Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lectionary 30A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us.

If you type the word “heart” into your online search engine, the first few hits are likely to be about the physical heart, the organ in our chest. Another top find is the rock group Heart. Go down a little further in the search and you’ll find sites about playing the game hearts and a number of sites dedicated to things with pictures of hearts. Eventually you’ll find organizations with the word ‘heart’ in their name. These organizations are often focused on the physical organ, but many use the word as the source for compassion and respect.

While the heart is the center of the human circulatory system, it is unlikely that most references to it in the Bible have anything to do with the physical organ. For the early Christians and those who came before, the heart was more than a pumping muscle. They may not have even understood the physical characteristics of the heart. There may have been some with medical knowledge, but the common folk would have had little or no knowledge beyond experiencing the pumping inside their chest.

We know far more about the heart, but we continue to use the word in reference to the something other than the physical organ. In today’s world, the heart is the center of our feelings. Love, and hate, comes out of the heart. Good things and bad touch our heart. Our wishes and dreams are the desires of our heart. This might be closer to the idea that was understood by those early Christians. And yet, it is not just about feelings.

For them, the heart was the center of the being, the spirit, the soul, the intellect. They had no better understanding of the brain, so for the people in that day, the heart dealt with everything internal. Prayers came from the heart. Anger and hatred came from the heart. Wisdom came from the heart. Even today there is some of that still present in our thoughts. We learn things by heart. We forgive from the heart. When we are excited about something, our heart is in it. When the opposite is true, our heart is not in it. In today’s knowledge, we know that those things are controlled by the brain, not the heart, and yet the heart is still the center of our being.

The Pharisees asked Jesus a question in today’s passage. This was the fourth of four questions put to Jesus in these days following His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus was well on His way to the cross, but the leaders were still trying to understand Jesus or find a way to destroy Him. This series of passages, which we’ve seen a few over the past few weeks, represent the types of questions the early rabbis asked: law, doctrine, meaning of life and ‘hagaddha’ or seeming contradictions in scripture texts.

We saw the first, a question of law, in last week’s passage. In that passage, the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not the people should pay taxes. The question was designed as a trick, but Jesus answered shrewdly. He told the Pharisees to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar. We don’t hear the question of doctrine in the lectionary, but we are surely familiar with the story. The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, asked about a widow who married seven brothers. “Whose wife will she be in heaven?” they asked. Jesus answered that they did not understand the scriptures and that the resurrected life will be different than that of normal human experience.

The last two types of questions are asked in today’s passage. First the Pharisees, happy to see the Sadducees’ question about resurrection shot down, next asked a question about the meaning of life. “What is the most important commandment?” they asked. Now, you might think this is a question of law, but it is actually a question of purpose. What is our purpose but to live faithfully to the word of God? Jesus answered with two great commandments: to love God and to love neighbor.

Jesus did not give them time to respond; He asked them a question. “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answered, “David’s son.” This, of course, is the right answer, and yet it offers a question of contradiction. Jesus responded, “How then doth David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I put thine enemies underneath thy feet? If David then calleth him Lord, how is he his son?”

They were looking for a military hero, a king in the line of David. Their Messiah would be that man who could sit on the throne and restore Jerusalem to its former glory, to the golden nation that it once was. They were stumped by His question. They did not know how a son of David could be greater than David himself. How would David have called that son “Lord” long before any sons had risen to the throne? This seeming contradiction cannot be easily answered, unless you believe that the Messiah would be someone even greater than David, someone who would do more than an earthly king. The only way for David to call the Messiah “Lord” is if the Messiah were God in flesh.

This is a concept that we have a problem understanding even with our greater knowledge of the world. It is not a fact that can be explained intellectually. It is something we have to believe from our heart. This is the tricky part, since our heart can be fickle. In our hearts we can know love and hate, joy and anger, knowledge of good and evil. If we rely on our feelings, we will be led astray as we follow our own desires and intelligence. Feelings can be deceptive. We might feel that we are doing right, but others will consider what we are doing is wrong. Our gut reactions can lead us to do something that will hurt our neighbor.

If we think of the heart as they did in Jesus’ day, we’ll see that love is not about feelings but about living wholly and completely for God and neighbor. It isn’t about feelings, but about living our purpose in this world. The entire record of God rests upon those two commands. The scriptures of the Jews could be summarized with just a couple sentences. We could spend days, even a lifetime, discussing, debating, interpreting and understanding the Ten Commandments and the other six hundred and three laws, but holiness is not achieved by obedience to a list of rules. Holiness comes in our commitment to living as God has called and gifted us to live.

Love is about commitment. All too many young people today talk of love and rush into relationships that have little basis or commitment. When things go sour, when things do not go the way they want, when their partners fail to live up to their expectation, they walk away. Many people try to test out marriage, to see if it will work. Yet it will never work because they do not go into the relationship with any sense of commitment. Commitment takes work. It means giving heart, soul and mind into the relationship. Love is far more than physical attraction; it is willing to sacrifice for the sake of another, to give one’s whole being into the relationship. It means being holy like God is holy.

How can we possibly be holy? I wonder if I've ever had even one day that could be counted as holy, let alone an entire life. I can’t get through a day without yelling at my kids or thinking unkind thoughts about my neighbor. Some days I can’t seem to get through a minute without doing something that is far from holy. Yet, we are called to be holy. What does this mean for you and me? What does it mean to be holy people of God, called to be like Him in this world?

The Old Testament lesson gives us a list of holy actions as related to our relationships with our neighbors. These rules are about judging rightly and fairly and treating one another as we would want to be treated. In other words, these rules call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In verse 15 the LORD says, “Do not pervert justice.” He adds, “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.” Justice is not about lifting up one type of person above another, it is about judging fairly. Though it might not seem right according to our politically correct society, sometimes the rich man is right. We are to treat all people fairly, no matter their circumstances.

The next two rules are related. “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.” We should not harm our neighbor by words or actions. As children we learn that “Sticks and stones break my bones but words can never hurt me,” and yet as adults we learn that slander can destroy a life. If a businessman is slandered, he might lose his customers, leaving his family desolate. A false statement against a teacher can mean removal from the job. A leader who has been slandered will lose the authority of their position. For some, these loses are worse than death.

“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.” Do we hate others? I’d like to think that we understand that hate is not good but there are always people who rub us the wrong way. Instead of dealing with the sins and differences between us, we separate ourselves from those with whom we disagree. However, scriptural hate is not like we define in today’s world. When the scriptures says that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, it did not mean that God felt an aversion to Esau, but that God put Jacob ahead of Esau. So, when commanding that we not hate our brother in our heart, God is telling us not to put ourselves above our neighbor. Instead of separating from them, we should find a way to reconcile and restore the relationship.

The instruction about hate is juxtaposed with the next command, “Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor.” If we don’t, the Lord tells us that we will share in their guilt. In other words, though we would much rather keep our noses out of the business of our neighbors thinking that their sin is not our concern, we are called to rebuke our brother for their sake and our own. If a brother or sister is doing something wrong and we ignore the trespass, we are as much to blame for the harm it causes another. In this case, love means truth no matter how much it might pain us to speak. But when we speak that truth, it is to be done with mercy and grace. We should not seek revenge or hold grudges, but love our neighbor as we want to be loved.

We are called to be righteous, not in terms of moral behavior but in terms of justice, doing what is right and fair for and to our neighbor. We are called to be truthful in the way we deal with our neighbor both when speaking about them and to them. We are called to respect their life, body and soul. We are called to forgive, so that our relationships might grow stronger and our love deeper. That’s what it means to be holy, to be like God. I don’t know if these actions will make it any easier to be holy, but as we strive to be like god in our relationships with one another, we’ll discover that we are better able to live within our God-given purpose.

Paul tries to live this in his life and ministry. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he worked hard for their sake giving “also our own souls.” He loved them with his heart, mind and soul. He loved them with his whole being. Unfortunately, Paul’s ministry was often disrupted by other preachers intent on perverting the Gospel message. Paul was harmed in Philippi and he wanted to ensure that the people of Thessalonica did not fall for the same false Gospel. Paul reminds the people that he did not require anything of them. He didn’t demand payment. He didn’t ask for gifts. He gave them the Gospel and encouraged them to live accordingly. He loved them so that they might know the love of God fully. He was worried about his fellow Christians, but was firm in his faith.

We are encouraged to do the same. Our task is not just to take the Gospel to all nations, but to also teach the baptized to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28.) We should not give them only a word, but our whole selves. We are called to love them, not just with a call to believe but with an invitation into a relationship with Christ, His Church and us. Part of that nurturing includes learning together how to ensure justice in our world, to keep our leaders in check and to provide for the needs of the less fortunate. Faith is manifested not only in a religious life, but also in a life where all things are done by faith, in faith, with faith. That’s the holy life.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man…” We generally think of happiness in terms that can be expressed with a ‘smiley face,’ a manifestation of good feelings about life. Yet, the most common understanding of the word ‘happy’ according to Merriam-Webster’s diction is “favored by luck or fortune.” That’s blessedness, but the favor comes from something more true than luck or fortune; the favor comes from God. When God blesses, we have reason to be happy. In this beatitude, the happy ones are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers. Walk, stand or sit, the blessed one is the person who drinks in the Word of God, meditating on the scriptures like a tree that stands next to a stream drinks in the passing water. The blessed one is he or she who takes the Word of God to heart, lives it with their whole being and does what God has called them to do.

It is all about the heart. Not feelings. Not knowledge. We are called to live God’s purpose in the world, by loving Him and our neighbor with our whole selves, striving to be holy as God is holy. In doing so, our neighbors will see the Messiah and hear the Good News, joining us in our quest for holiness in this world as we wait longingly for the day when we will live eternally with our God.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page