St Paul’s, Carlinville—Matthew 22:34-46
While I was in seminary, about thirty years ago, I was first exposed to the concept of “family systems,” and it has loomed large in my mind ever since. One of the characteristics of a family system—and I could be talking about a domestic family, a school, an office, or a parish church community—one of the characteristics of a family system is that the behavior of its individual members is, if not determined, then, at least, affected by the mere position that one occupies within the system, as much as it is by one’s own unique personality or abilities or inclinations. When we occupy any particular niche within a system—whether it be parent, or youngest child, or teacher’s pet, or treasurer, or chief executive officer—the way we act is already scripted for us to a large extent, and we often accept the script and read our lines without very much conscious awareness of, let alone sense of control over, what we’re doing. Our freedom of action is limited by the position we occupy.
I’ve often noticed in my relationships with family and friends how even my mood is determined by the emotional “space” that happens to be available. If Brenda is bouncy and cheerful, then I may say to myself subconsciously, “Well, that spot’s taken; I guess my job is to be surly and difficult.” Or, those of you who’ve ever been the parents of snarly and ill-mannered children, have you ever noticed how sending one child—it doesn’t matter which one—sending one child to a friend’s house for the night or to camp for the week, can turn the other (or others) Into a model of tranquility and cooperation? Position does inhibit our sense of freedom to behave and respond in ways that are true to who we really are.
There’s a group called the Pharisees that usually gets a pretty bad rap in the New Testament, particularly in Matthew’s gospel. But I have a theory that much of the less than admirable behavior of the Pharisees was scripted for them by the position that they occupied within the establishment of Judaism. Once in a while, someone like Nicodemus would manage to differentiate himself from the group and interact with Jesus in an authentically personal way, but, by and large, the Pharisees were “stuck” in a negative pattern of response to him.
Last week they tried to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma with their question about paying taxes to Caesar. But Jesus slipped off the hook with his one-liner about rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. This week, they’re at it again, and they entrust their last and best shot, appropriately enough, to a lawyer. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” That is, which of all the 613 distinct commandments recorded in the law of Moses stands out above all the others?
If there was ever a “trick question”, a question designed to put someone to the test in an unfair way, this was surely one. Whatever answer Jesus gives, somebody is bound to think otherwise, and, if the Pharisee’s have any luck at all, Jesus’ credibility and popularity will begin to erode. You’ve heard the phrase, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” This was a stupid question, and it did not deserve anything other than a cynical answer.
You and I, I’m afraid, have this much in common with the Pharisees: We ask “trick questions” of God, questions designed to put him to the test and prove his worthiness to hold down the job. “Lord, is it that you just don’t love country music fans enough to protect them from getting shot at by a crazy man with a machine gun?” Or, “Just what did the citizens of Aleppo do to deserve becoming the punching bag of both sides in a civil war?” Or, “Why does something that happened in my childhood have to still make me miserable today?” Or, “How can you just sit by idly and let someone I’ve loved and trusted throw that love and trust into the trash?” Or . . . insert your own “putting God to the test” question in this space.
Jesus, however, chose this encounter with the Pharisees to demonstrate his compassion, and responded in a spirit of sincerity and depth far removed from the spirit in which the question was asked. He combined two commandments—love God, and love your neighbor—and suggested that the 611 remaining commandments make sense and find meaning only in the light of these two. Divine compassion, it appears, is capable of giving a straight answer even to a cynical and hostile question.
One of my favorite books on Christian spirituality is a little whimsical collection of short dialogues, as the back cover puts it, “between a man and his God.” It’s called Why Me, Lord? One of them begins, “Lord, where were you when all those Christians were being slaughtered in Africa?” You would agree, I’m sure, that this qualifies as a less than completely friendly question. It doesn’t necessarily deserve a straight answer. But the Lord gives an answer that is both compassionate, and an invitation to deeper understanding.
“Lord, where were you when all those Christians were being slaughtered in Africa?”
“They trusted in you, Lord. Why didn’t you save them?”
“I did. And many others through them.”
There’s more to it, but I want to read a few lines from the one across the page.
“Lord, why am I so weak?”
“Because I love you.”
“It seems a strange way to show your love. But I know I’ll never understand you. Could you tell me a bit more?”
