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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The Rev. Adam DeVries

October 26, 2014

Two Can Play at This Game

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Leviticus 19:17-18; Matthew 22:34-46

             It’s almost impossible to read our text for this morning and not also immediately think of that holiday classic film Elf. There is a beautiful scene where Buddy the Elf (a human raised by elves) sits down with Papa Elf. Papa Elf asks, “Buddy, where do you think Christmas presents come from?” Buddy responds, “Everybody knows that, from Santa all the way from the North Pole.”

             The Pharisees may have been expecting Jesus to say something similar to “everybody knows that,” but that’s not what Jesus does. This test that the Pharisees give Jesus, is the third in a series of tests. This scene takes place during the week of the Passion narrative and these tests are catalyzed by the events at the beginning of that week. Remember what has taken place? Palm Sunday, Jesus has triumphally entered into Jerusalem with crowds of people shouting “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” Then Jesus goes into the Temple, turns over the money changers, driving out all those who have made the Temple into a marketplace for sacrifices, yelling, “You have made my father’s house into a den of thieves and robbers!” Then Jesus, after cleansing the Temple, begins to teach and preach. The religious authorities didn’t like that very much. So they began to test Jesus, and our text is the last test in this series of tests. The first one we heard last week from Todd talking about that famous line, “Render unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s.” The second one had to do with the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, but ironically tested Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. And now we have our third and final test. This test about what is the greatest commandment.

             This is the loaded question that the teacher of the law/scriptural theologian presents to Jesus. When he asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” there is a lot of context in the background. The Pharisees were really good at being good. They were really successful at their faith because they had identified 613 rules to abide by. To ask which was the greatest commandment was to say that one was more important than the others, and it was well known that all 613 were of equal value. So at the very beginning this question is a setup. Maybe the Pharisees are expecting Jesus to say, “Everybody knows that, they’re all equal,” but that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus responds by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” You could hear in the room or in the space wherever they were, a gasp. Jesus is saying that one is more important than the others. And you can see a sly grin come across the face of the teacher of the law. “I’ve got him now.” “Checkmate, in one more move.” He wasn’t expecting Jesus to continue. We are never expecting Jesus to continue, but Jesus always gives us more than we asked for.

            And the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here the teacher of the law could still salvage the attempt to test Jesus and catch him somewhere, but again, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” And in doing so, Jesus closes the gap of the Pharisee being able to say anything. The teacher of the law can’t discredit anything Jesus has just said unless he wants to discredit the Shema. The Shema is the prayer that devout Jews pray still today, the one we hear in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God.” Devout Jews pray the Shema twice a day, so these Pharisees would have heard that prayer and would have known that if they were to discredit anything Jesus just said, they have to discredit the Shema. So rather than appear like they don’t know what they’re talking about, they are silent. Then Jesus elevates the Leviticus passage 19:17-18 to the level of the Shema, and makes faith not about following rules but about loving God and loving others.

             Today is Reformation Sunday. These greatest commandments Jesus gives are so incredibly authoritative in our faith. You would be hard pressed to grow up in the church and not hear them. And you could look at the Reformation as a time in history when the church was attempting to be more faithful to those great commandments. Not only do they give us a guide with how to live our life, but they also give us a touchstone with how to mine the texts of scripture. If there is a certain interpretation of scripture that doesn’t sit well with us, we hold it up to the touchstone of the greatest commandments.

             As our text continues, the tables have turned and now Jesus is asking the Pharisees a question. Almost saying, “Two can play this game.” Jesus asks them a Buddy-the-Elf type of question, and says, “Tell me about the Messiah, whose son is he?” They do what they hoped Jesus would do, and say, “Everybody knows that! The son of David.” Their quick confidence reveals their desire to have the right answer and not appear foolish. It is not that Jesus is disagreeing with their idea that the Messiah is the son of David. Actually, for Matthew, the Messiah, being the son of David is one of the most important realities. Matthew spends a lot of time in genealogies just to point to the reality that Jesus is the son of David. It is not the inaccuracy that Jesus takes issue with it is the inadequacy of the answer.   Jesus quotes from Psalm 110, how can the Messiah be the son of David … and also David calling him Lord doesn’t make any sense? Again the Pharisees, not wanting to look embarrassed, not wanting to seem like they don’t know what’s going on or that they don’t have it together, are silent.

