The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. George Pejakovich
Matthew 23:1-12

IN TODAY’S GOSPEL, WE HEAR THE FINAL CHALLENGE OF THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO THE PRESENCE AND TEACHING OF JESUS. IT IS HELPFUL TO REMEMBER THAT THE ORIGINAL QUESTION WAS, “BY WHAT AUTHORITY ARE YOU DOING THESE THINGS, AND WHO GAVE YOU THAT AUTHORITY?” WHEN JESUS REFUSED TO ANSWER, THE SADDUCEES TRIED TO TRIP UP JESUS BY ASKING ALL SORTS OF QUESTIONS; LAST WEEK THE QUESTION WAS ABOUT TAXES WHICH WAS ULTIMATELY ABOUT AUTHORITY. WHEN THE SADDUCEES TURNED AWAY IN DEFEAT, THE PHARISEES TOOK A SHOT AT TRIPPING UP JESUS. THEY SELECTED ONE OF THEM, AN EXPERT ON THE LAW OF GOD, AND SENT HIM TO TEST JESUS. THE WORD MATTHEW USED FOR ‘TEST’ IS A WORD HE USED ONLY ONE OTHER TIME; WHEN HE WROTE THAT SATAN ‘TESTED’ JESUS IN THE WILDERNESS.

WHEN THE QUESTIONER BEGINS BY ADDRESSING JESUS AS ‘TEACHER,’ HE IS NOT SHOWING HONOR TO JESUS, BUT IS MOCKING HIM. THE QUESTION OF WHICH COMMANDMENT IS THE GREATEST IS A TRAP. THE PHARISEES, THE KEEPERS OF THE LAW OF GOD, CONSIDERED EACH OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS TO BE EQUAL IN VALUE AND AUTHORITY, SO ONE COULD NOT BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE OTHERS. TO GUARD AGAINST THE VIOLATION OF ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS, THEY HAD DEVISED A SYSTEM OF 613 LAWS AS A ‘HEDGE AROUND THE COMMANDMENTS.’ THESE LAWS WERE SO RIDGED THAT ONLY THE VERY WEALTHY COULD AFFORD THE TIME AND EXPENSE OF KEEPING THEM. THUS THE AUTHORITY, AND THE PERCEIVED RIGHTEOUSNESS, OF THE PHARISEES WAS TIED TO THEIR KEEPING THE 613 LAWS WHICH THE POOR, THE ONES ON WHOM JESUS FOCUSED, COULD NEVER DO. SINCE JESUS ASSOCIATED WITH THE UNRIGHTEOUS, THE QUESTION WAS FRAMED TO SHOW HOW UNRIGHTEOUS HIS TEACHING WAS, AND TO DISMISS HIS AUTHORITY.

JESUS’ ANSWER WAS, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. THIS IS THE GREATEST AND FIRST COMMANDMENT.” AND A SECOND IS LIKE IT: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS HANG ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS.”

HIS ANSWER DOES TWO THINGS. IT SUMMARIZES THE FIRST THREE COMMANDMENTS IN THE WAY WE ARE TO RELATE TO GOD, AND THE NEXT SEVEN IN THE WAY WE ARE TO RELATE TO OUR NEIGHBOR. IT ALSO DISMISSES THE 613 LAWS OF THE PHARISEES, AND THEIR AUTHORITY OVER THE PEOPLE.

SINCE MOST OF THE COMMANDMENTS BEGIN WITH “THOU SHALT NOT,” WE TEND TO THINK OF THEM AS RESTRICTIVE OR NEGATIVE. IN HIS SHORT ANSWER, JESUS TURNED THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE LAW OF GOD UPSIDE DOWN FROM NEGATIVE TO POSITIVE. IN SO DOING, HE CHALLENGED AND CRITIQUED THE ENTIRE SYSTEM OF OPPRESSIVE RELIGIOSITY OF THE TIME. THE LAW OF GOD IS NOT SOMETHING ONE MUST AVOID VIOLATING, BUT IS, INSTEAD, SOMETHING WHICH ONE MUST BE ACTIVELY DOING. KEEPING THE LAW OF GOD IS NOT A MATTER OF AVOIDING BREAKING ONE OF THE 613 LAWS AND MAINTAINING RITUAL PURITY, BUT IS A MATTER OF LOVING GOD AS HE LOVES US AND OF LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR AS WE WANT TO BE LOVED. THIS IS, AS JESUS SAID, THE MEANING AND PURPOSE CONTAINED IN ALL OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES.

THE COMMAND TO LOVE GOD AND LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH EMOTION OR HOW I FEEL ABOUT SOMEONE OR SOMETHING. LOVE IS NOT A FEELING; IT IS AN ACTION, WHICH IS WHY IT CAN BE COMMANDED OF US. WE ARE COMMANDED TO LOVE GOD WITH OUR ENTIRE BEING, HEART, SOUL, AND MIND. IT MEANS TO TURN OURSELVES OVER TO GOD SO THAT WE MIGHT DO HIS WILL AND THAT HIS WILL MIGHT BECOME OUR WILL. WE CAN NOT DO THIS IF WE DO NOT LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR, BECAUSE GOD LOVES OUR NEIGHBOR JUST AS MUCH AS HE LOVES US. WE MIGHT NOT EVEN LIKE OUR NEIGHBOR, OR APPROVE OF WHAT HE OR SHE DOES, BUT THE COMMAND IS TO LOVE; TO DO FOR OUR NEIGHBOR WHAT WE WOULD WISH DONE TO OUR SELVES.

IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE KIND AND PHILANTHROPIC TO OTHERS WITHOUT LOVING GOD, AS THERE ARE ATHEISTS AND AGNOSTICS WHO LEAD MORAL AND ETHICAL LIVES. WITHOUT LOVING GOD, HOWEVER, THAT KIND OF LIFE IS REALLY ABOUT HOW THE INDIVIDUAL FEELS ABOUT HIM OR HER SELF. WHILE THEIR ACTIONS MIGHT LOOK LIKE LOVE, THEY ARE REALLY ABOUT SELF ACTUALIZATION AND SELF CONFIRMATION.

IT IS TRUE THAT THERE ARE OTHER RELIGIONS THAT PROPOSE A LOVING ATTITUDE TOWARDS OTHERS BUT FOR MANY OF THEM THIS IS A MEANS OF OBTAINING A BETTER LIFE IN THE CYCLE OF REBIRTH. FOR OTHERS, GOOD ACTIONS TOWARD ONE’S NEIGHBORS IS A REQUIREMENT, BUT THE NEIGHBORS ARE DEFINED AS MEMBERS OF ONE’S TRIBE OR, AT BEST, ONE’S CO-BELIEVERS. THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE, HOWEVER, IS NON-RESTRICTIVE AND IS A PART OF OUR LOVE FOR GOD. LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR DOES NOT LEAD TO LOVING GOD, BUT LOVING GOD MUST AND WILL LEAD TO LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR.

RECENTLY, POPE FRANCIS HELD A SYNOD ON THE FAMILY AND THE CHURCH. HE PROPOSED THAT THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH SHOULD BE MORE WELCOMING TO THE DIVORCED, AND TO THOSE IN COMMITTED SAME SEX RELATIONSHIPS. NOW, TO BE CLEAR, HE WAS NOT ENDORSING EITHER DIVORCE OR SAME SEX RELATIONSHIPS, BUT WANTED TO FIND A WAY FOR THE CHURCH TO ACT IN LOVE TOWARDS THOSE WHO HAD BEEN MARGINALIZED. THE PHARISEES ARE STILL AMONG US, AND THE CARDINALS AT THE SYNOD SAID, BASICALLY, “RULES ARE RULES,” AND OVERRODE THE AUTHORITY OF THE POPE AND CHANGED THE WORDING OF THE POPE’S PROPOSALS TO REFLECT THE STATUS QUO. THE PHARISEES AMONG US WILL ALWAYS TURN THE POSITIVE OF GOD’S LOVE AND OUR LOVE OF GOD WHICH FREES US TO LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR INTO THE NEGATIVE RULES THAT BIND AND SEPARATE US ONE FROM ANOTHER.

WHEN THE PHARISEES COULD NOT RESPOND TO JESUS’ SUMMARY OF THE COMMANDMENTS, BECAUSE ANY RESPONSE WOULD TEAR DOWN THEIR SYSTEM OF RULES WHICH GAVE THEM THE AUTHORITY OVER THE PEOPLE, JESUS ASKED THEM A QUESTION. “WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE MESSIAH? WHOSE SON IS HE? WHEN THEY REPLIED, “THE SON OF DAVID,” THEY DEMONSTRATED THAT THEY WERE STILL TRYING TO DEFINE THE ACTIONS OF GOD BY THEIR OWN UNDERSTANDING AND INTERPRETATION. THUS, WHEN JESUS ASKED, “HOW IS IT THEN THAT DAVID BY THE SPIRIT CALLS HIM LORD,” THEY HAVE NO ANSWER AND ARE AFRAID TO QUESTION HIM FURTHER. I THINK THAT NO ONE DARED TO ASK HIM ANY MORE QUESTIONS BECAUSE THEY WERE AFRAID OF WHAT HE MIGHT SAY; THAT IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR THE MESSIAH, HERE I AM.

THE FULLNESS OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE FATHER IS TO BE FOUND IN THE SON, BUT, INSTEAD OF THE MESSIAH COMING WITH CELESTIAL ARMIES TO ROUT THE ENEMIES OF ISRAEL, THE AUTHORITY AND POWER OF THE FATHER WILL BE EXPRESSED IN THE GREATEST ACT OF LOVE IN ETERNITY. THE LOVE OF GOD FOR US IS ACTED OUT COMPLETELY IN THE WILLING SACRIFICE OF HIS SON FOR OUR SAKE. HOW CAN I NOT LOVE MY GOD WHO GAVE HIS BELOVED SON FOR ME? HOW CAN I NOT LOVE MY NEIGHBOR, FOR WHOM ALSO OUR LORD GAVE HIMSELF?

THIS IS WHY WE FEED THE NEIGHBORHOOD LUNCH ON SATURDAYS; WHY WE WORK AT ‘LET’S HELP;’ THIS IS WHY WE COLLECT CLOTHES FOR THOSE IN NEED; THIS IS WHY WE VISIT THE SICK; THIS IS WHY WE REACH OUT TO THOSE IN NEED; THIS IS WHY WE SUPPORT FAR AWAY NEIGHBORS IN HAITI AND KENYA; BECAUSE GOD LOVES US. BECAUSE GOD LOVED US FIRST, WE MUST LOVE HIM WITH ALL OUR BEING THROUGH HIS SON JESUS; AND, THROUGH JESUS, WE MUST LOVE OUR NEIGHBORS, WHERE EVER THEY ARE TO BE FOUND. ON THESE TWO COMMANDMENTS HANG ALL OF THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS.
AMEN

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