The Freedom of Love

Week of Sunday October 26 – Pentecost 20
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah?* Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit* calls him Lord, saying, 
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
   until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

We are building toward a diatribe.

  • Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple. (Matthew 21:1-17)
  • People push back: what is your authority to do this!? (Matthew 21:23-27).
  • Jesus continues to provoke with a parable about two sons and a parable about some wicked tenants, (21:28-46) and then a parable of a wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14.
  • The religious authorities reply with tests about taxes, (Matthew 22:15-22) resurrection, (Matthew 22:23-33) and the greatest commandment. (Matthew 22-34-40) Jesus wins each engagement— the text notes people's astonishment each time.
  • Now Jesus asks his own question "What do you think of the Messiah." No one has an answer, and finally, "nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions." (Matthew 22:45)
  • Then in Chapter Matthew 23 he sums up: "Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach."

And 32 verses of denunciation follow.

On my recent holiday I read Amy Jill Levine's book The Misunderstood Jew. I already knew about the anti Jewish bias of the New Testament. I already knew how we take the often bitter words of Matthew formed in the conflict between his community and the synagogues and turn them into an anti-Jewish gospeI. I have sought to correct this in my preaching, and to warn against such attitudes in Bible studies.

But reading how I am heard by a Jewish woman left me alternately shamed and despairing.

The most common Gospel text cited to prove Jesus’s anomalous views of women is the account of the hemorrhaging woman and the framing narrative of the dead girl... Christian feminists tend to love this story for, selectively interpreted, it plays perfectly into the argument that Jesus rejects any religious practice that would keep women from being equal to men. The problem with the argument is that it rests on faulty historical reasoning, and bad history cannot lead to good theology. Although no version of the story cites Leviticus, mentions impurity, expresses surprise at a bleeding woman in public, finds odd Jesus’s touching a corpse, or portrays Jesus as abrogating any Law, New Testament scholars import all this and more.11 Thus we read of the “woman’s courage in breaking with crippling cultural taboos imposed on her so as to reach Jesus directly and be fully restored and integrated as a person with full rights in her society.”12 The inevitable conclusion of this reading is its practical payoff for women in the church today: “To continue to exclude women from certain Christian ministries on the basis of outmoded Jewish taboos is to render null and void the liberation that Jesus won for us.”13 The end, the liberation of women today, does not, however, justify the means, the false portrait of Judaism.

               The term “taboo” is already loaded; “crippling cultural taboos” much more so. Both are unwarranted. There is no reason why the woman would not be in public; there is no reason why she should not seek Jesus’s help. No crowd parts before her with the cry, “Get away, get away, hemorrhaging woman!” No authorities restrict her to her house or require her to proclaim herself “Unclean, unclean.” And, finally, Jesus abrogates no Laws concerning any “crippling cultural taboos,” for there is no Law forbidding the woman to touch him or him to touch her. (pp172)

I am guilty as charged.

Levine also outlines how we Christians think that because we have found texts in the Old Testament that relate to the New Testament, we are gaining an understanding of the text. We are completely ignorant of the fact that Jews in Jesus' time were often critical of Old Testament texts and did not always give them the interpretative weight we place upon them! (pp122 et al) How little I know the background of my Faith!

I read Levine's book because my colleague Rev Kathy Donley had pointed me to an article suggesting that Jesus was himself a Pharisee! What a contrast to Matthew's diatribe!

While reading Levine I found two texts cited in an article by Fred Clark which are worth reading in full:

Here’s the deal with racism:

Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything. Scott Woods

And then:

I am a wannabe. We’re all wannabes. Any man claiming to be a feminist, adhere to a feminist politics, be a feminist ally, to do feminist activist work–we’re all wannabes. The unlearning of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy is not done by standing on proverbial mountaintop and shouting “I Am a Feminist.” You can’t purchase a bunch of “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and think you’ve got it down. You can’t be “good” just because you’ve declared yourself so....

… It’s not enough to separate ourselves out into categories of “good” and “bad,” “feminist” and “misogynist,” because too often the assigning of the label is mistaken for the work.

… It’s easy to pawn off misogyny and sexism to “those guys,” to proclaim you’re “not that guy,” and feel yourself clean. But if the problem were just “jocks” or “Pat Robertson,” it would be much easier to solve. The culture of male entitlement is pervasive, and it doesn’t miss you just because you opted to pick up Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa rather than a football and a Bible. Mychal Denzel Smith

We Christians in the West "own everything." While we may seek justice we are always "wannabes." We come from a position of historical privilege and economic hegemony. We have an immense "unlearning of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy" required of us, let alone the unlearning of anti Jewish prejudice. (I speak here as a male, yet am often astonished at the lack of feminist awareness of many women congregants, and even colleagues.)

