CMC Worship in Place | Cultivating Beloved Community | October 25

Sermon: Mark Rupp

Scripture | Matthew 22:34-46

Sermon | Winning a Debate in the Beloved Community

When you are assigned one of the scripture passages containing the “greatest commandment,” it can be a little daunting.  Not only is this one of CMC’s top 12 scripture passages (or at least the version in Mark’s gospel), it is Jesus’s summation of the entire Law.  What more can a person have to say about it without detracting from it’s beauty or unnecessarily overcomplicating its simplicity?  I can sympathize with those described there at the end of the passage: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”  

Sometimes when I’m whining about being stuck writing a sermon, my husband will tell me to just say “Love everyone” and be done with it.  Or if it’s near Christmas, he’ll tell me the whole sermon should just be “Jesus is the real gift.”  Somehow without ever attending Sunday School, he seems to be able to really get at the heart of it.  While both of his suggestions are tempting options, I’m guessing they would leave you all wanting something a little more to chew on.  

And so, let us set out to approach this passage with fresh, 2020-eyes to see how the beautiful simplicity of the greatest commandment might speak to us in new ways some 2000 years later.  When I read Matthew’s version of the greatest commandment thinking about how it speaks to this moment, I can’t help but first be drawn more to the wider context of the passage than the specifics of what Jesus says.  

If you were with us last week or read Joel’s sermon afterward, you may remember that this is not the first time Jesus has found himself in a tense conversation where various groups were trying to trap him.  Last week, Joel talked about Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes, and then the lectionary skips over a second exchange where Jesus is confronted with a deeply theoretical question about the resurrection.  Thus the passage for today is the third in this string of exchanges where Jesus is tested.  

The writer of Matthew’s gospel loves allusions and parallels, and so you can imagine that these three exchanges are somehow meant to parallel the three questions or tests that Jesus experiences in the wilderness.  That period of testing came at the opening of Jesus’ public ministry, and this series of tests comes here at the close as Jesus moves through Holy Week.  In both instances Jesus fends off opponents with just the right scripture reference and a little bit of sass.  Ok, so maybe I’m projecting that second part.

And I’m drawn in by these exchanges because they speak of a world where tensions are running high, where every conversation feels more like a debate than a dialogue, where so many interactions feel riddled with land mines that might explode if you step too far in any one direction.  The text specifically says that those who are asking Jesus questions are intending to trap and to test him.  Maybe you, too, can relate based on conversations and interactions you may have been having recently with neighbors, co-workers, family members, or even strangers.  Or maybe you’re anticipating these kinds of conversations as we continue to approach the upcoming election as well as holiday gatherings with family.  

I resonate with the way Dan Halterman described something like this in his Daily Connector article last week, which he described as a “nonversation.”  Maybe you too have had a few “nonversations” these past few months.  

This context surrounding the interactions in our passage today feel very familiar, even if the topics of conversation have shifted slightly.  We might not be talking about Caesar or the specifics of the resurrection, but not too much has shifted because the topics of politics, taxes, religion, and what’s most important never seem to go away.  These are the big questions of life that are worth wrestling with.  And there’s a big part of me that really loves the way Jesus deftly handles these questions, knowing just how to respond over and over again to shut down those who are testing him, having just the right counter-arguments, and, eventually, getting the last word so effectively that everyone else is speechless.  

I know some of you are finishing up the Adult Sunday School class on the Enneagram.  As a self-identified Enneagram 5, this is the kind of Jesus I can really get behind.  For those of you who haven’t taken the class, the extremely short version is that the Enneagram is a way of understanding personality through the lens of 9 different main types.  Each person generally interacts with the world through one of the nine types, yet is connected to many of the other types in different ways and under different conditions.  

The 5-type is one that feels most at home in the mind, the kind of person who loves thinking deeply through complex questions and collecting new ideas to be able to fend off threats by having everything figured out.  The basic desire of a 5 is to be seen as competent and capable, the kind of person who has just the right answer when the need arises because they have done the work of thinking things through and can see what others may have missed.  A 5 that is feeling secure and growing will also look a lot like a type-8, which is the type known as the Challenger, a self-confident, willful, and occasionally confrontational personality.  A healthy 5 doesn’t just know the right answers, they are ready to make you see them as well.

This Jesus who seems to have all the answers, who has studied the scriptures so deeply that he can pull out the perfect passage to prove his opponents wrong, who isn’t afraid to be confrontational when the need arises, this is the kind of Jesus my little 5 heart loves to root for.  And whether you know anything about the Enneagram or not, maybe you too cheer a little when Jesus leaves everyone speechless with his wisdom and wit.

