Text: Matthew 22:34-46
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Nov. 5, 2017
It was one of the strangest services I had ever attended. But it proved to be one of the most profound. While I was in Michigan to attend my high school reunion last month, I stopped by to see an old friend who lives in Ann Arbor. Charley has been on a long spiritual pilgrimage. He was a student of mine, studying to become a Methodist minister back in the 1980’s. Since then he joined the Episcopal Church, Later, he returned to the Roman Catholicism of his youth and more recently discovered that his grandparents were Jews who passed for Christians during World War II. He has been attending a conservative synagogue ever since.
I arrived at his home unannounced and found that he and his wife were just leaving to attend a Bar Mitzvah. He invited me to go with them. The entire service was in Hebrew. I was given an English translation to follow As I said at the outset, the service felt very strange to me. Then a thought hit me with a start. Jesus, as a good first century Palestinian Jew, would have felt far more at home in that service than he would be worshiping with us this morning.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted as I heard the only words spoken in English throughout the whole two-hour service. These words were prayed by the twelve-year old boy who was now to be recognized as a young adult. They were the words of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
There it was, the sacred text, the short summary of the law which expresses the conditions upon which the people of God continue to exist in a life in covenant with Him. Each phrase of the Shema had a special meaning for the first century Jew. To love God with all your heart meant that your inclination to hear God’s word and do His word must rule your heart in such a way that your evil inclinations (lust for food, sex, power, wealth, etc.) would neither be given free reign or dominate your life. To love God with all your “soul” (which can also be translated “life”) meant that they must be prepared for the possibility of martyrdom. To love God with all your strength meant that they must places all their resources, talents and possessions at God’s disposal.
In last week’s gospel reading the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him what was the greatest commandment. Without hesitation Jesus quoted this verse from Deuteronomy. In Matthew’s portrait of our Lord, the first century Jewish understanding of this three-fold command provides the interior context of much of our Lord’s teaching throughout his ministry. It corresponds to the three-fold temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness just before he began his public ministry. The third point makes intelligible our Lord’s command to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor.
It also provides the interpretive clue to many of His parables. For example, the parable of the sower who sowed seed in many kinds of soil. The disciples did not understand and later ask him to explain it to them. In response Jesus liked the seed that fell on the path to the person who hears God’s word but does not accept it. The heart, he said was divided. Evil comes, and the seed is snatched away. He then said the seed which fell on rocky soil is the person who receives the word with Joy, but the word does not take root and in the heat of persecution withers and dies. Finally. The seed which fell among the thorns is the person who allows the cares of life and lure of wealth to choke it out. Only the seed that falls on good soil will flourish.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus then turns to the crowds and to his disciples and makes direct reference to the scribes and the Pharisees who had just asked him what was the great commandment. Jesus now says of them, they “sit on Moses’ seat; Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” We have all heard the expression: “Do as I say not as I do.” On the surface, it would seem that this is what Jesus is telling his followers. Follow what the scribes and Pharisees teach but not what they do.
But this interpretation of our Lord’s statement is puzzling. The Pharisees taught that plucking grain or healing a blind man on the sabbath is sinful. They taught that not washing your hands before eating violated the law of Moses. They believed that depriving money that should be used to support their parents was a good thing if the money was instead given as a religious offering. They condemned Jesus and his followers for doing those very things. How could Jesus possibly say: “Do as the Pharisees say, not as they do.” The Pharisees prided themselves in being consistent. They did practice what they preached.’ According to Jesus the problem was not that they didn’t follow their own teaching, the problem was that the teaching itself was wrong.
Jesus statement becomes clear when we understand what the scribes and Pharisees where doing when they “sat in Moses seat.” To put it in our context, Moses seat was like our lectern. It was seat where the scriptures were read. Then they would step aside return to their own seat and give their sermon.
Our Lord’s disciples did not have copies of the Torah. Many of his followers could not read or write. They were dependent on the scribes and Pharisees to know what the law of Moses said. In light of such dependence, Jesus advises his followers to heed the words that the scribe and Pharisees spoke when they sat on the seat of Moses, that is when they read the scriptures. Their second activity is the one that Jesus denounces. It refers to their interpretation of the law both through verbal teaching and practiced life-style. Jesus condemns them for perverting the intent of the scriptures. In out Gospel reading today, our Lord goes on say that their interpretation lays burdens that are hard to bear while at the same time brings glory, honor and prestige to themselves.
What is the point that I want you to take home from this sermon today? Well, this is the Sunday in the year, that the Vestry in their wisdom, designated that I should preach on s stewardship. As is evident my opening remarks, last week’s lectionary readings work much better for a stewardship sermon than does this week. In preaching on the Great Commandment last week, Fr. Tad focused the first point, “Loving God with all your heart.” He rightly recognized that all of us begin our Christian journey with a divided heart. But if we hold the Great Commandment before us as an ideal, over the course of our journey it will become actualized in our lives. It doesn’t happen overnight. My take-home on the great commandment today focuses on the third point of the Great commandment: “to love God with all our strength.” To put the first century Jewish understanding in contemporary terms, it means our stewardship. It means God with our time, all our talents and all our treasure. All of us are keenly aware that we are faced with the same struggles as the first century Jew in putting this into practice. The cares of life, which include all our legitimate responsibilities, continually vie for top priority in our lives. But I suggest to you this morning, that if we hold this command up before as an ideal, over the process of time all that things that vie for our time, our talents and our treasure so sort themselves out in proper priority.
But today’s Gospel reading has something important to say about stewardship too. It reminds us that scripture can easily be perverted by religious leaders in such a way that places undue burdens upon us and which places excessive attention and importance on the leadership and its favorite causes. Today, as we also observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is important for us to remember one of its emphasis, sola scriptura, scripture alone. What I, as your priest has to say, what our elected lay leaders have to say can be helpful; we are also human. It is easy for us to confuse self-interest with God’s will and so pervert the scriptures as did the scribes and Pharisees. Ultimately, what it means to love God with all your strength in terms of faithful stewardship, is a matter between you and God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord reminds us, that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. How we devote our time, how we use our talents, how we spend our treasure, all reflect on just how seriously we commit ourselves to the first and great commandment.
This past week you should have received in the mail an “estimation of giving” card. On the one side of the card you will be given an opportunity to pledge ways in which to use your time and talents for the Lord, on the other side you will have the opportunity to pledge the use of a portion of your financial resources.
Then we are asking that next Sunday you bring those cards and put them in the offering plate and we will then consecrate ourselves again to God. It is fitting that Consecration Sunday this year falls on the same Sunday we honor our veterans: men and women who have given of their time and talent and risked their lives to serve our country. In the same way may we all recommit ourselves to the service of our God. I am confident that as we do this, God will honor and bless and that all the obligations we face as a church community will be met as we seek to accomplish God’s purpose in this city in the coming year.