Not understanding yet loving
Please read the passage through a number of times. What words or phrases stick out for you? What puzzles you? What questions do you have? Imagine you were one of the Pharisees asking the question. Imagine hearing Jesus’ response and not being able to give him an answer.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." Jesus said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions
There are two parts to the reading today. The first part we probably can understand but the second part sounds like a riddle.
As I see it the first has to do with love and the second with life. Religion is nothing without love and the law is nothing without love. Love fulfils the law, love fulfils religion. So often in religion it is not love that we pursue but truth. We define the truth as what is right as opposed to what is wrong. When we use truth as our benchmark there are always those who are included and those who are excluded. Jesus didn’t say, “This is the truth, and the way and the life.” Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Rather than walking the path of truth with its boundaries and conditions, its rights and wrongs it seems that Jesus invites us to walk the path of love and to live our lives in relationship of love with God and with every other human being, and not just human beings but all beings, with all creation. When we love creation, people are blessed. God’s blessings flow.
The first part both Jesus and the Pharisees could agree on. Doing it was another matter. The second part the Pharisees had no answer for. Sometimes there are things we have no understanding about. We argue about them and declare what is right and what is wrong. We do this even in regard to God. We like to be the voice of God telling the world what to do and what not to do, what to believe and what not to believe. I remember when I had completed five years of theological study saying to others that after five years, I now know that there is a lot more to learn about God than when I started and that I feel like I know less about God now than I thought I did when I started. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An altar in the world’ says (about people who do not consider themselves religious) ‘The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to be.’
The question that the Pharisees could not answer seems to me to be suggesting that God is outside the limits of time. ‘If David thus calls him (the Messiah) Lord, how can he be his son?" Eckhart Tolle says, ‘Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.’ Both birth and death are part of life. God is life, in God there is no death, all are alive. God is God of both the living and the dead. Life is eternal.
It seems to me that whether we know or do not know the right answer is not what is most important, it is what we do that is most important and that is to live lives of love. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor says, ‘Wisdom is not gained from knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not need to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know.’ If we do not know how to love the only way we will learn is by practicing, by doing it. The first step in loving someone may be by simply listening to them.
Prayer: (Please find a place where you can sit and see something of God’s Creation. If unable to be outdoors or look outdoors perhaps focus your attention on an indoor plant or on a pet or on an insect buzzing or crawling around your room. You may have to listen for it or search carefully with your eyes. You could also listen for the singing and calling of birds from outside)
God beyond all knowledge and beyond all my understanding, I pause in your holy presence all around me and within me. Thank you for trees and plants, pets, insects and birds. They are just getting on with their lives. Thank you for my life and thank you for the people and creatures that you have given me to love. Teach me to love as I practice loving you and my neighbours. Thank you for your undying love and being safe in your eternal life. All praise to you God beyond all knowledge and beyond all my understanding. Amen.
photo: A special cat, Bandon, Republic of Ireland
(Please read the passage a number of times before reading the reflection. What is the passage saying to you? What strikes you in the story? Rest with it for a while.)
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"
22:21 They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
A number of years ago I heard a woman tell a story of when she attended a very large gathering of Christians at the Acer Arena in Sydney. At one point in the gathering the lighting was dimmed and the music was slowed, and the volume lowered, and a hush came on the congregation. A pastor, lit by a single light on stage began his call for an offering by asking the people to take their credit cards out of their purses and wallets. He asked them to hold the credit cards up high and he urged them to give their credit cards to the Lord. The woman telling the story, was incensed by this. She did not see it as freely giving to the Lord, but as gross manipulation of the people in order for them to part with their money and give it to the organisers. The whole Acer arena was silent for a moment so, she jumped up from her seat and shouted aloud over and over again, “God does not want your credit cards, God wants you!” At that the security guards rushed to where the shouting was coming from but when they saw she was seated in a corporate box they did not arrest her.
One of the things I have learned about wisdom in the last seven months is the need to release all notions in our minds of separation between sacred and secular. There is no sacred life and there is no separate secular life. There is only one life, and we are to live it to the full. We tend to see Sunday as sacred and church buildings as sacred and what goes on there as sacred, but we see Monday and work, education, politics etc as secular. We tend to behave one way in church and another way in business or in school. Sometimes we use one to influence the other. Sometimes we use spirituality to manipulate a situation to get our way. Other times we will justify our decisions in the church by appealing to what we deem to be best business practice or because it benefits the majority.
Wisdom reminds us that there is only one life and to live it to the full.
Matthew lets us know at the outset of today’s Gospel reading that the intention of the Pharisees was to entrap Jesus in what he said. They had realised (Matthew 21:45-46) that when Jesus told his parables that he was speaking about them and so they wanted to arrest him. When we don’t like what someone is saying publicly about us, we will do all we can to silence them. All over the world political leaders wishing to hold on to power at all costs are silencing the media if they ask critical questions of their leadership or if they do not speak favourably about them.
When the armies of the Roman Empire conquered a country and made it part of the empire, the Romans would use the elite of that country, the king, the rulers and local government to manage the country on behalf of the empire. The Herodians were those who oversaw the country on behalf of the Romans in Palestine. It was their role to make sure that Palestine remained loyal to Caesar and the empire. The Pharisees sent some of their followers and brought the Herodians along with them so that they could trap Jesus with some questions about his position in regard to Caesar and the empire; and the Herodians would be there as witnesses. If Jesus said the wrong thing he could be arrested on the spot, removed immediately and executed. To be caught publicly saying anything that sounded like treason or disloyalty to the emperor would mean certain execution. The Pharisees could then say it was the Herodians acting on behalf of the empire who arrested and executed Jesus not them. So, their plan was not to catch him out on a religious matter but on a political matter.