Each week as I read commentary on the gospel I take good care to read woman scholars. This important corrective strategy has also been a delight, as I discover new insights to which we boys have often been blind.

I will now seek to read Jewish commentary on the texts of theweek, with the same expectation, but I do not expect to advance much from being "a wannabe." I will remain white, male, privileged, and racist, no matter how much I try, how much I learn, how much I am chastened, even how much I am converted. These things are my heritage and will remain in my cultural air until my last breath. Fred Clark says of such things, "You have to keep scooping out of the boat."

If we start to think that identifying the problem means we are “therefore absolved” of it, and “therefore incapable of harm,” then the next thing you know we’ll be putting down our buckets, imagining there’s no need to keep bailing. (Fred Clark)

The bucket with which we bail the boat is the text this week.

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

It is the stubborn commitment to love which rescues us from our shortcomings. Stoffregen quotes , Hare's Matthew, Interpretation Commentary:

In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. [p. 260]

This is not theory. It is not paper commitment. It is concrete, on the ground, "stubborn, unwavering" hard work. It is talking with a woman in a niqab who has her child at the beach. It is engaging with the guest at church who smells, or the one with Tourette's and the very loud voice who offers commentary on the sermon, or joins the prayers. It is being civil with family we would rather disown. It is voting against our "best interest." It takes the lesson from Luke that our neighbour is whoever we are with, but it does not condemn the "priests and levites" (who may be our minister) of our own experience whom we expected would help us, yet failed us. (Luke 10:25-37)

Just how concrete love must be is seen in

...  a classic story told by Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745–1807). As the account goes, the rebbe had announced to his disciples, “I have learned how we must truly love our neighbor from a conversation between two villagers which I overheard”:

The first said: “Tell me, friend Ivan, do you love me?”
The second: “I love you deeply.”
The first: “Do you know, my friend, what gives me pain?”
The second: “How can I, pray, know what gives you pain?”
The first: “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?”

“Understand, then, my sons,” continued the rebbe, “to love, truly to love, means to know what brings pain to your comrade.” (Quotedby Amy Jill Levine pp116)

Love confesses the shortcomings of our own Scriptures, owning that Matthew 21 – 23 may have been convincing and reassuring for his people in a time of hostility between synagogue and Matthew's community, but is also unfair to Jewish people, then and now. It is now too often used to project our own nit-picking hypocrisies onto Pharisees who were doing their best to be faithful to God, and by extension, onto our Jewish sisters and brothers who are children of the same Father.

Love would have us squirm in our pews when Matthew 21-23 is read from the lectern, for Matthew 21-23 is us.

The argument about David's son and the Messiah preserves the conviction that in Jesus there is a  greater significance than in David and others before him; we may call him Son of God. But to teach those verses as some sort of logical argument rather than a trick of words "playing to the choir" is to deny love and fall somewhere between Christian chauvinism and intellectual foolishness.

He summed up the first five commandments in one great commandment:  ‘love God with all your heart, soul, and mind’.  That covers false worship, idols, taking God’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath, and honoring your parents, who had taught you all ten laws.

And Jesus summed up the next five commandments, saying ‘The second is like it:  love your neighbor as yourself.’  And that pretty well covers lying, stealing, coveting, adultery, false witness, and murder.

Nancy Rockwell goes on to say Jesus

is clearly saying that no law, no rule, no piety, no custom, no culture, no tradition, is more important than loving God completely.  And God cannot be contained in one law, one rule, one piety, one custom, one culture or tradition, but can only be contained in all the world – and any soul.

Only hard working stubborn love can rescue Jesus' commitment to the great commandment from Matthew's hostility to the synagogue. Only hard working stubborn love can make the great commandment a complete love of God. Without that hard working stubborn love, which constantly confesses its failings by accepting criticism and changing its practice, Jesus' words as Matthew brings them to us remain a hostile, condemning religious tract.

In all this I have not defined love! Love is to live by insisting that my privilege and well being is not denied to my neighbour; that is to all the people around me. I am never more important than them. When I innocently maintain privilege then, at best, I fail them. If I deliberately calculate my life path and practice to maintain that privilege it is no longer failure; it is theft. It also means I have no claim to love God.

What sort of Christian will I be? Will I be freed by love, or will I insist on my own way?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Thanks
Author: Rick Behrens
Greatly appreciate your reflections on the text. Thank you!

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