The Unlearning of Love

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.


One of the readers of my Sunday sermon gifted me with another of his occasional, and always perceptive, comments.

As you've defined it, 'Caesarism' infects every part of society, and me as well…. So we have to figure out how we deal with these systems and institutions around us … How do we give them what is theirs— [he's talking about giving Caesar that which is Caesar's] —   including advice and opposition, even as we keep them in being …  And how do we repent of our own lumping folk together and wishing them ill (which I do!)? (Bill Schlesinger)

We could rephrase Bill's question in the words of this week's lectionary, "But how do we love our neighbour as our self?"

Another insight I was given last week concerns the coin brought to Jesus in the story about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar.

There is a tradition in Christian preaching, including my own, that Jesus exposes the Pharisee's hypocrisy in bringing into the temple a coin which was, by its having the image of Caesar on it, a blasphemy. Everyone is amazed at the way Jesus' avoids his opponents' trap set by exposing their hypocrisy. The trouble is, this argument doesn't work. It appears that the coin was not the problem we all imagined it to be. Which leaves us with a very interesting question. I'll let Rev. Anne Le Bas do the asking.

So this “blasphemous coin” interpretation of the story really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all. And that makes me wonder why it has been so popular, why people keep unquestioningly repeating it. It seems like it’s one of those things that we want to be true, even though it isn’t. And I wonder why that is. My suspicion is that we want to feel that Jesus is being really clever here, that he’s outwitted the Pharisees and Herodians. They’ve tried to trap him, but they’re the ones who’ve ended up with egg on their faces. My guess is that deep down, we like that. We like the idea that “our man” has pulled a fast one on them. They wanted to regain the upper hand, but with this trick with the coin, he’s come out on top – and that means we who follow him are on top too.

But if that’s not what’s happening, then what is? It’s true that the Pharisees and the Herodians go away amazed, but what is it that has amazed them? Anne Le Bas (I've added the emphasis)

And her answer is profound.

I don’t think they’re amazed because Jesus’ response is clever. I think they are amazed because it isn’t. He isn’t trying to make them look stupid, or win some sort of word game with them. He isn’t trying to wriggle off the hook they are dangling in front of him. If he was, this provocative answer was a strange way of doing it.  In fact, within a couple of days of this encounter he’ll be arrested and crucified. His ministry was always going to end like that, and he knew it. His commitment to least and the lowest in his society was bound to lead to a head-on collision with the Roman and Jewish authorities, the people who  had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and clinging onto their power. They were never going to tolerate the challenge he confronted them with.

I’m reminded of Daphne Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was blown up this week, apparently because of her long and lonely struggle to expose corruption in Malta. I don’t know what motivated and sustained her in that, but I think the courage that Jesus shows here as he walks straight into the jaws of death comes from his deep awareness that, indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That includes him, as it does all of us. We are held in God’s hands. We are ultimately safe, whatever the world does to us. Jesus knew that and he trusted it, and that meant that when the demands of love came up against the demands of the authorities in his world, he was able to keep his feet on the path he knew was right.  Ibid

It is that trust which amazed the Pharisees. They went off, not vanquished, but marvelling at the trust in God which they had been shown.

You may notice that between last week's confrontation in the temple, and the confrontation presented in this week's text, there is another confrontation which the lectionary omits. Here, there seems to be an arcane Jewish argument about resurrection, that odd story about the woman whose seven husbands have died, and the Sadducees present this as an argument against the reality of resurrection. A sort of reductio ad absurdum.

 7Last of all, the woman herself died. 28In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.’

And this plays right into the ethnocentricity which, to be blunt, is really just religious racism, of we Christians who want to see Jesus vanquishing his foes with clever answers. Isn't this how we read this whole section of Matthew— our clever Jesus defeating these silly, blind Jews? "But they don't get married in heaven," we crow.

But why did the Sadducees ask this question?

Recently, I read James Alison's comments on this passage. They bear quoting at length, because, like Anne Le Bas, he touches on a centrality of our Faith.

