Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Great Contradiction

The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23.11-12)

Between Us

Last week’s Gospel looked at The Great Commandment: Love God entirely and neighbors unconditionally. This week’s passage illuminates what we might call “The Great Contradiction.” It launches a three-chapter sermon that, in many ways, serves as the bookend for the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus delivers at the outset of His mission. What starts out as high-flown ideals in the first lesson looks a bit battered and sounds a whole lot grittier this time around. After three-and-a-half years of itinerant ministry, Jesus and the disciples may be a little worse for wear. Yet experience has definitely made them wiser and bolder.

Matthew presents Jesus in full-blown Messianic mode this time. Shades remain of the Philosopher Prince, Whose gentle voice inspired the masses with divine imperatives. Yet, without question, the Preacher in chapters 23-25 stands His ground as authoritative King and Prophet. If we were to imagine both sermons as movie sequences, the Sermon on the Mount would be shot in long, fluid takes underscored by swelling strings and French horns to amplify the virtues Jesus extols. This sermon, however, would be rendered in tight close-ups, reaction shots, and jarring jump cuts set to staccato brass flares, dissonant winds, and agitated percussion. We’d also note differences in Jesus’s audience. Pharisees and other religious types spotted in the first sequence don’t appear in the second. (Jesus sent them packing after He issued The Great Commandment and blew the doors off their myth that Messiah belonged exclusively to them.) The sick and troubled are also reduced. Jesus hasn’t done much in the way of healing and miracles lately. He’s focused on putting things in order, calling out wrongs where He finds them and prepping His followers to carry on when He’s gone. The absence of adversaries and needy folks who’ve come for His touch, not His words, frees Jesus to speak His mind. A detectable “between us” element in this sermon—which we don’t find in the Sermon on the Mount—charges every statement with inescapable urgency.

Enemies Make Everything Happen

This is the last sermon Jesus preaches, and ironies abound. The opposition’s disappearance by no means indicates it’s moved on. He’s very much top of mind for them, just as they’re top of mind for Him. While He spews a volcano of rage against them—climaxed by wrathful predictions of their destruction—they’re putting final touches on their conspiracy to crush Him and His movement. Thus, in a sense, Jesus is talking in the wind, since His listeners aren’t guilty of the evils He rails against. (We’ll get to them momentarily.) But, in every sense, His adversaries are spitting in the wind. Like previous schemes to unmask Him as a charlatan and heretic, their plot will backfire, this time on a scale they can’t possibly imagine. Their hatred and intolerance become levers God uses to exalt Jesus as the definitive example of love and forgiveness for all time.

In the process, Jesus’s foes set the stage for His demonstration of The Great Contradiction that prefaces His diatribe against their hypocrisy, spiritual laziness, and moral mediocrity. Three days from now, as His followers watch Jesus being lifted on a cross—unjustly accused and tortured as though He were the scum of the earth—these words will echo in their ears: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23.11-12)

Jesus’s enemies make everything happen. By the time Matthew pens his Gospel (circa 70-80 CE, in the wake of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple), Jesus is widely proclaimed and worshiped as The Christ—God’s Anointed, the Promised Redeemer of humankind. The Great Contradiction is fervently taught and practiced as Christianity’s modus operandi. Prominent Pharisees like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Saul of Tarsus—along with thousands of rank-and-file members of the religious majority—have broken with tradition to follow Christ. Virtually every woe and prophecy Jesus declares in His final sermon is validated. At best, His adversaries are an afterthought. Their Roman allies will join other Jewish and pagan defectors; 200 years after Matthew writes his Gospel, Christianity will stand as the Roman Empire’s sanctioned faith. While many factors help bring this about, the Early Church arrives at its position for one reason. Ancient Christians—most never possessing and the rest surrendering any pretense to power and position—intuitively grasp The Great Contradiction’s core principle. In kneeling, we rise. In serving, we command. At our least, we are greatest.

Revolutionary Changes in Us

The Great Contradiction was never intended as a subversive, countercultural strategy. And it’s ludicrous to suggest otherwise, as nothing in apostolic or historical texts supports such an idea. Early Christians embrace the principle simply because Jesus told them to and showed them how to do it. No loss is ever too great—not even life itself—since greatness can only be found in loss. Paul’s sentiment in Ephesians 3.8 expresses their prevailing attitude: “I have suffered the loss of all things,” he writes, “and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” The Great Contradiction changes them, and submitting to its demands permits them to change the world.

Thus, The Great Contradiction presents us with two equally important questions: Am I willing to lower myself so that Christ’s greatness may arise from my losses? And, do pure motives drive my methods? The faintest hint of “what’s in it for me” negates the entire principle. Lowering ourselves to get the upper hand will never work. True sacrifice asks no reward. Real forgiveness wants nothing in return. Genuine humility seeks not to achieve greatness; it strains to allow greatness to come forth. Of course it makes no sense. It’s a contradiction.

Jesus introduces His principle by citing its Pharisaical opposite. “Don’t be like them,” He says. “They put on a terrific show, but their behavior is too transparent to hide their actual motives.” To embrace The Great Contradiction is to invite revolutionary changes in us. If we genuinely humble ourselves, allowing those changes to take root in our hearts and minds, the greatness they bring forth can, and ultimately will, change the world.

We have heard Your words, O Christ, and grasp their contradictory truth. We kneel to rise. We surrender to be saved. We count all we have as loss so that Your greatness may come forth in us. Now we pray Your strength to steel our resolve long after The Great Contradiction’s romance dissipates and daily life tests our commitment to follow Your teaching and example. Amen.

Of course, The Great Contradiction makes no sense. Yet Jesus’s accomplishment on the cross and what the Early Church achieved by following His example prove its power to change us is what ultimately permits us to change the world.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ours for the Sharing

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.

Disruptive Force

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.