Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Two Commandments…I can do that! Mathew 22:34-46

There was an entertainer in the ‘80’s in Detroit that I truly enjoyed.  She had this song that went I’m so happy I could blank…The car blew up.  The dog ran away the bills are piling up and there’s just no way to pay but I’m so happy….

As I reflect on today’s Gospel I first cannot help but think upon what it is in response too.  The Sadducees have just tried to trip Jesus up on the law asking about marriage in heaven and the resurrection. (Mathew 22: 23-33)  So The Pharisees figured they would have their turn, remember they are seeking an excuse to have Jesus shut down.
So the Pharisees have a lawyer ask him a question on the greatest of the law.  When we think of lawyers they may have a better profile then they had in the past, or not.  We often think of TV lawyers such as Perry Mason, or maybe even the current Annalise Keating in how to get away with murder.  Or perhaps with current events our thoughts go to Ted Olsen and Davis Boies our Marriage equality super lawyers.
Here the term lawyer has a specific context.  This Pharisee who is also a lawyer is only a lawyer for Jewish and temple law.  His concern is not about Roman law nor is he concerned with anyone who is not of the Jewish faith. “Pharisees claimed Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish Laws, while Sadducees represented the authority of the priestly privileges.”[1] Forgive my Wikipedia reference, but it is true the Sadducees represented the rich and the elite or the politically influential.  Whereas the Pharisees represent the common people.  The reason I point this out is so you can see the two groups who are often in opposition to each other are working towards the same goal…eliminate Jesus and his movement!
Now when the Pharisee asks “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He is really hoping to trip Jesus up in a big way for you see in modern times when we think of the law we think of the Ten Commandments but when a Pharisee reflects upon the law he is looking at Probably 613 commandments.[2]  These commandments come from Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Kings.  These commandments refer to the worship of Yahweh, The temple and the Priests, Sacrifices, Vows, Ritual Purity, Tithes and offerings in the sanctuary and about 20 other categories.
Dan Clendenin clarifies this even further he states;
The "holiness code" in Leviticus specifies in minute detail clean and unclean foods, purity rituals after childbirth or a menstrual cycle, regulations for skin infections and contaminated clothing or furniture, prohibitions against contact with a human corpse or dead animal, instructions about nocturnal emissions, laws regarding bodily discharges, guidelines about planting seeds and mating animals, keeping the Sabbath, forsaking idols, tattoos, and extensive decrees about sex. Leviticus 18 codifies about twenty types of (un)lawful sexual relations.

           Some of these ancient commands seem self-evident. We gladly follow them today and neglect them at our peril. Honor your parents. Take special care of the poor, the blind, the deaf, and the alien. Don't steal or lie. Don't have sex with your parent, your child, or an animal. Don't cheat your employee or your customers.
           But side by side with these timeless truths are other commands that are lost to a different time and place, and we feel no compunction in ignoring them today — don't mate different kinds of animals, plant your field with two kinds of seeds, cut the hair at the sides of your head, or wear garments made of two kinds of materials. Similarly, we rightly ignore some of the punishments for breaking these "laws," like the death penalty for cursing your parents or adultery.
Scholars debate how much or how little ordinary first-century Jews concerned themselves with maintaining "ritual purity" by obeying the holiness code in Leviticus, but the Pharisees about whom we read so much in the Gospels certainly did. And so in the Gospel for this week a Pharisee who is described as an "expert" in the law "tested Jesus with this question: 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?'" (Matthew 22:36).
Dan Clendenin Goes on to ponder;
           Maybe this was a trick question designed to trap Jesus. If he privileged a single commandment, didn't that mean he neglected others? How dare he imply that we can wink at some of God's laws! Or if he suggested that all the commandments were equally weighty, didn't that contradict common sense? Surely a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28) isn't as morally weighty as child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21)! Or maybe the expert was posing an honest inquiry: "Lord, so many commands! How should we understand them all? Are some more important than others?"
           Buried deep in that holiness code was one, single command, Leviticus 19:18, that Jesus said was more important than the 611 other commands. Jesus responded that the most important commandment is this: "'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength' [Deuteronomy 6:4]. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' [Leviticus 19:18]. There is no commandment greater than these." The questioner liked Jesus's answer and affirmed that these two commands were "more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."[3]

