So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2.8)
Turnarounds and Transitions
Standing amid Sunday’s selected texts, one feels like Dorothy Gale soon after landing in Oz. People come and go so quickly here! Obviously or obliquely, the readings describe turnarounds and transitions. Deuteronomy 34.1-12 records the death of Moses and Joshua’s succession as Israel’s leader. Psalm 90 ponders the passage of time, both on Creation’s grand scale and the human scale of daily life. In 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Paul fondly recalls his recent visit with the church, while also responding to reports his teaching has come under fire there. He makes two things very clear: he’s a trustworthy Apostle and the Thessalonians are very precious to him.
Yet Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.34-46) unequivocally overshadows the companion texts, for in it Jesus fuses two Mosaic edicts—love God with all your heart, mind, and soul (Deuteronomy 6.5), and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18)—into the Great Commandment, on which, He says, “hang all the law and prophets.” (v39) As Christians, we revere this text as our spiritual and ethical mother lode. Virtually every choice we make in relationship to God and one another traces back to it. For the Pharisees, who actually hear Jesus issue His commandment, it’s a stunning turnaround, however. Perhaps facetiously—or perhaps not—one of them asks Jesus to identify which law He considers the greatest of all. The only acceptable answer in Pharisaical terms would be, “None is greater than the rest. They all must be obeyed to the letter.” The expected reply sets Jesus up, though, because He has a long history of setting aside religious mandates that impede His determination to care for anyone in need. Meanwhile, singling out one above the rest constitutes heresy. Jesus ingeniously neutralizes the question by citing two laws and vesting them jointly with final authority as Judaism’s preeminent principle.
In essence, the Pharisees get a legally correct answer. But Jesus packages it in revolutionary language that tells the Pharisees they’ve got it backwards. He asserts God’s edicts are given to engender love, not fear—commitment, not conformity. The sheer thought shocks the Pharisees speechless. They can’t wrap their heads around Jesus’s answer, let alone how it works. (Being religious practitioners, as opposed to practicing divine principles, what and how are all that matters to them. Why holds little to no interest.) While they balk at His turnaround, Jesus indicates the entirety of their belief is in transition. He foresees what they can’t possibly perceive: soon-coming events will reestablish God’s law on God’s terms—forever rescinding legalistic inequities and exclusion by redefining the prophetic import of God’s covenant to include all of humankind.
Chasing a Fantasy
Much like we accept the Great Commandment without objection, Jesus puts a question to the Pharisees that sounds benignly academic to us—no more than a standard-issue Socratic supposition to spark learned debate. Not so. His question rattles the Pharisees so thoroughly verse 46 says, “No one was able to give Him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask Him any more questions.” Jesus asks, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (v42) The premise is fraught with cognitive and emotional complexity for the Pharisees. Their answer, saying the Messiah is the “son of David,” upholds Israel’s core belief in itself as God’s Chosen People and its sustaining hope for a Deliverer to end its perpetual cycle of pagan oppression. As a Jew steeped in Messianic prophecy, Jesus surely holds sacred the inner strength and longing their answer conveys. Nonetheless, He refutes its validity by quoting Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord” instead of “my son.”
A great deal more than solving a theological riddle is at stake here. If the Messiah is “the Lord”—i.e., God’s Son, hence Ruler of All Creation—Israel is chasing a fantasy. Its doggedly nationalistic, religiously egocentric bubble bursts. The Messiah destroys walls that divide beneficiaries of God’s grace and acceptance into “haves” and “have-nots.” Inequality and intolerance of any kind are taboo. A new covenant replacing God’s covenant with Israel launches global access to God’s love. Erasure of all differences between and among us changes everything. Previously admissible excuses for hatred, prejudice, and violence no longer exist. Every person one encounters must be embraced, treated, and loved as a neighbor no less worthy or acceptable than oneself. This is precisely what Jesus infers by posing His seemingly benign question—and why the Pharisees are shaken so terribly when they can’t answer. They don’t disengage Him from further discussions because He’s part of the lunatic fringe. He’s frightened them beyond reason. In just two steps, He’s totally dismantled their theology, politics, and history. He’s left them no mooring from which to fight Him off.
Let’s pause to contemplate how radically improbable what Jesus implicitly describes sounds to us, even though it supposedly drives our faith and cultural ideals. Merely scratching its surface would permanently disrupt our way of life. Modern tendency to focus on what and how would prove useless in a world revolving around why. Self-serving ideologies couldn’t survive the pressures of selfless love and commitment’s sacrosanct principles. Yet this overwhelming vision rests in the heart of Christ’s Gospel. It’s what makes our faith supremely powerful. It’s why love and commitment to God and our neighbors comprise the greatest, most disruptive force we’ll ever know. And it’s why we frighten people beyond reason and they disengage from further conversation with us. They have no answer when we question their claim to exclusive favor with God and superior social standing, because none exists.
This is a lot to absorb—too much, in fact. Thus, Jesus commands our commitment to love God without restraint and our neighbors as equals. He calls us away from all that we think we know to discover two preeminent truths: His Gospel is trustworthy and every life we touch is precious. “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us,” Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2.8. The Gospel that reestablishes God’s laws of love and redefines the prophetic import of God’s covenant reestablishes and redefines us. Its power defies human theology, politics, and history by ordering turnarounds and transitions on the grand scale of Creation. Its message and promises aren’t only ours for the taking. They’re ours for the sharing. So deeply do we care for those around us that we’re determined to share with them not only the Gospel, but also our own selves. In doing so, we barely scratch the surface. Yet it’s enough to disrupt the way of the world and witness Christ’s power and presence to a profoundly troubled, spiritually disengaged planet.
O Christ, we heed Your command to love God unequivocally and our neighbors unconditionally. Sharpen our will and wits to scratch the surface of what You’ve entrusted to us. Reestablish and redefine us as the supremely powerful, disruptive force You desire us to be. Amen.
The revolutionary power of Christ’s law of love and vision of a world that honors it entrusts us with the supremely potent, disruptive ability to reorder life as we know it.