Psalm 90, Matthew 22:34-36
Most people who preach on this passage stick with the two commandments part of this. And this is a good topic to preach on because it is the grounding of our faith: these are the things Jesus tells us that God requires of us first, foremost, always and in all things – to love God and love one another.
But today I’d like us to take a bigger look at today’s lectionary passage and especially focus on the part of this passage where Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a question that they cannot answer. And I think we have to begin in our understanding of this passage to look at the scriptures that surround this story and especially those that proceed it.
Do you remember the passage from last week? The Pharisees were trying to entrap or trick Jesus by asking him questions that would anger a particular group in the crowd. Last week they asked about paying taxes. This is followed by a section in scripture that is not included in the lectionary in which the Sadducees try to trick or entrap Jesus by asking him about marriage. They ask if a person has been married and widowed several times, to whom are they married after they die? They are again attempting to get the crowds angry at Jesus and so they ask a question that
they believe will elicit an answer that will isolate either one group of Jews that does not believe in a resurrection at all, or another group that does. But Jesus didn’t not fall into this trap, either. Instead he simply says that they really don’t understand about the afterlife, they haven’t read scriptures carefully and he leaves it at that. The final question, and their final attempt to trap him is presented in today’s scripture. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Read out of context, the question looks innocent enough. But in fact they are still trying to trap him. They are asking him to tell them who he “sides” with in the debates among the Jews, and they are again trying to set a crowd against him. Which of the ten commandments is most important? They are asking if Jesus is going to rank them or if he believes they are all of equal value. For example, is it just as bad to lie as to kill someone? Is it just as bad to worship idols as to covet?
How does Jesus deal with this trap? He avoids this final trap as well by answering not with one of the ten commandments at all but with the Sh’ma. The Sh’ma is even more central and calls us to an even clearer understanding, a summary really of the ten commandments. The Sh’ma is a passage that every Jew of that time and even today is required to commit to heart as central to their faith. To quote Deut. 6:5. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” He takes the second part about loving your neighbor as yourself again as a summary of all scripture. But he also takes it directly from Leviticus 19:18b which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” By quoting these even more central scriptures, he again shames those who would shame him. He also avoids the whole ranking of the ten commandments by summarizing them: the first four of which are about loving God, the second six about loving your neighbor. He calls his listeners back to the center of their faith and reminds them of what they should be remembering at all times – especially when they are trying to entrap a fellow Jew: “love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself – including JESUS whether you feel threatened by him, or not: whether you agree with him or not!”
This, then, is the context in which we find Jesus turning the tables and asking the Pharisees a question instead. As I read this I found myself thinking about the psalm that was also part of today’s lectionary. Psalm 90, which we also read this morning as part of our lectionary scriptures, has this appeal in the middle of it, “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!” How difficult it must have been for Jesus to be tested again and again with the desire, with the hope, of entrapment by the people. He must have felt with every new day and every new trial, how long must he endure this? How long would he have to endure the “not getting it” of his own disciples? How long would he have to endure the constant attempts at entrapment from the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees? It must have been exhausting. Utterly exhausting.
How many of you have felt that kind of tired? Have any of you felt that kind of “how long, O Lord, must we endure this?” How much longer can we stand being tested – either by someone who doesn’t like us or feels threatened by us, or just by the trials of life? Sometimes I think when we are down it feels like the kicks just keep coming and coming and coming!
I think about many of the homeless people I’ve met – who ended up homeless for exactly the reason that they had a series of bad luck things happen all at once: the loss of a job, followed by the loss of a house, followed often by the death of a close one, followed by depression which ends them up on the street. Many times these tests or trials are all related: a person has a problem with alcohol which leads to loss of job, family, etc.. But other times they aren’t related – and yet these big stressors can fall together. I have a close friend whose mother died and a week later her husband asked for a divorce. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who lost her son three months ago and now her husband. How hard to endure both of those losses. How do we endure these extremely difficult times? And again, the question has to be asked, whether it happens aloud or not, “How long, O Lord, must we endure this?” Right now with all that is going on around us, the pandemic, the fires, the social unrest, the national stress around this election. And we as a country find ourselves asking “how long, O Lord, must we endure this?” My father made the comment to me last week that my sermons are different now. He said it has become obvious in these recorded services that I am highly stressed, that I am struggling. He is not the first person to have said this to me or named this for me. So I name this as true though I also tell you there is nothing you need to do to take care of me around this. This is just a reality of the times. I am stressed, I am struggling. I am a social being who is not handling this separation and staying at home well. I don’t preach easily to an empty room but rather find it difficult, exhausting even, and extremely stressful. I usually bounce off of your energy, I can tell by your reactions, though often subtle, if I have said enough or not. I have no feedback in preaching in this space. Connecting through zoom and through the phone can only go so far. Add to that that when people are unhappy and choose to deal with it by ignoring or avoiding and there is no way to address it because we cannot get together, it weighs on me in a completely different way. There is no “in person” contact to give me more positive feedback. Again, you do not have to take care of me around this, but I want to say to you that your cries of “How long, O Lord!” are mirrored by my own. “How long, O Lord, will we need to continue in this way? How long will this go on? How long can we sustain and endure and connect in these weirdly distant, detached ways?!”