So here is Jesus, who they believe they will trip up because there are so many laws and yet Jesus answers promptly with Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love your God with all your Heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  Quick and easy answer…right???
How easy is it to love God with all your heart, soul and might? I am sure you have heard me say, and I said it often when I worked with hospice, it is okay to be angry with God.  It is also okay to struggle with what God has placed on your heart.  The problem is sometimes we allow the anger to consume us instead of allowing us to reach an understanding or forgiveness.  Sometimes we allow the struggle to become the thing, the reality, instead of allowing ourselves to learn and grow.
So Jesus is not only answering the question legally but I believe in his ministry of words and deeds he is challenging us through this scripture here and now. One of my favorite scenes in Jesus Christ superstar is the agony in the garden.  We have a Christ portrayed as very human asking …then shouting at God tell me why I must die! I have heard so many people say “God will not give you more than you can handle”  I am sorry to say it, but I must ask, with freedom of choice how much of our own suffering has God given us, or is it just the way the world works and God is with us through it all?
I tend to believe the latter.  In other words…I am not saying all that befalls us good or evil as it may be perceived is brought on by ourselves, yet I do not believe that God is a mighty puppeteer controlling all that does happen.  Therefore when we get angry with God because the car blew up and the Dog ran away etc. It’s okay to get angry with God…Heck I would even venture to say it is okay to get angry with God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.
 The trick is to move through that and come to the other side.  The trick is to know there are things we have no control over. And after we are angry, and after we have struggled, then we can turn and say I can’t do this!  I can’t get rid of this anger. I can make no sense of this!  God into your hands I place this.  God made us to be fully human and fully alive and part of that fullness is there are moments when we do not Love God or worse yet there are moments when we feel we are not loved by God.  In both of these the assurance and the understanding come through our faith and the lessons that Christ has taught us.
Speaking of lessons Christ has taught us brings me to the second part of today’s Gospel that I want to focus upon.  Jesus says the second greatest law is this “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Leviticus 19:18.  Yep taken right out of those 600 and some commandments.  Again Jesus is making it clear and easy how to follow God.  I’ll just love you as I love and care for myself.  You see, this is easy, easy because I love you all, and I know how to love and care for myself perfectly all the time.  The pastor stated very sarcastically!
Okay who here can honestly say they love themselves all the time.  How many times have I gotten up and looked in the mirror and said to myself I could have done better, I should be better, and God help me I am no better!  Can I say it again….we are Human… we are made human and being human we are flawed and we do not care for ourselves the way we should, therefore by deduction, I definitely do not always care for my neighbor the way I should.
Actually how should I care for my neighbor and who is my neighbor? Now there is a question often asked.  In Bread for the Journey Henri Nouwen reflects upon the Good Samaritan and states;
“Love your neighbor as yourself” the Gospel says (Matthew 22:38). But who is my neighbor? We often respond to that question by saying: “My neighbors are all the people I am living with on this earth, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.” But this is not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” he ends by asking: “Which, … do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” The neighbor, Jesus makes clear, is not the poor man laying on the side of the street, stripped, beaten, and half dead, but the Samaritan who crossed the road, “bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, … lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.” My neighbor is the one who crosses the road for me![4]

That is interesting…what do you think about that?  Actually let me break that down further for you.  Your neighbor is the one you believe hates you, despises you, has nothing in common with you, and someone you would never talk to; yet….they would cross the road to help you.  Your neighbor is the one you least suspect and out of those least suspects, your neighbor is the one who would cross the road to help you no matter who you are.  So how do you know who that is?  How do you know who your neighbor may be? Simple answer is you don’t. Therefore, since you don’t know who your neighbor might be…to be on the safe side…we must treat all as our neighbor.  We must become the man who no matter what will cross the road to bandage and care for the stranger because we must assume they would do that for us.  If we are willing to do that for someone who we don’t know and perhaps even fear how much more should we be willing to do that for each other?
The other side of that is being the good neighbor when the Samaritan does come along.  When someone offers help, a kind word, or a smile…how do we respond?  When the stranger, the one who challenges our well taught prejudices and fears offers a kind gesture do we respond with kindness or suspicion? To make it a little broader when we hear of pain or trouble on the other side of the world do we judge by categories or do we take to heart the pain and suffering of all involved and pray for peace and understanding?  When we here people speaking in fear and anger of marriage equality do we pray that their hearts may soften to the loving word of God or do we condemn them as bigots and hate mongers?
Jesus gave a clear and concise answers to today’s challenges right?  I say no! Jesus knew that these commandments though they may sum up all of God’s law are anything but clear and concise.  Every day we are challenged by what it means to love God with our whole heart, our whole soul and with all your might or mind depending on which translation you read.  We, as humans, do not know what is best for us, let alone how to love and care for ourselves. So how, in all of God’s names, are we to love our neighbor as ourselves?  Honestly? I wouldn’t want to be cared for by another if it depended upon how well I cared for myself.
So where do the answers to all these questions and challenges rest.  Where can I learn to care for myself in such a way that is pleasing to God?  In such a way that I wouldn’t terrorize a stranger? How do I become accepting and caring of the one I most fear? I can’t, not alone, I must engage in prayer.  I must develop spiritual practice, a daily seeking of a life closer to God.
Thomas Merton Said; “In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in Him and to do whatever He wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of His reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with.” - From “No Man is an Island”[5]
 It is through a life lived with compassion in action.  It is through a life lived with a spiritual practice that you are comfortable with, that draws you closer to God.  Your Knitting on the loom can become a simple spiritual practice by saying a short prayer with every loop.  Jesus come closer.  A morning walk can be a spiritual practice by repeating the same simple prayer with every step.
Some need a quiet time to center themselves to connect to God others may need a big noisy crowd.  Each of you need to find your own way to connect to God every day.  The thing that we often forget is like the fish in the water asking; what is the ocean?  We are literally swimming in God all we have to do is take time to pay attention.
The more attention we pay to God around us and through us, the better equipped we will be to recognize God.  We will be equipped to recognize God when we are challenged by who is my neighbor.  We will be equipped to recognize God so that we can Love God with our whole hearts, soul and mind even in the most challenging time.  We will be equipped to follow two simple commandments.

[1] wikipedia, Pharisees, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees (accessed October 20, 2014).
[2] Gospel Outreach Ministries online, The Law: All 613 Commandments, http://www.gospeloutreach.net/613laws.html (accessed October 20, 2014).
[3] Dan Clendenin, Humanizing Holiness:Are Some Commandments More Important Than Others, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20081020JJ.shtml (accessed October 20, 2014).
[4] J.M. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1997), sec. July 20.
[5] Qoutes from Thomas Merton, http://www.octanecreative.com/merton/quotes.html (accessed October 20, 2014).

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