There was a law in Deuteronomy which set out that, if a married man died without children, then it fell to his brother to take that man's widow as his wife to beget a child for his late brother and thus assure him posterity. At first sight this seems to be a piece of matrimonial law. However the Sadducees understood their own scriptures rather better than that: this law existed exactly because the only way of bluffing past the universal reign of death was by having children. The best existence which there might be after death would be that of the shades in Sheol, which wasn't worth having. The only way to have a blessing in the land of the living was by having children, descendants. It was because of this that the man who died without children needed his brother to get for him the share in posterity that he couldn't get for himself. The Sadducees were right in a certain sense: the existence of the levirate law is good evidence that nobody at that time it was written imagined the existence of the resurrection…

This is Jesus reply to the Sadducees' conundrum: having children is a necessity [my emphasis] only for those who are dominated by death… But his major premise is still to come. When he told the Sadducees that they understood neither the scriptures nor the power of God, he dealt first with the scriptures by taking away the use of the example of the levirate law as a valid evidence. But his major premise which shows what he really thinks, is still to come: it is that of the power of God.

…  he's giving  an indication of the sort of power which characterises God, something of the quality of who God is. This "power," this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let's put this another way:  for us "being alive" means "not being dead"; it's a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death and cannot even be contrasted with death.

I suggest that we have here something of great importance. Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was coloured by God as radically alive, as a- mortal, as in no way shaded by death. (James Alison Raising Abel pp36-38)

This imagination - understanding meant, as Anne sees, that the Pharisees—  in the discussion about the paying of taxes—   were amazed because they saw he had no fear of death. If death did not exist for God, in Jesus' understanding of reality, then it also did not exist for Jesus. And they saw that he was correct in his contradiction of the Sadducees.

So what is happening in the text this week?

Well, perhaps the Pharisees come back to Jesus in the reading we have this week, no longer to trap him, but, as it says, to test him, because they have understood what he has said about death! They know spiritual insight when they see it! They are suddenly brought to wonder if perhaps this upstart who is so challenging of their authority might not possess some truth, after all!

I'm imagining a suddenly intrigued group of male elders who feel they have been saddled by their bishop with a new young pastor. Reluctantly impressed, but still rather suspicious of her orthodoxy they ask what the essence of the Faith is: "Pastor, which is the greatest commandment?"

And they are deeply, unexpectedly, moved by her response. It is so orthodox, so right, that they are pulled up short by the love in her. "Yes! To love God is to love our neighbour. All our theology counts for nothing if we don't love our neighbour—  you are right, Pastor!  And… all our good works and caring for people are nothing if they are not honouring God!  Otherwise they are simply some sort of justifying of our self—  a kind of idolatry, indeed! Pastor— !"

These men know their theology; they understand what she has said in her answer—  its implications startle them. And there is a moment of silence as it begins to sink in—  one of those bottomless, grace filled opportunities  for  profound reassessment of what it means to be Faith full—   as the elders realise that this one about whom they have been  so suspicious, by whom they have been so discomforted is, in fact, deeply steeped in the spirit of God.

And into this silence the young woman gently, perhaps with a small grief, injects a gift of great grace. "So… guys… what does this say about same sex marriage, then?"

And still reeling a little in their new love, "no one is able to give her an answer…" for they know exactly what she is saying, and the cost is very great.

Let me explain.

Israel longed for Messiah to come. When Messiah came, God would put all Israel's enemies under his feet. Messiah would bring the glory of God. They all knew that. But they have just seen—  suddenly known with a new and startling clarity—  that the glory of God… is that all people are neighbours! The glory of God is that we love God by loving our neighbour as ourselves! We uphold all people! There are none who are excluded, none who are made victims! None who are "the judged!"

Jesus is not playing a smart word game with the Pharisees here when he asks them about Psalm 110.  He is doing exactly what the young woman has done with her elders. She points out to them, at a moment when they are open to a profound deepening of understanding, that love needs to be unlearned, because the old ways of loving are inadequate.

So the new Lord, the new Messiah, is not simply David's son. He is not one who will bow to his father-ancestor and act simply as his father-ancestor did, and violently destroy Israel's enemies. Instead, David will bow to his son the Messiah and call him Lord, because David, too, will understand that love must be unlearned, and lived in new ways.

The text will read us at this point.

