The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Deacon Yvonne Amanor-Boadu

Matthew 22:15-22

In my profession outside of the church, I work as a marriage and family therapist. When I was in training and learning how to become a family therapist, one of the first things I learned was how to distinguish between the content and the process of an interaction, and I learned why this was an important distinction. This is just what it sounds like, the content is what people are talking about, the process is how they are talking about it. And it’s important to know the difference because we can bring about more change by focusing on the process over the content. It’s not always easy to do. It can be hard when meeting with a couple who is arguing over whether or not to move because one partner has a great job offer in another city, and not be drawn into solving the problem of whether or not to move, especially if I think I’ve got a great idea for them, and instead to focus on how they are arguing. Whether they are listening to each other, understanding each other, hearing or deflecting, talking over each other, or giving each other space to talk, and who gets to talk, who makes the decisions. You get the idea. If we can work on the process of their communication, then they can solve the problem of moving or not moving on their own, and also the problem of where to spend Thanksgiving, of how much to spend on their vacation, and on and on.

So, I think I may have had my family therapist’s hat on when I read the gospel reading for today. Because all that I could notice at first was the process of the communication between Jesus and the Pharisees, and as I was noticing this, it just kept reminding me of the ways that we are talking to each other these days; we’re talking past each other, asking trick questions, and giving up and walking away, vowing never to ask another question, just like the Pharisees. These types of interactions don’t really benefit any of us, and they definitely don’t get close to the promise we make in our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. As we approach this election, in the midst of so much unrest, fear, and anger, I wonder how often we are approaching each other in the same way that the Pharisees approach Jesus.

This passage in Matthew is the final interaction in a series of interactions where those in authority have tried to “test” Jesus. First it was about taxes, then it was about the resurrection, and now it’s about the greatest commandment. At the beginning of this reading, the Pharisees do not approach Jesus out of a genuine desire to understand a difference of opinions, they are looking to set Jesus up, to push him to express an opinion that will get him into trouble. In questioning the status quo, Jesus has made them feel uncomfortable, and threatened, and they are searching for a way to discredit him, to minimize his influence on those who follow him. So, they ask him which is the greatest commandment. There were said to be 613 commandments in the Hebrew bible and while Rabbis at the time might have tried to summarize the law, it was generally understood that all of them were equally important and elevating any one commandment risked neglecting the importance of others. The law is the law, after all. So, the question put to Jesus was a kind of purity test, setting up a false distinction in order to determine how faithfully Jesus would talk about the law. Almost like asking Jesus, whose lives matter: black lives or blue lives? Should we all avoid gatherings and at stay home, or should we open up our economy? These questions don’t feel right, because they rest on faulty assumptions. They push us into taking a stand between two things that are not actually opposed, and yet if we answered “both”, we’d still be missing something. This is what the Pharisees were doing to Jesus with their question.

Jesus, of course, in his interaction with the Pharisees, does not take the bait, and his answer is a brilliant one: “’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.” Instead of picking one commandment as most important, he begins with a part of the “Shema”, the core statement of Jewish belief from Deut 6, and links it to the command from Lev 19 that we heard in our Old Testament reading today, to offer instead a statement about how to understand the law. In keeping with how Rabbis would have talked about the law at that time, Jesus offered a statement to show how all 613 of the commandments, indeed all of scripture itself, rest on the actions of loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t know about you, but when I read these interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees, knowing that they are setting out to test Jesus, and seeing that he gets the better of them, I tend to feel a little smug on Jesus’ behalf. But, this interpretation of Jesus getting the better of the Pharisees again reinforces a view that there are two distinct and oppositional sides in these interactions, and maybe this isn’t the case. Jesus, being Jesus, may have had another purpose in this interaction than demonstrating his superior intellect. Maybe Jesus wanted to take this question and use it as another opportunity to teach about love. That is what this is, it’s another opportunity for the Pharisees and everyone else listening to hear that the answer is love. The answer is always love.

When I read this passage from Matthew, and I see the familiar ways that the Pharisees interact with Jesus, and am reminded of the ways that we often approach each other, I wonder to myself, what then is the answer? What are we to do? I can see some glimmers of an answer in thinking about approaching things differently than what we see happening in this passage: ask genuine questions, listen deeply, seek to understand and to learn, don’t give up and turn away, but stay and keep trying. Again, I’m reminded of the promise we make in our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. But, here’s the thing, when we make that promise in our baptismal covenant, we don’t just say, “I will”, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” With God’s help. We can’t do it on our own. We shouldn’t expect to. But, with God’s help, we could take Jesus’ words to heart and as we leave here today, loving God with all of our being in order to love our neighbor, loving our neighbor in order to love God with all of our being, we could change the way that we interact with each other. We could change our process. Just imagine, we could ask questions, and learn something about racial injustice. We could ask questions, and understand something about law enforcement. We could ask questions, and understand something about this virus that has so upended our lives. We could ask questions, and learn something about having to keep a business going in the midst of a pandemic. And on and on and on. But only if we genuinely listen. Only if we don’t give up and walk away. And only with God’s help. As we continue to pray for this election season, let’s remember to also pray for God’s help in changing the way we’re interacting with each other.