             For Matthews’s Gospel and for us, we know that their answer is not wrong, it’s just incomplete. The Messiah isn’t just the son of David, the Messiah is also the Son of God. For the second time in this story the Pharisees have been silenced. So what do we have to learn from this story? From this text? It is always a good idea when reading scripture to ask these two questions: What does it have to teach us about God? What does this have to teach us about us?

             So first, what does this have to teach us about God? Let’s name two things. Number 1: Jesus never just answers our questions but always gives us more than we ask for. Number 2: God joins us in our questioning. Jesus joins the Pharisees in the game they are playing. Jesus joins the Pharisees in asking questions. And so when we cry out, when we ask questions about God, we are not asking those questions alone. When we ask questions like, “God, where were you?” “God, where were you when my parents got divorced?” “God, where were you when I was diagnosed with cancer?” “God, where were you when addiction ravaged my family and my life?” “God, where are you?” Whenever we ask those kinds of questions, we ask them in harmony with the cry of Christ on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t ask these questions alone. That’s the first thing that we have to learn about God in this text.

 The second thing we have to learn about God is that Jesus doesn’t stop there. God doesn’t stop at answering our questions with more than we ask for.   Jesus doesn’t stop at joining us in our questioning. God goes a step further by inviting us into divine dialogue. There are two chances the Pharisees have to enter a dialogue with Jesus, but they don’t because they are afraid they might look like they don’t have it all together. They are afraid they might look like they’re confused and don’t have the answers. Jesus always invites us into divine dialogue. That’s a second thing we have to learn about God from this text.

             So what do we have to learn about ourselves from this text? I will highlight two things. First, our default is set to decline Jesus’ invitation to divine dialogue. We would much rather be silent just like the Pharisees. We are quick to be quiet and not join in the conversation. How many of us have stopped asking questions about God because we feel like we are getting a paradoxical response? How many of us have had our faith life stunted because we didn’t understand or were confused or couldn’t find any answers? How many of us are walking around in 30-year-old, 40-year-old, 103-year-old bodies, with 12-year-old faiths? We are quick to be silent and not join in this divine dialogue.

             A second take away about ourselves is that these 613 rules are far more focused on what we are doing than what God is doing. That is why the Pharisees were able to be so successful, because their faith was all about what they were doing. It wasn’t about what God was doing. What if God doesn’t care if we get it right? What if Jesus doesn’t care if we have all the answers? Could it be that these greatest commandments point us to the reality that God is more concerned with us being with God … with us loving Jesus and loving one other, than getting it right or having the answers? This invitation to divine dialogue is parallel to an invitation to divine loving relationship.

 There is a Presbyterian minister who once told me that every good Presbyterian sermon has three points. So in case you missed them, here they are:

             Number one: Are you more concerned with getting it right than you are with loving God? The Christian faith is not about us getting it right. It is about us noticing what God is up to and joining in. It is not about what we do, but it is about what God is doing. It is about entering into a loving relationship with God, ourselves, and one another.  

             Number two: The incarnation is like God saying, “Two can play at this game.” You are not alone. God joins you in your questions, your confusion, in your life, in your death, in your joy and in your sorrow. You are not alone. But God says, “I will join you in the midst of that … two can play this game.”

             Number three: Do not be silenced, but say “yes” to God’s invitation to love and dialogue. If you are wondering what that looks like, here’s one practical way to do it. Think of the question that you can’t get answered. The question that is confusing you about who God is; the question that stunts your faith because you don’t have an answer for it. Write that question down in your bulletin, and then turn that question into a prayer every morning, or every evening, or every day at lunch. Pray that question to God, and then read our scripture passage from this morning. Do that every day, and maybe, slowly, you will recognize that Jesus is asking that question with you. And maybe, slowly, you will live your way into the answer with God. If you take this challenge, don’t do it alone, do it with God and also with one another. Tell somebody you are doing it and maybe have them also ask a question, maybe the same question, maybe a similar question, but do it with God and with one another.

             So may you love God and love others. May you be more concerned with being with and loving God, than you are with getting it right. May you remember that you are not alone in your questions, and may you not keep silent but say yes to God’s invitation into divine love and divine dialogue.

             In the name of the One who can play this game better than we can.


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