If Jesus Were a Candidate,
What Would His Vision of the Future Be?
A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, October 26, 2008
If Jesus had been running for President, the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have been blogging away like crazy. It is not hard to imagine them hunkered down over their computers, fingers flying, trading ideas of trick questions to ask Candidate Jesus at his next campaign stop, his upcoming appearance on Face the Nation, or his third and final debate. One wonders who might have been on Jesus’ side during the heated campaign for the hearts and minds of Israel. Depending upon which gospel one reads, it would appear that his disciples certainly were not masters of the latest public relations techniques, nor adept at internet fundraising. Instead, they seem to have been somewhere between floundering and clueless as to what sort of election this was, befuddled as to how to respond to the perennial question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth and do you really know him?” They seem not to have measured what was at stake in the way the people answered this question. