Forging a new authority

23 October 2011
Nineteenth Sunday after Epiphany
Proper 25 A (RCL)
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

I find it surprising that I can read the same passage from Scripture (and preach on it) many times in a row, and never quite be hit by what it’s saying. For years, I’ve preached on this passage from Matthew, and never noticed how disjointed the two sayings seem when juxtaposed to each other. We have the saying about the two great commandments and the saying about the Christ as David’s son (or not). I don’t ever recall preaching on the second part of this; I think we all usually get distracted by the “love your neighbor as yourself” bit. So, why do Matthew and Mark place these two sayings together?

I think it comes down to a question of authority. In both Mark and Matthew, these sayings come in a string of sayings which include the parable of the tenants, the question about taxes to Caesar, the question about the resurrection (one bride for seven brothers), and then these two sayings. Matthew adds the parable of the wedding feast. Jesus’ interlocutors in these stories are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees believed that at the last day, God would raise the just and restore the kingdom freed from all opposition. The Pharisees were political quietists. One had to endeavor to live justly, so that when the kingdom was restored, one would take part in it. The Sadducees did not believe in a final resurrection, and so were political activists: they believed that they must be involved in the restoration of the kingdom here and now.

It is the Pharisees who ask Jesus about taxes to the Emperor. They wanted to know if Jesus was a political quietist. He refuses to fit into their categories; neither subversive nor collaborationist. There is a wonderful irony in his response, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” The money may belong to Caesar, but not worship. The image of God is stamped on individuals and community. Those belong to God. The Sadducees want to know if Jesus is a political activist; is there a resurrection or not? Again, Jesus sort of dodges their question — yes, there is a resurrection, but not altogether like the Pharisees expect (no marrying or giving in marriage).

Jesus (or Matthew using Jesus’ voice) is crafting a new constitution for a new people. Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast takes account of the destruction of the Temple, which raises the question of what binds Judaism together. The Pharisees would locate authority in the writings; the remnant of the Sadducees would finally be wiped out in the bar-Kochba revolt. The Christians took a different path, and located authority in Jesus. Jesus, as the supreme rabbi, answers the question of the greatest commandment, and then essentially dismisses the rest of it; “on these two hang all the law and the prophets.” And, he points out that the Christ is not David’s son, not a political figure at all. Christians are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

Authority, for the Christian community, would lie in its own conversations (that path is taken most clearly by John’s Gospel), it’s own endeavors to interpret the commandments, and it’s own faithfulness to a Christ not imagined as a political, but rather cosmic, figure (being lord even of David).

Where is authority for us? Being Christian, belonging to the Church, trumps political loyalty and serves as the interpretive principle for ethical reasoning. Loyalty to God and our neighbor is the constitution of this new society. Beyond that, there are no rules. That kind of loyalty is hard going, because there are no shortcuts.

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