They said to Jesus. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In reply Jesus said, “Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Jesus ends his reply by saying, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." So, Jesus shows no disloyalty to the emperor by answering, “Give to the emperor what is the emperors and give to God what is God’s.
We know that the coin was the emperor’s and to be given to him but what things were to be given to God? When Jesus answers the question, Jesus answers with a wisdom that transcends the thinking and reason of this world. Jesus sees life not from within a dualist framework of sacred and secular, right and wrong, true or false or good and evil but from a heavenly perspective, a kingdom or realm of God perspective which sees beyond all earthly divisions and attempts to categorise and separate and manipulate and divide and conquer. The perspective of Jesus is a perspective of the unity of all things. All life is connected. All life is connected to the one source, to the divine. From this perspective there is no us and no them. There are no enemies for we are all part of the one, and connected to each other.
Rather than knowing for sure what is to be given to the emperor and what is to be given to God, rather than knowing for sure what is truth and what is not, perhaps Jesus invites us to step back from dividing life into different and separate categories and learn to stand within ‘a kingdom/realm of God’ perspective which just sees all life as connected. It sees all life as connected because God is life and God cannot be separated. There is one life, to be lived fully. Living a fully human life will never be lived by separating life into the sacred and the secular. There is only one life and you are living it now in this moment wherever you are and whatever you are doing, whether at church, or work, or school, or partying, or shopping or at bible study. God is all around you. God is in you. You are in God. We all are in God. All things are in God.
Prayer – Rather than using words at first, please sit somewhere you can observe nature: amongst flowers, plants or trees, where you can watch birds or insects living life. As you watch, allow some of what you have read to rest in your being, not arguing about it your mind, just letting it be. If words arise, form them into a prayer to God who is life and the giver of life and without whom there is no life.
Yesterday we celebrated the marriage of Pou and Api at Earlwood Uniting Church. It was great celebrating a happy occasion during this crisis Covid-19 pandemic time. However, because of the restrictions and strict rules to follow when holding a wedding in a building it meant that not all the guests who were invited to attend the wedding could fit in the church. There was plenty of room for all the guests at the Reception venue but not in the church where the actual ceremony was to take place. The church was restricted to 49 guests plus the couple, photographer, singer, pianist, two ushers and myself, the minister. My biggest fear was that we would have to turn people away from the church because we had reached the quota allowed. It could have been a case of many are invited but few are chosen.
I find this to be a troubling parable and hard to understand. Some Christians have used this parable to back up their theological view of Divine election or Divine selection: that God chooses those whom God will save; that God chooses some and not all for salvation. For some Christians this creates great fear and uncertainty. Some doubt their eternal salvation: Could I be invited and not yet chosen? Such theological dilemmas seem crazy to me now, but they also anger me. Why do we humans like to restrict the love and inclusiveness of God?
Parables are always full of extremes and exaggeration to disorientate us out of our self-righteous religious thinking and open us to a more compassionate view of humanity and God. But the parables are not just about changing our
theological thinking or how we think about God or think about the kingdom of God. Parables invite us into a life, kingdom life, kingdom living; to partake, to participate not just to know about. We can think we know exactly what this or any other parable or even what Christianity is about; and yet not live it. I can know lots about what exercises are best for the body but until I do them the knowledge remains in my head and my body remains unchanged. So, followers of Jesus are not just people who know their theology; they are people who engage, who practice, who live out their beliefs, who live in relation with God.
Who is the poor guy that gets tossed out for not having the right clothes? I guess one interpretation of the guest who was not dressed in wedding clothes is that he could be someone who knew the theology but didn’t live it or someone who had the wrong theology.
Remember that the parables show up what human life is like rather than life in the kingdom of God. What guests would refuse the invitation of the king and what king would invite people in off the streets? It is like a dream, a hallucination; but then we are suddenly awoken from the fantasy by someone being thrown out. It is like everyone has suddenly come to their senses and reality returns. Someone is found out, they thought they had been invited. They thought they were welcome but when the dream ends and reality returns that man is thrown out and back to where he belongs but worse, he is punished and then comes the harsh clanger at the end - “For many are called, but few are chosen."
This is the way of the world. The richest, the most powerful, the fastest, the most beautiful, everyone aspires, but few make it to the top. This is nothing like the kingdom of God. Does the parable remind you more of what happened to Jesus? Isn’t it like when everyone turned on him and not only threw him out but killed him, to be rid of him forever? He wasn’t wearing the clothes of this world. His presence challenged us. It annoyed us so we expelled him. Rather than many are called, but few are chosen perhaps Jesus’ parable turns this on its head and perhaps instead it may hint that all are called but few find their way to the kingdom.
Prayer: This week we celebrated a happy event, and we remember Pou and Api as they begin married life together. We also heard the sad news that Lina’s husband Danny died after a long illness and we remember Lina and Danny’s family.
God who meets us in every part and time of our life, in illness and good health, in birth, in marriage, in death, in times of great sadness and great joy, we thank you for all things and all times in which we encounter you and your love. We thank you for the people we meet on our journey and bless them with goodness and kindness. We offer words of forgiveness and healing from our hearts; that in some small way people may experience your kingdom here on earth and know that they are included. Amen.
Photo; Galway, Republic of Ireland
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation