Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sermon; Proper 25A; Matthew 22:34-46

Why is this so hard?

Have you noticed that people like to make things complicated?  We spend a lot of time looking for loopholes that will either let us get away with something, or we spend a lot of time trying to close loopholes because we are worried that someone might be getting away with someting.

When I was a kid, if it was 5:15 and dinner was at 6, I would ask my mom, “Can I have a cookie before dinner?”  My mom would usually say, “One.”  So I would go and look for the biggest cookie in the jar (because homemade cookies aren't uniform size).  Or sometimes I would ask if I could have “a couple of cookies.”  If she said, “No,” and I was feeling brave, I would take one because that was not “a couple.”  I was looking for a loophole to get more cookies.

My mom, on the other hand, knew what I was up to, so she worked to close the loophole by announcing, “You may have ONE SMALL cookie before dinner.”

But this goes beyond cookies before dinner.  We don't want people sneaking through the system, so we spend time making things intentionally difficult.  One way we do this is through bureaucracy.  And yes, there are times when it's necessary, but making people prove how poor they are before offering assistance (as one example) should not be the norm.  Are we really that concerned if someone on assistance gets more food than we think they deserve?

And so we make rules to help us define what is and is not acceptable and who is or is not accepted.

The rabbis did the same.  They went through the Law, expanded some things, closed loopholes in others and eventually determined that there were 613 commandments within the Mosaic law.  Of those, 356 dealt with negative applications and 257 dealt with positive applications.

In this story, it is a lawyer who tests Jesus.  Just so we're clear, lawyer here doesn't mean lawyer like we are familiar.  This lawyer was an expert in the Law of Moses; so this is more like a theology professor.  One of the things lawyers did was to sit around discussing the Law and posing “what if” questions, each of them having their own opinion and interpretation as to the importance and ranking of each commandment.

This is like asking a group of officials which is the most important rule of their game.  Here's a piece of trivia for you:  while the Mosaic law has 613 commandments to it, there are something like 874 rules in my rules book (although I could have miscounted somewhere along the line).  And the most important rule in that book is 1-1-6.

While you may think I throw football references into my sermons for the fun of it, there is a point.  In this case, those 874 rules I work with during the season hold sway over the game, its players and coaches, and tell us exactly how the game is played between the lines.  In the Law, those 613 commandments were there to help people in their relationships with God and others.  What the lawyer was doing was attempting to reduce those relationships to a game.

But that game wasn't about scoring points.  It wasn't even a friendly debate between officials or rabbis looking to see if they can defend their position.  This game was about determining the orthodoxy of an antagonist in an effort to find a basis for excommunication.

That word testing used here is also interesting.  It has the same root as tempting.  The lawyer was trying to tempt Jesus into a game that produced no winners but only unorthodox, heretical losers.  He was doing what so many religious “experts” are doing today – luring others into a dogmatic game of Find the Heretic.  And when a participant doesn't answer in the perceived correct manner, they are pounced upon by the tribal gatekeepers and labeled unorthodox heretics outside the boundaries of what is acceptable and excommunicated.

But Jesus doesn't play the game.

When asked which commandment is the greatest, he gives two answers.  First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  And second, love your neighbor as yourself.  Then, instead of waiting for a response to see if he passed the test, he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, all 613 commandments can be boiled down to just two: love God, love your neighbor.  Everything in the Law is based on these two commandments.  Even the Ten Commandments are broken down this way; with four being about our relationship with God, and six being about our relationship with others.  And every prophet who ever opened his mouth spoke about how people needed to get right with both God and their neighbors.

This is so because in the beginning there was God.  And then God created humans to be in relationship with both God and other humans.

To be fair, Jesus wasn't the first person to conclude that loving God and loving your neighbor were the two greatest commandments.  But since he did say it, we need to pay special attention to it.

Humans are famous for fighting each other over a variety of things.  People in religions, all religions, are famous for fighting with each other over orthodox and heretical thoughts.  We develop doctrines to determine who is blessed and who is cursed.  We look for loopholes to open or close.  And, more often than not, I think we look for ways to exclude people.

What if, instead of creating a myriad of rules, instead of looking at this as a game of Find the Heretic, instead of saying, “Yes, but . . .” what if instead of all that we focused on two things:  loving God and loving our neighbor?

Why is that so hard?



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