“I want to care for you as a mother and father care for an infant. I want you to love me with the trust of an infant. To choose me. I want to fill your self-seeking with my self-giving even to the last drop of blood. I want to fill your darkness with my light, your restlessness with my peace, your fidgeting with my stillness, your gloom with my joy, your weakness with my strength … shall I go on?”
After God answers our questions, even our “trick” questions, he subtly turns the tables, and becomes the interrogator. Now he asks the questions, probing and shedding light on our fears, our prejudices, and our misconceptions.
When Jesus answered the Pharisees’ cynical question, and there was no response, he had one of his own. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” The “correct” answer, of course, was “David’s”, because all the Hebrew prophets had said that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, the archetypal king of Israel. But this is where Jesus snags them, because he proceeds to quote from Psalm 110, which everyone there would have presumed was written by David, and which says, in part, “The Lord…” [meaning Yahweh, God] … God “said to my Lord…” [referring to the Messiah] … “sit at my right hand.” Well, everyone knows, a father is always greater than his son, so if the Messiah is a “son” of David, how is it that David calls him “Lord”, and how is that he and not David is invited to sit at the right hand of God?
Now, Jesus was not just trying to mess with their minds, although he was undoubtedly doing that, he was trying to challenge their assumptions about how the Messiah was likely to act when he came, and to open their eyes to his own claim to indeed be that Messiah. The Pharisees thought they had the Messiah thing all figured out, but they didn’t. You and I sometimes act—I won’t say we think this, because we’d be fools if we did—we act as if we have the God thing all figured out.
But we don’t.
God is not something, which we can package into an equation or a formula, but someone, someone with whom we have a relationship. Relationships are dynamic; they’re ever-shifting, ever-growing. In relationships, we both know, and are known.
And the more secure we are in this mutual knowledge, mutual self-disclosure, the more freely and authentically we behave in our relationships. It’s when we lack a sense of being truly known by those with whom we are or want to be in relationship that we rely on our position to determine our behavior, to script our behavior. When we are confident that we know as we are known, and are known as we know, then we are liberated to act consistently with our true selves, and not according to the script that came with our position.
Jesus’s question about “Whose son is the Messiah?”, then, is not merely a demonstration of debating technique, although it is that! It’s an attempt on Jesus’ part to liberate the Pharisees from their script, to free them from having to act only according to their position. We don’t know how any of them who heard Jesus’ question that day eventually responded. Matthew doesn’t tell us. We only know that none of them dared to ask Jesus any more questions! But, however they responded, at least their response was a free one, because, in the course of their dialogue, Jesus had made himself transparent to their knowledge of him, and had shown in his penetrating question that he knew them as well. Their response to him was based on knowing and being known.
I want to close with one more dialogue from Why Me, Lord.
“Lord, I don’t think I like you very much today.”
“I thought the air was rather chilly. What’s the problem?”
“I’m fed up. In other words, I’m sick, sick, sick and I’m tired, tired, tired.”
“Of trying to do all the dreary things that you seems to be wanting me to do and getting no thanks for it from anybody.”
“Yes, I’m heavy-hearted and hoarse from calling out to you and hearing only my echo. It’s as if you were one million light years away from me.”
“And do you believe I’m so far away from you?”
“In my head I know you’re in my heard. But it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”
“Believe me, it does. You don’t usually notice your own heartbeat. But it makes a difference to you, doesn’t it?”
“True, but what I’m trying to say is there’s no fun in being a Christian anymore.”
“May I remind you that fun, through precious, is not an accurate measure of your spiritual growth? Do I need to bring to your memory the time that you were so full of joy that you became self-sufficient and nearly slipped away?”
“Do you have to, Lord? I remember only too well. That was the time I was singing, ‘Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing’ and the devil came to me and said, ‘May I have the next quickstep?’”
“And he nearly got it, too!”
“Thanks for getting me out of that one, Lord.”
“My pleasure. But I just wanted to remind you that elation can lead to over-confidence. I don’t want you to ever be downhearted, but at least you know your need for me at such times. I want to help you, for I know what it is to bear the burden. Didn’t I feel so weary I could weep? Was I a spectator on Calvary?”
“Lord, you are the King who washes your servants’ feet. I’m sorry about my ingratitude. I really do like you.”
“Even love me?
“Lord, you know all things. You know I love you.”
Thank-you, Lord, that we can know you, and that you know us. Amen.