness.”-- Mishna, Aboth 1.2
 It happened again that a certain stranger came before Shammai and said to him: “I will become a proselyte providing you teach me the whole Torah while I'm standing on one foot.” Shammai knocked him down with the builder’s rule in his hand. The stranger came before Hillel, who made him a proselyte. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn it!”
-- Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a

I find the attempts to summarize the core of the faith are often helpful reminders of what to bear in mind (or at least the back of the mind) as being most essential in any given approach to the text. There are a number of such attempts: one could look to Proto-Isaiah’s kingship oracle (33:15-16) and find there a recipe for right behavior, or to the postexilic Isaiah (ch. 58) and his take on the difference between false and true worship. Amos 5:1-15, with its call to break bonds imposed by those who pervert justice, is compelling in its own way. And, of course, the famously durable sixth chapter of Micah, in which the prophet litigates the covenant between YHWH and his people: “[YHWH] has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (The fact that these are all in the form of prophetic utterance ought not be lost on us.)

Now we come to Jesus’ succinct summarization of the law as it is rendered by Matthew, and we find that it’s no seashells-and-balloons type moment. In fact, it’s within a coldly bitter context. It occurs at the end of Matthew’s fifth narrative block (chapters 21-27), where the question of Jesus’ authority is being hotly contested. Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, and scribes parry and thrust, post and riposte, around a substantial problem: By what authority does Jesus do these things, and who gave that authority to him? (21:23). (Or, in the words of an Old Testament professor extemporizing on the prophets in the courts of kings, “Oh yeah? Well, who the hell are you to tell us what to do?”) Of course, it’s going to get even worse after this: standing in the temple, Jesus will go on from here to heap curses and predictions of apocalyptic ruin upon all those who bear the mantle of the ruling religious elite: the scribes and Pharisees; poor, bosom-less Jerusalem; and finally the temple herself, a key symbol of correspondence with the divine. All that, as I say, yet to come.

If Jesus – here functioning as both teacher and prophet – seems quick to dig his heel into their graves, perhaps a word or two of what makes up the whole section. In this lection, Jesus is asked a question by a teacher of the law (a scribe of the Pharisees) and then poses a question to the gathered Pharisees. This is immediately after his having been asked two rather more pointed questions on the law, one by the Pharisees and one by the Sadducees. The business between Jesus and the Pharisees gets pretty nasty over the matter of paying taxes, and they’re completely stymied by him (22:22). Then the same thing happens with the Sadducees when it comes to the resurrection, and he shuts them down, too (22:33). Such conversations and questions are built around snares – setting rhetorical traps for Jesus to step into (22:16) – but his refusal to fall for it frames his teaching authority as being extraordinary in nature. (Surely that’s a not-too-subtle way of answering the question on the table about authority, is it not?)

It’s only my opinion, but Jesus’ summarization of the law is a way of telling these teachers of the law that they’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to be about; it’s an early form of condemnation for the much stronger coffee he’s got brewing for chapters 23 and 24, the apocalyptic fire sale where everything must go but the very center of the beating heart of the law. It must also, for Matthew, be a fundamental teaching device for telling the gathered community of the people of the Way how to treat one another and walk reverently before God (even though Matthew, clearly, has borrowed it from Mark/Q).

So anyhow, Jesus summarizes the law in the presence of the Pharisees and then, doubling back on them, he returns to the question of authority, only in a different way. “What do you think of the Messiah?” Their answer is not wrong, but neither is it connected to the conversation they’ve just had with respect to either Jesus or messiahship, so he reframes it by citing Psalm 110:1 – the pre-exilic oracle of the royal psalm, which maintains that the Lord grants earthly power and authority to the ruling and priestly office of the king. That this was said by David in the Spirit.

In other words, that he may well be David’s son (Matthew’s genealogy takes such cartoonish pains to point that out), but that his authority is the very authority set over David to begin with. David is a type of a messiah, the adopted Son of God, the oily-headed righteous ruler of Psalm 89. What sets all that in motion, however, is the greater power – the selfsame prerogative out of which Jesus tries to teach these petty elite. David’s enemies only became his virtual ottoman in an act of deference to the One ruler who, in scripture, ideally uses the power of an undivided government as a great light to which the nations are meant to stream. And that light, in practice, is supposed to look like the prophets’ summation of the law: the summation upon which everything else hangs, and in the light of which everything else appears as minor detail.

