But Jesus gives them a riddle of his own. “You people really don’t have clue about either the Bible or the power of God. The resurrection is not about marriage, but about living in God’s presence. And by the way, didn’t you ever wonder why God said “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? Because God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” The Sadducees slunk.
Then he did it to the Herodians, the Sadducees’ kissing cousins, obsequious religious supporters of the smarmy Herod Agrippa, whose patron Caligula taught him how to be a decadent despot instead of a simple dictator. They figured that they’d nail him with the one question this insurrectionist would be sure to blow: “So, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus almost chortles with glee. “Bring me a denarius.” Someone handed him the small silver coin. Jesus looked at it, heads up. “So, whose picture is this?” He holds it towards them, between thumb and forefinger. They shift uncomfortably. “Caesar’s.” He tosses the coin back. “Well, then, give Caesar’s money back to him.” They commence to slink. “Wait,” calls Jesus. “And then, give God’s things to God.”
This week, we encounter the third bunch of religious wingnuts, the Pharisees. They were, in their own way, the worst of the bunch. The Sadducees were ignored by anybody with a lick of common sense. The Herodians had so compromised Judaism in their support of the Empire that no one took them seriously anyway. But the Pharisees, now they were the good ones. They read their Bibles, they paid their tithes, they were first in line at Shabbat services. They looked down their noses at the common, sinful people, whose daily lives were focused on just getting by. They were spiritual triathletes—prayer warriors, Bible scholars, passionate and uncompromising worshippers of Yahweh. Which is why they hated the traveling Nazarene. He drank too much. He laughed too loud. He hung around with tax collectors and whores. He best friends smelled liked fish and he had never even darkened the door of the religious schools that taught Rabbis how to interpret the Law.
They watch him as he approaches, gathered in a huddle. He had bested their rivals in the game of religious checkers. But he wouldn’t get them. They had God on their side. One of them, a lawyer, steps out and greets him with a sanctimonious bow. “Rabbi, we wondering, which is the greatest commandment of them all?”
The Pharisees agreed that there were 613 commandments in the Torah, a perfect number since there were 365 days in a year and 248 bones in the human body. (Medical science would later disprove the second part of their theory, but science has never stood in the way of religious belief.) And every Rabbi knew which of the commandments was the greatest. Except that nobody agreed. Some Rabbis believed that the commandment to circumcision was the most important, since God gave that law to Noah, even before Moses. Some said it was the Sabbath, since on the seventh day, even God rested. But Jesus knew that the Pharisees believed that the first of the Ten Great Words was the greatest commandment, so he smiles in that way that says, “What’s coming next is going to knock on you on your rear.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,” with a twinkle in eye, he adds “and with all your mind.” He nailed the right answer and even from across the street you could see them start to deflate. “But wait, he adds, “there’s a second one, just as important. You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
Their minds reel. Did he really say that? Did he really put loving another person on the same level as loving God? Did he really mean that the way we treat other people is the way we love or don’t love the Creator of the Universe? They are starting to foam at the mouth, but it’s too late. Jesus of Nazareth is in full demolition mode.
“I’ve got one for you.” They look down, hoping to melt into the dust, because somehow they know what he’s going to do, in front of all these people. “Tell me what you think of the Messiah. Whose son is he?”
This couldn’t be it could it? What a dumb question. “The Messiah is the son of David,” they snort, murmuring, “you idiot” below their breath.
“Really?” says Jesus, laughing loudly. “Why is it that David calls him Lord, then? Everybody knows that ancestors don’t look up to descendants. If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”
In one brief funny riddle, Jesus has deconstructed a millennium of religious philosophy. He revealed that not only did the Pharisees not know how to worship God, they didn’t even know that God’s Messiah was the Lord of David.
In one instant Jesus has said that worshipping God is not a matter of going to Temple or believing the right things, but of seeing God in other people and loving them. And that religion which was centered in a system of laws knew nothing of the Lordship of the Messiah. And that’s when they decided that he had to die.
You see, religious people who equate erecting monuments of the Ten Commandments with loving God are idolaters as much as any pagan. Christianity is not based on the Ten Commandments as formative and important as those ideals are. Christianity is based on love. Love over tradition. Over the Bible. Over the Church. Over the flag. Over the United States of America. Over all.
Living that love, says Exodus, is shown in how we treat the oppressed: the poor, the orphans and the immigrants among us. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry…If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury says that our encounter with our neighbor is the sacred space “where God happens.” When we reach out to someone, who is hurting, who is oppressed by society or circumstance, who is alone and lost, our connectedness brings life to that neighbor. “The neighbor is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbor is bound up with our own connection with God. The neighbor is our death, communicating to us the death sentence on our attempts to settle who we are in our own terms and to cling to what we reckon as our achievements. ‘Death is at work in us and life in you,’ as Saint Paul says (2 Cor. 4:12)… He is writing about how the apostle’s suffering and struggle to make the life of Christ visible in such a way that others are revived in hope. And it is as others discover this life in hope that we receive it too, the gift we could not have expected as we, with such difficulty and reluctance and intermittent resentment, had to learn to let go of our own lives and learn how to attend in love to the neighbor. We love with God when and only when we are the conduit for God’s reconciling presence with the person next to us. It is as we connect the other with the source of life that we come to stand in the place of life, the place cleared and occupied for us by Christ.”
Since Hurricane Katrina, our country is struggling to learn the lesson of the Two Greatest Commandments: that to love God, we must love those who are of little value to the world. We have created a nation that values wealth and accomplishment, that views poverty as the result of sloth, that blesses a caste system of Us and Them. The fruits of our labor (and war-making) belong to Us. Their poverty and isolation belongs to Them.
And now we have been thrust face to face with the poor. We can no longer pretend they don’t exist. We have been loving God in a vacuum. But we can’t get away with it anymore.
For Jesus says God is in Them and to love God, we must love Them. No excuses. No explanations. No further questions. There is nothing to be added to “Love God and love your neighbor.” The Lord of David has summed it up with a knowing smile. It’s our turn.