Either, it will see us insist on Jesus' triumph over the ignorant and godless Pharisees—  our traditional "Christian" triumphalism— secure in the knowledge that no one dared ask him any more questions 

or, the text  will see us, like the Pharisees that day, suddenly know more than we knew we knew, and face the task of working out what this new knowledge means for us. That's the task where we sit down with our sudden new insights and work out just how they fit into things, and what they mean for our future living of the Faith.

And it might be that for some of us the cost will be too great—  this time, anyway—  and we will join those Pharisees of the Faith for whom the old orthodoxy is too precious to abandon, or for whom the cost of rethinking, of unlearning, of beginning again, is too great or too dangerous at this moment.

But hopefully, for some of us, there will be a humbling. A bowing to a new Lord who helps us unlearn love and learn it again, more deeply. Some grace will mean that after walking away, silent because we could not yet give him an answer, we will discover that he himself has given us the answer.

Which all brings me back to Bill's question. I've made it my own here, changing his words a little.

How do we give Caesar what is his, even including advice and opposition, without bringing violence against him? How do we love even our neighbour Caesar?  And… especially…  how do we repent —  how do we stop doing this thing —  of lumping folk together into some "other" who we condemn and wish ill? For until we do this, until I do this, I can never love my neighbour as myself, and can never love God "with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind."

I think we should give advice and opposition, as Bill suggested. That's the writing to parliamentarians, and the marching at rallies, and the letters to the editors, and  even the sermons and blog posts.

But anyone can do that. There is something much deeper here. It has to do with internalising the understanding that for God, death is not. It has to do with being changed by this, rather than grasping some intellectual understanding of it. In short, we have to trust that being faithful to loving all people— the great commandment— will bring us to where we are healed of our innate human tendency of lumping folk together into some "other" who we condemn and wish ill.

We say we want to follow Jesus.

So let us look for him among the victims. When we give up our power and privilege, and stand alongside society's victims in their powerlessness, we meet Jesus… He says “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) When we do it for them, we do it for him. This compassion is quite different from charitable gifts dispensed from a position of wealth and privilege, for it disempowers me, and in being disempowered like this, I am changed.

Let us look for Jesus in the difficult places in our own selves. Loving God "with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind," is also to allow my self to be disempowered, my ego to be dethroned. It is to look for Jesus in, for example, the young woman pastor to whom to listen and give authority, is to let all my prejudices and privileges in life and the church, and in maleness,  be threatened. And this is to place myself in the presence of Christ who heals all that stuff and converts me.

And who then, at some point, will tell an old bloke like me, "By the way, you also listen to her because you are half in love with her— she's pretty, isn't she?" and so set off a whole new round of insights and challenges about gender, power, and proprietorial male attitudes to women— especially those who are younger, and invite me to a deeper conversion again.

When we meet Jesus in our disempowerment, he is alive. He is no longer the comfortable, but unsatisfying and always slightly unreal Jesus of our middle class selves, but a live, confronting, and changing power. So I say to Bill and myself, "Let's stop when we realise we have lumped a bunch of folks together, yet again, and start over— yet again, and go back to loving in our disempowerment. Just stop, stop worrying about it and start again, even though it seems we are making little progress."

I share a story of my own life, not to boast, but because of its profound gift to me. I'm an expert lumper together of people, sadly confident that Bill is a mere amateur in this human failing, compared to me. As I once listened to someone who was being deeply grieved by a mutual acquaintance, I remarked, "She's not that bad you know…" I was trying to help the person who was talking to me to regain some perspective. She wailed, full of pain and grief, "It's alright for you. You like everybody!" Maybe I did the best possible thing at that point, because I burst out laughing!

And, later, realised the gift placed in my hands. Despite all my failings, and my frequent despair over the living of the Faith, others were experiencing a remarkable remaking of me. We don't try to change ourselves. We seek to love and let ourselves be changed. This actually happens; it is of God.

Andrew Prior (2017)

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!

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 22:34-46 - The Freedom of Love (2014)
Matthew 22:34-45 - Who are your relatives? (2011)
Matthew 22:34-45 - A new love (2011)
Matthew 22:34-46 - Truly Simple (2008)



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