And yet…

Part of what is so attractive to me about studying the Enneagram is that it encourages you not just to use it as a mirror where you get to see a fun, if maybe slightly exaggerated reflection of yourself and then walk away without being changed.  It also invites you to understand the shadow that emerges when you become imbalanced or too narrowly focused.  There is a lot to celebrate and root for when we see ourselves or others through the type-5 lens, yet there is also a caution.  

Unbalanced or unhealthy 5s can tend toward isolation and cutting off social connections.  They can get so immersed in the world of the mind that they neglect to open themselves to the soft wisdom of the heart or the necessary grounding in the firm realities of the body.  A 5 that becomes too narrowly focused or unhealthy can come across as cold-hearted, aloof, and abrasive in their attempts to define the world through impersonal, objective facts.  

And so when I consider this, there is a bit of caution that slips into the back of my mind as I read this passage and consider how both the content and the context speak to us today.  More specifically, as I studied the text this week, I couldn’t help be drawn over and over again to the last line: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

We are in the midst of such a contentious atmosphere right now that it is so easy to view every interaction through the lens of winners and losers.  A triumphalist reading of these conversations can easily walk away with the idea that Jesus clearly “won” by dunking on his opponents with perfect answers and dropping the mic as he asked the final question that leaves everyone speechless.  

If we buy into the notion of winners and losers, there is certainly a lot to point us to the idea that Jesus wins this interaction.  But when I think of the totality of who Jesus is and what he taught and use that standard to measure the interaction, I can’t help but feel as though Jesus lost.  Or at a minimum, that we must admit that winning in the traditional sense carries with it a sense of loss.  He may have made all the right points, had all the right answers, and stood up for justice in a bold and convincing way, yet the fact that no one dared ask more questions should perhaps give us pause.  

The text certainly seems to be saying that the adversarial groups that were questioning Jesus in order to test and trap him weren’t willing to engage him further, but I have to wonder whether this also applies to those who were earnestly following him.  Had Jesus dazzled everyone so much by this point that no one, friend or foe, was willing to question him?  

Any religious leader who creates a world where they are beyond questions should give us pause.  

Let me be clear that I don’t think Jesus was becoming a cold-hearted person cutting off social connection in a slide toward some kind of unhealthy personality disorder.  But I do think that Christians of any theological persuasion can easily be lulled into worshipping a triumphalist version of Jesus whose mission revolves solely around creating theological winners and losers.  

When our goal becomes shutting down conversation, squashing debate, or talking over the other until they are subdued, when we begin treating every interaction through the lens of competition, we create a world of winners and losers.   But the reality is that we all lose when the goal becomes excommunicating one another rather than figuring out how we can create the Beloved Community together.  

Success should be measured NOT by how clearly we have drawn the lines between us but by how wide we have managed to expand the circle of the Beloved Community.  

But let us also be clear that while the goal may be expanding the circle, this work will inevitably require us to hold one another accountable, to walk toward hard conversations rather than avoiding them for the sake of maintaining a false peace..  We must not be afraid to speak clearly and confidently against those who do harm and use their power for evil rather than good.  If you thought the passage today was a verbal smackdown, read ahead to the next chapter where Jesus directly confronts these adversaries with what are sometimes called the “seven woes.”

And here again it can be easy to think that the whole point is to get a one-up on your opponent in a verbal sparring match.  But in my experience, even the best arguments only give you the advantage until someone has enough time to develop a new counterargument.  So when we read passages like these, my hope is that we can be less amazed by how efficiently Jesus shuts down his opposition and more in awe of the way he continues to refuse to play by the rules he is given when those rules only serve to reinscribe systems of domination.  

If the world places options before you and none of them resemble the highest good, we must be willing to think, feel, and act in ways that imagine that a different world is possible.  

The true genius of the question Jesus poses that leaves the Pharisees speechless is not in the astuteness of his theological argument.  In fact, it’s kind of a lame theological line of reasoning that may have impressed the Pharisees because it used their own literalist reading techniques but wouldn’t really hold much water today.

Rather, the question reveals how much the greatest commandment flips the world on its head.  How can David call his son “Lord”?  It is because this Messiah gets authority not through traditional social or political power structures nor through conquering all foes with acerbic arguments or physical violence.  The “lordship” that the Messiah represents gets authority through love alone, a love that goes beyond the line of David, beyond all boundaries that separate us one from the other.  It is a love that expands outward as it pulls people in toward the highest good.

And so my hope for us, my friends, is:

  • That we would not let the world define success for us but always insist that love is the greatest commandment and the highest good.

  • That we would not be afraid of hard conversations especially when we are called to speak peace and justice into situations of violence and domination.

  • And finally, that as we work to build the Beloved Community even our enemies will know we are Christians by our love.

  • Oh, and finally-finally, that we would “love everyone” because “Jesus is the real gift.”