Thursday, October 27, 2011

Controversies, Round Three

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Deuteronomy 34:1-12; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; and Matthew 22:34-46

Last Sunday, it was taxes. Today, it appears to be philosophy. In that first controversy, the question was whether it was lawful for an observant believer in God to pay taxes to the emperor (who thought he was God). Here, the question is which commandment—not out of the ten, but out of the 613 that composed the legal system of Israel in Jesus’s day—which was greatest.

In-between these two controversies occurred another that we don’t get to hear, in this year’s unfolding of Matthew. That one was engineered by the Sadducees, a Jewish sect of wealthy landowners who were conservative souls for whom only the Torah, only those first five books of the Bible, carried canonical authority. Pharisees believed that God was revealing both divine nature and divine agenda progressively, gradually over the centuries—a rather modern view. Not so the Sadducees, whose controversial question for Jesus was a conundrum about a woman whose husband died, whereupon his brother dutifully married her (in keeping with Torah), and when he died his next brother married her, and on it went through all seven brothers. When she died, whose wife would she be in heaven? Behind that testy question lurked the Sadducees’ resistance to believing there is a heaven (they accused the liberal Pharisees of dreaming up that newfangled idea), and their enshrining of the law which included a provision that a brother should marry his own brother’s widow.

Today we observe the third in Matthew’s series of controversies. Each has a potentially toxic question, meant to trap Jesus into making an unfortunate public statement—the kind that get made in American presidential primary debates—which could then be used against him, as also happens in American presidential primaries. Each of these controversies shows Jesus to be a master of ju-jitsu, using the incoming force to unbalance his adversaries, harnessing the moment to press his own message.

If the Roman coin has the Roman emperor’s face on it, it’s already his, so let him have it. Pause. And give to God what belongs to God.

That poor woman is no one’s wife in heaven: in the resurrection, everyone belongs to God, no one is defined by their earthly relationships. She is herself in the resurrection, precious to God.

And which commandment in the law is the greatest? In all these controversial questions, Jesus is being tempted to play a win-lose game, allowing his interrogators’ either-or way of thinking to dictate his response. Jesus takes this exclusionary thinking and flips it to demonstrate best religious practice: the inclusive win-win approach of both-and thinking.

“’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 of identical weight and priority: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang (depend, swing) all the law and the prophets.”

What’s going on here was brought home to me by reading Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah: A Christian Response” in which this Yale theologian answers a contemporary controversial question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Carefully, in rewarding explorations of both religious traditions, he builds his answer, which is Yes. What’s to be admired about his approach is his insistence that worship primarily occurs outside sanctuaries. Jesus’s summary of the law that we hear in today’s Gospel defines worship, locates worship, as happening in our neighborhoods and among our global neighborhoods. Volf applies a bit of ju-jitsu himself as he gets us asking his question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” realizing that “worship” simultaneously speaks to the realms of prayer and liturgy, on the one hand, and the domain of ethics and behavior, on the other—as two hands of one body.

And it is in the category of behavior and moral vision that Volf reminds his reader that Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies. He finds that message in the Qur’an as well, but he does not dance around Islam’s sharper edges, posing the question whether loving the enemy is equally central to both religions.

But to call that great challenging command central to Christianity is to have to admit that there is theory and there is practice, the two often poles apart.

And so as not to leave Judaism out of the picture, let’s recognize that this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, while sounding like a graphic travelogue, is actually the geography of hostile takeover. The promised land is also the stolen land, the vanquished land, and while the Hebrew Bible presents the story in terms of God fulfilling his covenant promises, a point of view that Christianity has by and large agreed with, we can be certain that Arab Christians will not swallow that sugar-coated version of history.

Which is to say that all three Abrahamic faiths have lots to answer for. And the answering the world requires, the answering that God requires, will be demonstrated by obedience to that second commandment, the one that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when, especially when, they are also our enemies. This is where we show who is the God we worship.

Such love, reaching across battlefields and checkpoints, broken families and shattered economies, divided nations and conflicted loyalties, can move and have its being only because such love is God in action among us and through us. “Almighty and everlasting God,” we prayed in our collect, “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity (“caritas”, the love that must show itself); and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.”

Are your spiritual practices—are mine—opening us to these gifts, these powers of God?

Are we open to our worship of God calling us, equipping us, requiring us, to love and do what God commands, in the neighborhoods of the one world our one human race occupies?