How’s it going? Did you catch yesterday’s game? How do you feel about the outcome? What’d you just read on Facebook?
So. Let’s take a minute and analyze the sermon thus far. I’ve just asked four questions. The first was a simple ice breaker. I am interested in how things are going for you, but I’m not expecting you actually to respond to the question. The second and third questions sound innocent, but if you know me, you know precisely to which game I refer AND you know that as an avid Gator fan, there’s only one acceptable response to the question. J Then there’s the fourth question, which sounds like a question, but is really a statement, right? By asking what you just read on Facebook at the beginning of the sermon, I’m really saying: Put down your phone and listen!
People say all kinds of things with the questions they ask, don’t they? Some questions are honest; they’re asked to obtain information or to deepen understanding. Other questions are, oh, let’s call them strategic. Strategic questions are asked to make a point, or to put someone on the spot… or to manipulate poll numbers. Have you watched the political debates?
As soon as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the High Holy days, the religious authorities begin pelting him with questions. Admittedly, Jesus invites some questioning when he upends the tables of the money changers in the Temple and yells: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. But you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
The chief priests and religious scholars didn’t question Jesus then, but Mark tells us that when they heard about what Jesus had done, they “began looking for a way to destroy him.” Mark also says “they were fearful because the whole crowd was under the spell of his teaching.”
Now because the crowd was “under the spell of Jesus’ teaching,” the religious authorities couldn’t confront Jesus outright. They had to be sneaky about it. So they pulled out the rabbi’s biggest asset: a question. “On what authority are you doing these things?”
Like “What did you just read on Facebook?” this question isn’t actually a question, but a statement offered in the form of a question. They aren’t so much asking who gave Jesus authority as declaring: We have NOT given you authority! How does Jesus respond? With a strategic question of his own. “Tell me, was John’s baptism of divine origin, or merely human?”
From the moment he asks the question, the religious leaders know they’ve been had. “If we say ‘divine’ he will ask, ‘Then why did you not put faith in it?’ But can we say ‘merely human’?” You see, they had reason to fear the people, who regarded John as a true prophet. So their answer to Jesus was, ‘We do not know.’” In turn, Jesus said to them, “Then neither will I tell you on what authority I do the things I do.”
This is the opening gambit in a public struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders. The first point goes to Jesus. The second point, too, when he tells a parable that leaves the religious leaders destroyed or cast into outer darkness, or banned from Facebook or something. Mark tells us that “at these words they wanted to arrest Jesus, but they had reason to fear the crowd. They knew well enough that the parable was directed at them. Finally they went away.”
Since the first team struck out, the authorities send in the second team. “Some Pharisees, another group of religious leaders, and Herodians, Jewish leaders who answered to the Roman government, were sent after Jesus to catch him in his speech. The two groups approached Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, we know you are truthful and unconcerned about the opinion of others (mostly ours). It is evident you aren’t swayed by another’s rank (especially ours), but teach God’s way of life sincerely (ish). So: is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?”
Another manipulative question. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay taxes,” it would get him in hot water with the Roman authorities. If he said, “Do pay taxes,” it would diminish him in the eyes of the people, who were unduly oppressed by taxation. How did Jesus respond?
“Knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you trying to trick me? Let me see a coin.” When they handed him one, he said: “Whose image and inscription do you see here?”
“Caesar’s,” they answered. Jesus said, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This reply took them completely by surprise.”
Third point—again goes to Jesus. Thus far, the chief priests, religious scholars, elders, Pharisees, and Herodians have struck out with Jesus. They all came bearing manipulative questions trying to put Jesus in his place, and every time, he turns their questions back on them.
Enter the Saducees. Mark lets us know from the get-go that the Saducees’ question is insincere. They ask Jesus a technical question about the resurrection when they don’t even believe in resurrection. “Teacher,”—the insincerity begins with the first word!—“Teacher, Moses wrote that if anyone dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must marry the wife and produce offspring. So let’s say there were seven brothers. The eldest married a woman and died leaving no children. The second married her, and he too died childless. The same happened to the third; in fact, none of the seven left any children behind. Last of all, the woman also died. At the resurrection (which they don’t even believe in), when they all come back to life, whose wife will she be? All seven married her.”
Again, Jesus wins the point when he questions the question. “God is the God of the living, not of the dead. You are very much mistaken.”
From the minute Jesus enters Jerusalem, he’s hounded by questions from every religious authority imaginable–the priests, scholars, and elders, the Pharisees, Herodians, and Saducees. And in every encounter, with every question, Jesus turns the manipulations back on the manipulators. I’m not going to play your games, Jesus says. I’m not going to pretend that you understand the working of God in the world because you just don’t get it.
Now we come to today’s focal text. We meet a religious scholar who’s been following Jesus around, observing all the interchanges between Jesus and the other religious leaders. In his estimation, Jesus has answered well. So this man asks Jesus a question of his own: “Which is the greatest commandment?”
To this point, when responding to the questions of the religious leaders, Jesus gives each a dose of their own medicine—he answers their manipulative questions with equally manipulative questions of his own, he calls them on their hypocrisy, he tells them flat out they just don’t get it.
This time, Jesus offers no commentary. The question is direct; Jesus’ response is direct. “This is the greatest: ‘Hear, O Israel: God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You must love your neighbor as yourself–this is far more important than any burnt offering or sacrifice.’”
The scholar says to Jesus, “Well spoken, Teacher! What you have said is true: The Most High is one and there is no other. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself–this is far more important than any burnt offering or sacrifice.”
“Jesus, seeing how wisely this scholar had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kindom of God.” And after that no one dared to question Jesus anymore.”
This question goes to the heart of what faith is all about. It’s not about what earthly body gives you authority or whether or not to pay taxes or how you work out the minutiae of religious laws. It’s about loving God and loving neighbor and loving ourselves. Maybe no one dared question Jesus anymore because this interchange showed the people that he saw through any hypocrisy. This last teacher’s question invited Jesus to sum up all religious truth. And he did it so succinctly, so clearly, that the people knew that any question that didn’t lead to the truth he spoke would be inauthentic, manipulative, wrong.
Love God. Love your neighbor. So, how are we doing? How is Christianity in general doing? We talked about this a few weeks ago in Sunday School. In that conversation, one person wisely said, “You know, if the Christian church just focused on those two things, we wouldn’t get the grief we get now.” Indeed.
Today is All Saints Sunday, the day when we celebrate those people in our lives and throughout history who have pointed us to the truth of the Gospel–loving God and loving neighbor.
In a minute, we’ll have a time of remembrance to honor our own personal saints. For now, let’s focus on those people who over the centuries taught the Christian church how to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
I invite you to be creative in your responses. Last night on Facebook, I posted a couple things from St. Gregory Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The walls of St. Gregory’s sanctuary are adorned with brightly-colored Dancing Saint ikons. While choosing to have all the saints joined together in dance already pushes the envelope, some of the “saints” they’ve selected obliterates it all together. In addition to Teresa of Avila, St. Francis, and, of course, Gregory of Nyssa, other “saints” include: Sojourner Truth, John Coltrane, Anne Frank, Charles Darwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Desmond Tutu, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martha Graham, Gandhi.
In the spirit of the Dancing Saints, who would you say has taught the Christian church how to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves?
May we live up to all these wise, faithful people have taught us.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
The First Commandment
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.