If you have ever worked as a teacher at any level (elementary, secondary, college, graduate school, even seminary) you will recognize today’s gospel (Matthew 22: 34-44) as having all the marks of a bad faculty meeting. Much like the aging tenured faculty, the Pharisees gang up on the new guy and try to pose him a trick question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There were 613 commandments in the Torah or Jewish law—248 “dos” and 365 “don’ts”—and being asked to select one from among them qualifies as a first century gotcha question. Like that of their modern academic counterparts, the aggression of the ancient scholars in this story proves that highly educated people are at least no nicer and often a lot meaner than everybody else.
Today’s gospel shows two interactions—the great commandment question posed by the Pharisees, and the one about David asked by Jesus—and as such it gives us the fourth and fifth of the “controversy stories” in this part of Matthew’s gospel. (Last week we heard the back and forth about paying taxes to Caesar. The prior week Jesus told the story of the wedding feast to which nobody came.) Taken together, these “controversy stories” place Jesus at odds with the prevailing religious wisdom of his time. Again, like a bad faculty meeting, we seem to be in the presence of a contest where the smug establishment can’t get the better of this brilliant upstart in their midst. Though I’m not going to say much about the second interchange—the one where Jesus poses the question about
David’s relationship to the Messiah—the Pharisees’ inability to answer suggests not only that they are arrogant jerks but that they’re really not very good bible scholars. Some people are authoritarians because they believe in hierarchy. Others rely on structures to protect them because they really are not all that good at what they do.
For me, though, the energy in this morning’s gospel revolves around the first interaction. The Pharisees ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment, and of course like any brilliant student Jesus immediately reframes the question and names not one but two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And then he concludes: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Over the years, this surprising summary has become time-worn and familiar. If you’re as old as I am, you may remember this “summary of the law” as something the priest said every Sunday in the days of the 1928 Prayer Book. It’s familiarity often blunts its moral and intellectual force.
In one sense, there is nothing terribly surprising in this answer. Jesus is in fact quoting scripture here—in one case Deuteronomy, in the other Leviticus. (Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God, Leviticus 19:18 about loving neighbor.) But in the way he answers the Pharisees’ question, Jesus does say something new: he is the first teacher in the Jewish tradition to say that loving God and loving neighbor are of equal importance. We knew that each commandment was important. We didn’t know that loving others was just as important as loving God. You cannot credibly say you love God if you are cruel or unjust to human beings. Piety without compassion is false.
This fall, we have set these four Sundays aside as a parish community to think and talk together about stewardship and our annual pledge campaign to support Trinity’s operating budget for 2018. The vestry has adopted what some might consider an audacious goal, to increase giving by $165,000 over 2017. The pulpit is not the place to go into all the reasoning behind this goal. We will leave that to the three house gatherings we’re holding in the next couple of weeks. I will say, however, that as big as the goal sounds, all it does is fully fund the ministry we are doing now. There are no gigantic new programs or hires in this budget. We’re merely catching up to pay the lay staff and the next rector and associate what we think they deserve. This increase will align our compensation with our values, allowing us to work for justice outside with integrity inside.
But as we focus on stewardship, generosity, and our own giving, Jesus’s summary of the law offers us a framework to think about why we need a church in the first place and what you and I owe to its ongoing life and support.
I’ve worked in the church for over 40 years, and I have lived through and survived multiple attempts by churches to construct sophisticated, pithy, ingenious mission statements. (Thankfully, that time is over.) Crafting these slogans is useful in that it forces us to think about what we do and why we do it. But any church school kid could tell you that churches exist essentially to do two things. They exist to worship. They exist to serve. In linking the commandments to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus has given us the only mission statement for the church that makes any sense. Let’s put it on our letterhead and website!
Churches exist to worship. When people tell me that they don’t need church, that they can worship God at the beach or on the golf course, I often want to reply that I understand them: I’ve spent plenty of boring sermons thinking about what it would be like to be outdoors. But more to the point, you and I need the church help focus us on the things that really matter. We come in the church to pray, and prayer is basically about paying attention. We gather not to get God’s attention, but to allow God to get ours. When I’m trying to sink a putt or looking for a shell in the sand, I’m focused on something particular and maybe even important, but I’m not focusing on God. When I come to church, the liturgy, the music, the readings, the sermon point me to reflecting on life’s ultimate questions. There are no other places in our common life where we set everything aside to open ourselves to the big questions of meaning and purpose. If I am going to try to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, I am going to need some place to do it and some other people to do it with.
Churches exist to worship. Churches also exist to serve. And if we are to believe Jesus this morning, the service is at least as important as the worship. Again, if prayer is about God getting our attention, we are asked to understand that we experience God as much through our connections with other human beings as we do through stone and stained glass and song. That is why churches have traditionally seen pastoral care—visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, responding to personal and family crises of all sorts—as core to what they do. It is also why churches have emphasized justice work and community outreach as ways of both helping those who struggle but also of opening ourselves to the good news and judgment embedded in the claims and cries of those beyond our walls.
Kathy and I are interlopers at Trinity. We’re only here for a prescribed time and I’m only here in a narrowly defined role. But in the few months we have been with you we have come to love this place. Who wouldn’t? You do the church’s two core tasks very well. You worship beautifully and with integrity. You serve each other and the community with compassion and commitment. So here’s the good news: if church is about loving God and loving neighbor, Trinity Church is already doing what Jesus told his legalistic interrogators and the rest of us to do.
And the logic of Jesus’s charge to us carries us one step further. It is time now to align our piety and compassion with our values. It is time for each of us to take seriously the claims of God’s mission on us and our resources. Something is not right if I say that I love God and my neighbor and then spend almost all my money on myself. If I value the worship of God, if I value the love of my neighbor as I say I do, then I will allow God to open up my heart to a spirit of generosity that will allow me to align the way I use my money with my spiritual priorities. If I’m spending more on my cable and cellphone bills each month than I’m giving to support God’s mission, something is seriously out of whack.
When he gave a serious answer to a gotcha question, Jesus called his inquisitors and us toward a higher righteousness than most people usually live by. It is easy to follow 613 rules. It is harder to organize one’s life around two big and challenging principles. As in my spiritual and moral lives, so in my personal philanthropy: what is a gift that reflects what I say I believe? What is a gift that aligns my resources with what I value both in the church and in the world?
In framing the questions this way, Jesus both simplified and complicated our spiritual and moral lives. In giving himself to us and for us, he set a standard of personal generosity that few of us will ever be asked to match. That is why we call this process a “journey to generosity”. Some of us are there now. Most of us are on the way. As we take this spiritual, moral, and financial road trip together, let us start by thanking God for what we already have: a beautiful place to worship, a committed and joyful parish community with which to serve, a wider community and world in desperate need of what we have to offer.
May God’s generosity become the pattern for our own. And may we continue to grow in loving God and loving our neighbor in real and tangible ways as we make our way together down this road of faith and life. Amen.