Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

How far are we willing to go? The question is ambiguous, isn’t it? On the one hand, it sounds transgressive. How far are we willing to go before we cross a moral boundary? Or how far are we willing to go before we provoke that one we are teasing?


I remember, when I was a child, on more than one occasion, harassing my dad when he was reading his newspaper. I was fortunate to have been raised by a kind and patient man who had a very long fuse. But when it came to an end, watch out! He made it abundantly clear to me that I’d crossed a line. How far are we willing to go?


On the other hand, this question can imply something positive. Let’s say, for example, we decide to explore our faith. There is the joy of discovery. This draws us deeper and deeper. Our pursuit begins to claim more and more of our time. We pray more. We read our Bible more. We follow more intently our favorite teachers on the Christian radio station or podcast. And those close to us begin to take notice. Incredulous, they ask: “how far are you willing to go?”


Today we meet a lawyer who asks Jesus a profound question. Our gospel lesson tells us that he is a member of the Pharisees. We should remember that the Pharisees were a strict religious sect dedicated to the serious study of God’s word and the careful observance of God’s law.


Just how dedicated they were is reflected in the word “Pharisee.” It means “separated,” as in “separated out from the ordinary for a special purpose.” In this case, it is to lead a life wholly dedicated to God. It is to live in fear of God and in obedience to his commandments.


If that is our purpose, what better way to go farther than to pose a profound question to Jesus—the very one to whom the law and the prophets testify, the very one in whom are hid all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God?


Sadly, that is not what motivated the lawyer. Verse 35 tells us that his purpose for going to Jesus is to test him. He wants to catch him in his words. If Jesus gives an answer that doesn’t square with orthodoxy, then the lawyer has grounds to discredit him. But why?


The Pharisees see Jesus as a rival. They resent him, because he succeeds in capturing the hearts of the people while they themselves fail. The gospels depict them as the implacable enemies of Jesus.


In our language, “to test,” can also mean “to provoke,” or, perhaps more accurately, “to test with the aim of provoking.” My mother used to say to me when I was young: “Son, you’re testing my nerves.” The question that the lawyer poses may suggest that he wants to go farther.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Remember, it is the purpose of the Pharisee to study and to obey God’s law. “Oh, how I love your law. On it I meditate day and night,” declares the Psalmist in Psalm 119. But the Psalmist’s passion is not really that of the lawyer. At any rate, it does not seem to be what is motivating him here. He asks Jesus the question with the aim of provoking him.


Note that Jesus does not cut him down. He does not lash out at him. That is not Jesus’ way. He answers the lawyer sincerely and truthfully. To love God and neighbor–these are the two great commandments, on which hang all the law and the prophets.


It is the right answer, because if one succeeds in obeying this commandment, then he or she obeys all the rest. Listen to the Apostle Paul, as he teaches us in Romans 13: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ “You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be—they are all summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to the neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (9, 10).


Note that Jesus’ answer assumes the sincerity of his questioner. But since Jesus sees into the hearts of men and women, he cannot be mistaken about their motives. We can be mistaken about our motives, often willfully; that is why we need someone concerned enough about truth to speak into our lives. It’s so easy to live in self-deception. What a gift it is to have a spouse, a close friend, or a counselor who refuses to let us continue to live in our self-deception, but loves us enough to speak the truth to us, even at the risk of offending or estranging us!


Jesus’ desire is to speak truth to the lawyer, and not only to the lawyer but to all the Pharisees. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Jesus takes here the lawyer and the Pharisees as they represent themselves: as those who want to go farther. It’s as if he is saying: “Alright. You have dedicated yourselves to the study of profound spiritual truths in God’s word. You’ve asked me a profound spiritual question. How far are you willing to go? Let me draw you deeper. Let me invite you into the inner sanctum of truth, where your spiritual search for the truth about God and yourselves finds it goal and destination.”


The Pharisees know the answer. But we wonder whether or not the question causes them to hesitate. They are now unexpectedly in a position in which they intended to put Jesus. Jesus succeeds here in turning the question back on the questioner.


Now there is something significant here for us, and we don’t want to miss it. That is, there is something here that helps us understand God’s ways with us. We often struggle to relate to God. We’ve entrusted our lives to God. We depend on God to provide for us; we pray to God to lead us. But when we have a need, when we walk in darkness, we question God.  


This is not wrong. Indeed, we can and should bring our questions to God. In doing so, we stand in a long line of people bold enough to do exactly that, beginning with Abraham, our father in faith. But then we have to be prepared to receive answers. Our God is the living God. Implied in our questions to God is an invitation to dialogue with God. And God will accept our invitation. We may begin as the questioner, only to find the roles reversed. We find that we are the ones questioned.


The great sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin begins his Institutes with this observation. In our pursuit of the knowledge of God, we also come to a knowledge of ourselves. Indeed, we often cannot tell which comes first. In the light of God’s presence, we see not only God, but also our own hearts. The God we question is the God who probes our hearts and minds.


The Pharisees decide to venture a reply. The Messiah? Well, he is the son of David.


Now here we have a distinct advantage over the Pharisees. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the family tree of Jesus, and we have already read it. Matthew’s purpose is to show his Jewish readers that this Jesus has legitimate claim to Messiahship. He is of the house and line of David.


Curiously, this is not the direction that Jesus goes with his questions. He does not attempt to establish his lineage. Instead, he asks them a question that should not have stumped them. “If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” Of course, David would call his son Lord, if he were the Messiah who is to come. Why wouldn’t he? The Psalm that Jesus cites is a Messianic Psalm. It tells about a greater son of David, about a descendant of David who will be king for all time.


Parenthetically, it is especially appropriate for us to call to mind this hope of the Jew and the Christian in election season. It reminds us that our hope does not ultimately rest in a political candidate, who cannot save us, who cannot inaugurate a new order of peace and justice and liberty for all. This is a misplaced hope. To hope otherwise than in the Messiah is only to be disappointed.


The Messiah’s place is not in the White House, but at God’s right hand. It is the place of ultimate authority. In our Sunday school class, the students and I have been talking about authority. In this connection, we learned the word sovereignty. When we refer to the sovereignty of God, we mean that all power and authority belongs to him. But it is an authority that God delegates to the Messiah, the one at his right hand. This one stands before the Pharisees now. They can acknowledge his lordship and thereby fulfill the purpose to which they dedicated their lives, as we mentioned earlier.


Sadly, this is not the option they choose. Note that they decide not to ask any more questions. In the sense we understood this earlier, this means they no longer want dialogue. They disengage from it. This is not a good place to be. To live before God is always to be in dialogue with God. To cut ourselves off from this dialogue is to separate ourselves from the source of our meaning and fulfillment.   


We have spoken before that the Bible presents with models. There are models of faithfulness and of faithlessness. Put otherwise, in the Bible we find positive and negative examples. Obviously, in our gospel lesson, the Pharisees present us with a negative example. They show us who we do not want to be. Or else, if we see in them something of ourselves, they show us our need to ask God for grace to repent, to change.  


When we turn to the Old Testament lesson, however, we find a positive example. That is, we have a model of faithfulness. We refer here to Moses.  


Consider how great Moses is! His willingness to go as far as possible leads him to the top of Mount Nebo, where he sees the Promised Land below him. To be sure, he is not the one to bring God’s people into it; that responsibility belongs to Joshua. But he has finished his course; he has completed his race. He can stand at the end of his life with the satisfaction of knowing that when God asked him, “How far are you willing to go, Moses?” he answered, “as far as you are willing to take me, Lord.”


The lesson is about the last days of Moses. It includes an obituary, as we might expect. It tells us that never before has there arisen a prophet in Israel, like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled because of all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land. He will be forever remembered for the all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that he performed in the sight of all Israel. 


Probably many of you have heard of the journalist and author David Brooks. In one of his recent books, he writes that we should not measure our lives by our achievements, our awards, or the amount of money we have in our portfolios. Rather, we should measure them by what people say about us at our funeral. To him that is the true measure of our lives.


Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house. Unlike the lawyer and the Pharisees, he responded to God’s invitation to go farther. Let us also respond to this same invitation, which God extends to us today and every day. Let us aspire to be like Moses, so that at the end our lives we too may have an obituary like his. Amen.

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