20 Pentecost, October 26
For the past five weeks, the Gospel readings have been taken from that part of St. Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is in the Temple following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The chief priests and elders of the people, Sadducees and Pharisees, have been asking him difficult questions designed to trip him up, and he has risen to the challenge with a series of memorable parables and sayings.
Today, this game of back and forth reaches its climax as one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asks Jesus: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?” It was a fairly common question among the rabbis of the time: which of the hundreds of commandments best sums up and interprets the meaning of them all?
In response, Jesus offers a perfectly acceptable and praiseworthy answer, joining two texts of the Torah: the first from Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the Shema and recited daily by pious Jews, and the second from Leviticus 19:18. Anglicans know these words as the Summary of the Law.
Jesus does not stop there, but puts a question of his own to the Pharisees: if the Messiah is the Son of David, then how is it that David calls him Lord? Since David is the putative author of the psalms, how can he refer to his own descendant as “My Lord” since the ancestor is always greater than the descendant? Jesus is not denying that the Messiah is the Son of David, but rather suggesting that he’s also much more — more, indeed, than the Pharisees are able to grasp.
We have a powerful reversal. The Pharisees start out questioning Jesus in order to put him to the test only to find themselves questioned and put to the test. This reversal reflects and symbolizes a crucial turning point in the Christian life.
So many people seem to approach God, Christianity, and the Church much as the Pharisees approached Jesus: with their own agendas, standards, expectations, and ideas of right and wrong. They attempt to judge God, Christianity, and the Church according to the supposedly more enlightened criteria and standards of today’s culture: How well do the traditional teachings of the Church measure up to the contemporary canons of political correctness and inclusivity?
A key moment in the lifelong process of Christian conversion occurs when we experience the paradox that even as we question God, God is questioning us. Even as we evaluate Christianity, Christianity is evaluating us. Even as we judge the Church’s tradition, the Church’s tradition is judging us. Indeed, the criteria and standards that we employ to call the tradition into question are themselves called into question by the tradition.
At this moment of realization, we can do one of two things. We can walk away from the whole encounter, like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, and not dare ask any more questions. Or we can abandon our illusions of independence and superiority, and surrender ourselves into the hands of the living God. We can invite him to take charge of our lives, in the confidence that in his own good time he will form in us minds and hearts capable of right questions, evaluations, and judgments.
Look It Up
Read the essay “God in the Dock” by C.S. Lewis.
Think About It
After walking around a famous European art museum, a brash young tourist remarked to the guard at the door: “Well, I don’t think much of your Old Masters!” The guard replied, “It’s not the Masters who are on trial here.”