Who is the Christ?

26 October 2014
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25A (RCL)
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The reading from Matthew stands at the end of a series of conflicts between Jesus and various groups within the Judean context: Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, Temple authorities. We’ve heard the parable of the vineyard and the – rather unjoyous – wedding feast, and disputes about paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection and now about the greatest commandment and the lineage of the Messiah. The section ends with a question about whether the Messiah is David’s son or not. With Matthew, this should send us scurrying back to see if we can find the opening parenthesis. Sure enough, back in chapter 21, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The cleansing of the Temple, and all the disputes and parables happen within these parentheses about the lineage of the Messiah.

Matthew’s community was involved in a struggle over a continuing Jewish identity after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbinic Judaism won that struggle, but we can see Matthew’s fight with Rabbinic Judaism’s tightening of the boundaries of Jewishness. While the Temple stood, anyone who sacrificed at the Temple was Jewish (males had to be circumcised before sacrificing). After the destruction of the Temple, that form of identity no longer worked. Matthew’s community located Jewishness in the identification of Jesus as the Christ. The cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, the parables of the vineyard and the wedding feast all pointed to the promises of God being opened to any and all (provided one was wearing a wedding garment). The conflict over taxes showed that Matthew’s community wasn’t envisioning armed resistance to the Roman Empire. The conflict with the Sadducees showed that Matthew’s community did believe in a resurrection, but not into a continuing kingdom of the just as the Pharisees imagined it. And now, the question of the greatest commandment showed that Matthew’s community did not locate Jewishness exclusively in the Torah (though Jesus has not come to remove a single pen-stroke of it).

Loving God with one’s whole being is the prerequisite for keeping the law, and hence the greatest commandment. The deeper one’s love of God, the deeper one’s love for the whole of creation, including oneself. The profound love of God releases us from fear of the “other,” because we are deeply aware of the presence of God in all. The second command is love of neighbor, which flows from love of God and self. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, had cleansed the Temple, because the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations. The money changers and animal sellers had set up in the court of the Gentiles, leaving the nations no place to pray in the Temple. Love of neighbor requires us to see all as in need of God.

In this context, the question about the lineage of the Christ begins to make sense. If the Christ is David’s son, then what is envisioned is a reestablishment of the united kingdom (Israel and Judah) under David. This is a reservation of the promises of God to the elect few, rather than seeing the election of the few as for the benefit of all enjoying the promises of God. Claiming that the Messiah is not David’s son, but rather David’s lord, frees the Messiah and the messianic community to a universal role. All are to come into God’s promise. Loving neighbor as oneself means learning to see the world from another perspective and appreciating the other point of view. It does not mean converting the neighbor to one’s own point of view, but seeing all as included in the purview of God’s promise.

Moses looked into the promised land form Mount Nebo, but was told he would never enter. Like Moses, we stand on this side of the messianic dream of Matthew’s community, seeing around us division everywhere we look. We need to drill down deep into the love of God to be assured of our own inclusion in God’s salvation, in order that we can truly listen to and appreciate our neighbors and know them to be included in that same plan.

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