October 29, 2023, 22nd Sunday After Pentecost. Sermon preached by Deborah L. Goodwin, Ph.D.

Sermon, Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, 10/29/2023

Matthew 22:34-46

Deborah L. Goodwin, Ph.D.

Today, after 36 mass shootings in our country, this year alone, we all know some things. We know that these murderers are no respecters of persons. They kill indiscriminately, whether at a Bible study or in a synagogue, a school or a movie theatre, a grocery store or a bowling alley.

Anywhere, that is, where people gather. That’s the second thing we know: these murderers fear or resent the institutions that help healthy communities hang together, to survive and thrive.

Finally, we know, or we should know, that their weapons of choice, semi-automatic military-style rifles, wreak havoc on human flesh. They are designed to do that. Frankly, I dislike calling these perpetrators “shooters” or “gunmen.” Shooters go to target ranges; murderers turn AR-15s on their fellow citizens.

In the book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean tells convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher as he walks to the death chamber that she will be the “face of love” for him when he dies. She says that no one should die without love. I have been dwelling on that line lately, when I haven’t been consumed by anger or sadness.

Today’s gospel reminds us of the centrality of love. It reminds us that love is not an individual emotion, it’s a collective action and response to God’s love for us. It reminds us that to live in community requires sacrifice. We give up some of our liberty to tend our neighbor’s needs.

As helpful as the reminder is, it grieves me that it sits in the middle of an acrimonious exchange between Jesus and his supposed enemies, the Pharisees. I say “supposed” because there’s little evidence that the teachings of Jesus and those of the Pharisees differed very much from each other. What the Gospels, especially Matthew’s Gospel, tell us about their relationship should be regarded with caution.

A hard lesson I learned in graduate school was that the gospels are not journalism. They were written at least a generation after the death of Jesus, each in a different place, by people who had had different experiences of his life, death and resurrection. Biblical scholars agree that it’s difficult to know which of Jesus’ sayings and actions can be directly attributed to him.

Matthew’s Gospel is distinguished by how its author connected Jesus to his Jewish roots. The author tells us repeatedly that Jesus fulfills the words of earlier prophets. In its early chapters, Jesus tells his followers to be stricter, more observant than their fellow Jews. He’s not hostile to their Jewishness, he’s hostile to their lack of zeal. But as the Gospel unfolds, the tension between Jesus, his followers, and their fellow Jews rises, caused by differences in emphasis. Jesus and his followers seem to focus on “inner work.” The gospel accuses their opponents of focusing on outward things.

Here I want to stress that the gospel accuses Jesus’ opponents of hypocrisy. Matthew’s Jesus gives a bitter speech in Ch. 23, condemning the scribes and Pharisees. This speech is not repeated anywhere in the other gospels. I learned in grad school that when a speech or action appears in only Gospel, it may not reflect the real Jesus. When it appears in several Gospels, it’s more likely that he said or did it.

To understand why Matthew is so strident, we have to look at what happened between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospel. In between, the Romans had destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, ending the traditional, public worship of Judaism. There was nowhere to make offerings to mark the birth of a child, nowhere to give the sacrifice that would reconcile hostile parties, nowhere to cleanse oneself of ritual impurity.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple, they murdered the Sadducees, its priests. They killed the Essenes, desert ascetics like John the Baptizer, and the activists trying to expel the imperial army. After the dust settled and the blood dried, the only Jewish groups that survived were the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. Again: the only Jewish groups that survived were the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus.

These two groups shared a common impulse, a stroke of genius: in the absence of the Temple, they re-interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. In place of sacrifice, they offered prayer, study, good works, and worship in small communities gathered for weekly meals. They studied the prophets, the Psalms, and the Torah, to construct a new, life-giving path with God. The chief difference was that the followers of Jesus were convinced that God had done, and was doing, something new through Jesus. The Pharisees re-imagined their ancestral traditions to be Jewish in new ways. To be a Jew was to be a light to the nations, leading others to God.

These two groups were remarkably alike. The people whom they tried to serve – the people of Israel bereft of the Temple – were the same “target audience.” But, tragically, they were not able to make common cause, to form one community. The hostile words that Matthew puts in their mouths are best understood in terms of that competition. Two similar groups, struggling to survive against a backdrop of state terror.

Turning from things that Jesus probably didn’t say, today’s Gospel is an example of something he likely did say. Mark and Luke, as well as Matthew, tell the “Great Commandment” story. True to its slant, Matthew’s version is couched in a hostile encounter. The question, “which commandment … is the greatest?,” is supposed to be a test, but any Jewish child could have answered it correctly. The first part of Jesus’ answer, to love God with one’s whole heart and soul, directly quotes the Shema, the daily prayer of Judaism found in Deuteronomy. He follows that quotation with another: to love your neighbor as yourself, found in Leviticus.

Jesus has given a very Jewish answer to a very Jewish question: how shall I fulfill the many commandments? Where should I focus? Rabbi Hillel, a generation before Jesus, was asked the same thing. His answer: “‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary; go and learn it.’”

I mentioned earlier that Jesus’ approach seemed be more inwardly focused, to foster compassion. The Pharisees’ approach may have been more outwardly focused. But is that wrong? Psychologists have demonstrated that if we smile (even when we don’t feel like it), we actually feel happier. Putting on the clothing of compassion is just as powerful, and maybe even more effective, than trying to feel our way to toward it.

But weren’t the Pharisees “legalistic,” obsessed with rules? Doesn’t the Great Commandment toss out all that stuff? No. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. To summarize the law isn’t to abandon it. Rabbi Hillel didn’t.

The Jewish sages maintained that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, one for each bone, muscle, and sinew in the human body. That isn’t legalism: it’s a celebration of God’s all-encompassing care for humanity. The commandments are an “exoskeleton,” containing and channeling our impulses. They curb our waywardness and school us in the self-restraint that living in community requires.

Jesus, the actual Jesus, probably sympathized with the Pharisees. They could have been friendly rivals. The bitterness came later at the hands of authors invested in different outcomes, living in even more terrifying times. Sadly, some survivors of Roman destruction chose to divide themselves from their logical allies, using overheated rhetoric.

That division obscures a far more dangerous reality: the brutality of the Roman Empire and its impact on all the people of the land of Israel. Using weapons ranging from rapacious taxation to torture, the Romans imposed their will. They exploited weakness and corruption among some of its leaders, while murdering others. The Romans were no respecters of persons, no respecters of communal institutions. Their violence was indiscriminate.

These are days of unfathomable suffering for people in the homeland of Jesus. Thousands of innocent people are dying, due to the wanton choices of a few. These past few days in Maine have been excruciating for our tightknit communities. So: we have both global and local work to do. Globally, we need to learn to deal with complexity and correct some mistakes: thinking that the Pharisees hated Jesus, or that the Hebrew Scriptures have little to teach us, or that Jewish people everywhere are identical to the government of Israel.

Locally… I, like most of us, turn to the Gospels for comfort. Knowing that they were written against a background of fear, hostility and confusion, makes comfort sometimes hard to find. But that reality can also be bracing: I look at Jesus, his followers, and the Pharisees, and think: here are people making communities based on principles, not power. Here are people making communities rooted in self-giving love, not domination. Here are people who say “no more” to death-dealing violence, whether by an anonymous murderer or a faceless state. Here, too, are the women at the foot of the cross, the faces of love at Jesus’ death, the faces of reconciliation.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, in troubled times, God asks “whom shall I send?” The canonical answer is “Here I am. Send me.” Whether we work from the inside out, the outside in, from the Torah or the Gospels, we know how we should live together. We know the life-giving way. So let us answer: “Here we are. Send us.”