So here’s Jesus, before the Pharisees with these words still ringing in the air about who he is, and with all their rhetorical crowns already gathered at his feet. You’d only have to go a little way from here to connect the dots, but even in the best of circumstances you can’t make a horse drink no matter how well led. Thank God for the element of choice, but if these ruling religious elites won’t recognize his authority – especially after what has just happened – then there’s really nothing left to say.

Worse yet, I’d bet a month’s salary many of them do understand well enough but are incapable of properly acting on this new knowledge. They’re impotent, calcified; they’ve become inured to the power of the truth by virtue of their enviable social positions. I can see the disciples kicking around the edges of this transaction, deeply mistrusting of the crowd but also kind of jealous. Peter’s comment from John 6 reverberates – We can’t go with anyone else but you, Jesus – but when you look hard enough, you can just sense their very human envy.

In any case, Jesus will now proceed with his sharpest attacks against them, and they will retreat and gather support to get rid of him.

That’s a bummer, all right. And, it may not be the “good news” part of this gospel lection. But even in this parting of the ways, drawn so clearly between Jesus and the religious authorities around him, there is given both a summation of the law and a still-further setting-of-the-face toward what is to come. To exercise the prophetic utterance, to become vulnerable to the long knives of the ruling elite, is, for Jesus, a way of embracing the cross before him.

October 19, 2014


Sermon for Year A, Proper 24
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 19, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Jesus tells those gathered to give to God those things that are God’s,
 And to give to the Emporer those things that are the Emporer’s.
Another way to say it is that everything is God’s anyway,
 And by comparison the coin of the realm is for all intents and purposes nothing.
“Love God with everything you have, and Caesar can have his face back.”

That probably sounds good from a pulpit, but think about how it preaches out in the world.
“Show me the coin,” Jesus says. It’s like “Show me the money!”
 Except it comes from a completely different set of intentions,
 And it produces a completely different set of results.

When Cuba Gooding Junior’s character says “Show me the money!” in Jerry Maguire,
 He’s saying that if you pay him well, then and only then will he be a star for you.
Give up the coin, he dances.
When Jesus asks to Show him the coin, and then he casually hands it back, he means to say
 That any one little thing you can point to is pretty insignificant next to, say, everything else.

He looks at the coin. Whose image is on it? Caesar’s.
It is a small thing. Caesar was terribly important to the time,
 But in the larger scheme all he ever was, was just one little person.
A miniscule image on a tiny coin.
In the context of the size of the entire created order, to borrow from Neil deGrasse Tyson,
 Caesar’s head on a coin is a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck.
A picture on a coin in the hand of one person ... standing on the crust of the whole round earth ...
 Which is itself a lonely thing in a solar system out on the edge of a massive galaxy ...
   That is separated by immeasurable cold vaccuous space from 100 billion other galaxies
     That themselves make up only just a tiny fraction of the total universe ...
     Which, we’re learning, in all likelihood is not even the only universe there is ...
     But may be perhaps one out of -- what? billions, maybe.

With just a few carefully chosen words, Jesus puts the Emporer in his place.
He’s nothing special, and neither is his picture.

So that’s the first point. Everything is God’s.
Go ahead and Render unto Caesar; that’s nothing;
 Because God is everything, the all-in-all.

That’s point one. Here’s point two.

Nothing as we know it could possibly exist without energy;
 Nothing would hold together;
 Certainly we and everything we know would cease to be.
Everywhere that is anywhere, energy is being held and expended and created and recycled.
Our bodies; this building; these words I speak, and you taking them in.

Every little expenditure of energy is a vote for something.
The heart in your chest votes its energy to keep the blood pumping.
The liver that’s below it votes for regulating the composition of blood and processing nutrients.
The brain up top votes its energy to a whole host of tasks,
 Including a lot of the things that make humans human.
So there is involuntary energy-voting, and then there is voluntary energy-voting.
When you’re looking at a cookbook and doing menu planning,
 You vote for Salisbury Steak instead of Chicken Kiev,
 And your energy goes that way.
Actually, we voluntarily vote with our energy all day long:
 Standing instead of sitting; Pepsi One instead of Coke Zero; Target rather than Walmart;
   Exercise instead of cookies (!), cookies instead of exercise (!);
   Cruelty-free makeup instead of whatever was on sale;
   A pet hamster instead of a pet gerbil. See? This, not that.
You’re voting where your energy’s going to go. And there it goes. Sure as it comes back.
Not to put too much pressure on us,
 But with every decision we make, every time we vote about how to expend our energy --
   No matter how seemingly insignificant those decisions  --
   We also make moral and ethical statements about our priorities.
Sometimes the smallest decisions have the greatest impact.