This feeling can also make me impatient in other things, as I’ve seen with those around me. The “how long” makes us want to reopen things too soon, taking the risk of a backwards step. But it spills into other things too. “how long” spills into impatience with lines at stores. People are even nuttier in their driving now than before and I think their impatience on the road is a reflection of the pain they are experiencing in other areas. Patience is not a part of our fast-paced, instant gratification society. So when we cannot speed things up, everything can feel “how long?”
It is in the midst of these questions that we are given the scriptures and we are reminded, first by the psalmists that God can handle that anger, God can handle that pain, God can handle our questions. The psalmist not only gives us permission to express those deep pains, but also gives us the words when sometimes they are hard to find to cry out to God. It is a myth that says that God needs us to be “nice” all the time – especially with God. God wants us to be real, God gave us the ability to feel ALL of our feelings and God has given you the very words to cry out in that pain – “how long, O lord. How long?”
And then God gives us Jesus. Through Jesus we can see that God has been there, too. Jesus has experienced the “how long must we endure this?” The testing kept coming. The threats kept coming to Jesus. He knows what we go through. He has experienced it too.
Finally, Jesus shows us another way to handle it when we’ve hit that “how long” place. How does Jesus finally deal with all of these tests and entrapments being sent his way? Jesus deals with the tests finally by turning the tables and asking them a question – one they can’t answer.
How do we turn the tables when life is full of trials and struggles? How do we reclaim our power and our sense of living life when things are really difficult? There isn’t always an easy answer to that. Almost all of us are victimized at some point. Some people have really awful things happen to them from which they cannot recover. Some live with victimization on a daily basis, some had childhoods in which they were abused regularly, some live in situations from which it is almost impossible, if not impossible to recover. There are some injustices from which people simply cannot recover, or can only recover with serious intervention, a great deal of time, and a great deal of support, love and professional help. I am not speaking to those people right now, though I have the greatest sympathy and compassion for them and for their suffering.
Instead I am speaking to the majority of people in middle class America who at some point grow up and have to choose how we are going to deal with the many things that have victimized us. Are we going to pass on those bad behaviors? Are we going to be walking professional victims, telling everyone we meet how awfully we were treated and how unfair our life has been and how unfair it continues to be? Or are we going to choose instead to be survivors and hopefully even thrivers – people who have not only survived the victimization and who choose not to be victims any longer but people who thrive, who live, who have learned from their victimization and who choose strength both for themselves and for those they encounter? Are we going to use our experiences of injustice to insist on a better world for all? Are we going to stand up for ourselves and others, helping to empower others to do the same? I know it is not easy to choose to be survivors rather than victims. And it is even harder to be thrivers. But these are choices we can make. I am reminded of a Curtis comic strip I saw some time ago (March 30, 2008). The father pointed out that many rap artists both in the past and in the present talk about (among other things) how terrible everyone has been to them, and then he suggested that maybe it would be better if instead they talked about how they could make different life choices and make things better.
Choosing to be a survivor may not be as “interesting” as complaining about the injustices that we’ve experienced. It may not be as attractive. It may not be as easy. It involves feeling some hard feelings – grief, for example, must be felt, must be experienced, must be lived through to come out the other side. But choosing to feel those feelings is part of turning the tables: not allowing the trials of life to defeat you – choosing instead to seize life and no longer be the target, the victim, the pursued. Jesus did this by again, turning the tables on those who would entrap him, not attacking, but asking questions that required his listeners to make a choice between being genuine or being true to the image they were trying to put forward. He forced them to look at themselves, look at their own theology, look at the inconsistencies and hypocrisies in their own faiths. He used the same method as they did – asking questions, but he did so in a way that told them volumes about themselves and about him. We may not have the same ability to do that, but chances are that our trials will not be the same as those Jesus faced either.
Today is reformation Sunday and in many ways, the Reformation was an answer to the question of “how Long”. Martin Luther said, “enough. No longer will I endure the injustices I am witnessing. No longer will we walk in this way. We must change or forge a new path” And he did. As an aside I want to point out that what Jesus shows in this passage is that confrontation is not the opposite of love. Jesus is the embodiment of love, and he follows this passage about loving your neighbor with a confrontation.
Sometimes we will endure. Sometimes we will grieve and walk through. And sometimes, we are called to make changes, to stand up against injustices and to answer the question of “how long” with “no longer. It is time for this to change and that change will start with me.”
We can make a choice – are we going to be victims, survivors, or thrivers? Are we going to go out of this life doing the work, healing, living and engaged? Or are we going to let life plow us and other people over? How do you want to run this race? Do you want to live life so fully that you cross the finish line exhausted but fulfilled? Or do you want to walk to the finish line – still whole, but without having lived? Or do you want to limp along until you are finally called home? Jesus calls you to live. Jesus calls you to be engaged. Jesus calls you to stand up for yourself and for those around you who suffer injustices. Jesus calls you to love God and love your neighbor, all of your neighbors, as yourself, even when we are asking “how long”, even when we are struggling, even when we are tired. “How long, O Lord?” we ask. And answer is, “you do not know the time or the place”. So live now, live today, in whatever way you can, in whatever ways are life-giving for you and for those around you. Amen.