Friday, October 24, 2014

Reflections on the text – Matthew 22:34-46

Read the text here: Matthew 22:34-46
The Work of Love

Jesus has been on the hot seat from the moment he entered Jerusalem.  It was not so much because of the enthusiastic entrance as what happened next.  Jesus enters the Temple courtyard and creates chaos, turning over tables – “You have turned my father’s house into a den of thieves.”  This does not endear Jesus to the Temple authorities.  After all the tables Jesus turned over were there for a good reason.  People needed to convert their Roman and provincial coins to Temple currency in order to pay various expenses, including purchasing animals for sacrifice.  The folks who are the customers are only trying to be faithful to the expectations of their faith, they are trying to follow the law.  And the vendors? Nowhere does it explicitly say they are gouging their customers.  That is the assumption, I suppose, but it may be unfair.  These men were only trying to make a living so they too could live their lives in a faithful manner.

So it is not too surprising that on Monday when Jesus arrives at the Temple courtyard to teach he is confronted by a group representing the Temple leadership with demands and questions about his calling, his mission and his theology.  This confrontation is the focus of most of chapters 21 and 22.  “By what authority?” “Should we pay the Imperial tax or not?”  “What about the resurrection, how does that work?”  “Which is the most important of the commandments?”  Jesus’ responses include not only teachings, but a series of parables also – The Parable of the 2 Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Great Banquet.  Jesus begins his responses with a response to the question about authority and ends with a not so subtle discussion about the Messiah. 

It is common for us to divide up the characters into good and bad camps; Jesus and disciples = good; the Temple leadership and the Pharisees = bad.  But I think this is a little unfair and simplistic.  The questioners certainly have an agenda and this agenda is not only to trap Jesus, but I think it is also to sincerely try to understand where he is coming from.  They also are trying to be faithful to their traditions and faith.  And this means they look to the Law of Moses to provide guidance and direction.  To them, Jesus seems to be disregarding the Law and this is perplexing and disturbing.  Jesus seems to be attacking the very foundations of their society.  For them Jesus is a sinner who does not keep the law and disregards the traditions of Israel.

Jesus’ responses are on the one hand a response to the traps his opponents are setting but can also be seen as an attempt to move his listeners to open up to seeing that there is another way of understanding and interpreting the law and the traditions.  Jesus says himself that he has not come to abolish, but to complete, that is to fulfill.  Jesus is saying to them, that instead of seeing the law as a rigid set of requirements, perhaps there is another way of looking at it.  That at its core the gift of the law is about love. God’s involvement with God’s people has been all about love and that going forward, it continues to be about love. 

Now when we hear that word – “love” – I think most of us associate that word with feelings.  For us in our society, Love is an interior experience for the most part.  But this is not what Jesus is talking about.  He is not lifting up feelings as much as he is pointing to action.  Love is action; love is manifest in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven!  In Jesus’ responses to the earlier queries he lifts up work and love together within the context of the Kingdom of Heaven that God has established in our midst.  The two sons of the father are invited to go to work in the Vineyard/Kingdom; the Landowner is so anxious and desperate to have a relationship with the tenants that he continually sends messengers to them; the king wants his banquet table filled with guests so much that he opens the table to everyone; Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but remember that everything is God’s and you are entrusted to care for God’s beloved possessions as stewards; Remember God is the God of the living – God supports, care for and loves those who do the work of the Kingdom here and now.

And which is the greatest commandment?  The answer is Love.  Love God, and your neighbor.  This is a call to action; a  call to work. How do we love God with all our hearts minds and souls? We love our neighbors as ourselves.  And as we reach out to others in love, this reflects our love for God.  The work of love includes respect, it includes seeing and defending the human rights of others, caring for and giving ourselves to others.  The work of love includes the 10 commandments but goes beyond the obvious to include many other dimensions.  Luther sees this clearly and lays this out in his explanations to the commandments in the Small Catechism. For example, in his explanation of the 5th commandment (do not murder),  he says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not hurt our neighbor in anyway, but to support him/her in all their physical needs.”  Luther makes it clear that it is not enough to just NOT do something, but we have a positive calling as well – to DO something, and that something is the work of love.  And this has implications for every dimension of our lives.

Like those who encountered Jesus in the Gospel stories, we too are trying to live our lives faithfully.  And to us, Jesus speaks these words: “Love God… Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These words are a call to action.  Like the father in the parable of the 2 Sons, Jesus is looking us in the eye with this question – “will you work in the vineyard today?”  For there is a lot of work to be done!

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