In the end, nothing less than our whole lives end up
 As the demonstrated accumulation of a lifetime of votes
 About where we wish to place our energy.

Now, you heard a lot of talk in the Gospel reading about money.
Money is also a form of energy, a unit of energy.

It’s a very symbolic form of your energy, in a neat little package.
And just as we vote our energy into this cause or that cause,
 We dollar-vote as well.
I’ve already mentioned a few instances. Here are a few more.

You may choose to vote all your dollars, expend all your energy,
 On a car that’s beautiful and loaded with features;
 But if you don’t save a little money back for insurance and gas,
   As a car -- well, I guess you can admire it while it sits in the garage.

You might vote your dollars and energy into an all-caramel diet.
Why not? Might be fun. It’s that time of year. It could happen, right?
How long could you keep up that charade?
Probably until your family doctor looks at your chart and says,
 “Hey, buddy, it’s me or the caramels.”

You may choose to invest all your dollars and energy
 Into making yourself the most beautiful or handsome person in the world.
A real swan, or a real hunk.
Of course there’s an industry already hard at work for this
 That would gladly take every last cent.
And you could get temporary results and temporary satisfaction.
But it wouldn’t last forever, would it, and we all know it.

Dollar-voting, energy-voting: Not only must it honor the fact that everything belongs to God;
 It must also strive to be sustainable, create balance, and maintain health.

Now, let me bring this home.

Praying over this for the past month or so, I have had this question beginning to form up.
I bring it forth now for wider consideration.

When a body expends more energy than it takes in,
 There’s usually some small moment of crisis that puts that body in front of a doctor,
 And the doctor runs down the list of what-all can give that body the energy it needs:
   Are you eating right? exercising? meditating? getting enough sleep? etc.
In other words, Are you doing all the things that give you life?

Many members of St. Thomas are generous to a fault with their energy-voting and dollar-voting.
We have a number of very good ways to help take care of people, usually perfect strangers,
 Mostly involving feeding them.
“We feed people,” I have liked to say,
 Realizing there are a hundred ways you can do that,
   And that we’re probably good at 99 of them.
This is commendable to a point.

What happens in a body when all the energy is moving in an outward direction --
 In 99 outward directions? And there isn’t enough happening to properly power that energy?
It gets run down; it gets tired and cranky;
 If it fails to heed the warnings of its doctor,
 Eventually it gets so tired and cranky that it powers down.
I’m wondering if our church, like many churches,
 Isn’t suffering a bit from the chronic tiresome chaos of doing too much
 And not taking enough sustenance in to counterbalance the exchange of energy.

I would like for us to somehow begin to talk about this --
 To have holy conversations and to seek out the many right answers that exist
   As together we continue to explore the question
   Of whom God has given us to serve,
     And what great service looks like.

We are very good at serving the world;
 But are we looking after ourselves and each other?
Notice, please -- Not, Are we navel-gazing enough? Are we pulling in and ignoring the world?
 But --
 Are we taking in the things that bring us spiritual sustenance each day?
 Are we being built up as disciples of Jesus Christ?
 Are we fed so that we can be fearless,
   As he was fearless
   When he looked at that coin and told the Emporer to take a flying leap?

Is there enough good energy coming in to keep powering all that amazing ministry?
Is the Body of Christ at St. Thomas sustained, balanced, and healthy?
It’s a question worth exploring.
The answers we find together in our conversation
 Should bring us to a clearer path of action and more effective work in the world.

I want to maximize every dollar and every ounce of energy that is voted to St. Thomas.
I want to see us energized by renewable resources that don’t run dry.

In the end, I want to see each of us and St. Thomas together
 Working and living and praying and loving
 As part of that cosmic reality:
   Everything belongs to God already, and we are simply doing our part.
Enough energy going out; enough energy coming in; balanced, healthy, sustainable.
Jesus reminds us, when he hands that coin back,
 That that’s how it is;

 And he invites us to live our lives as a reflection of that truth.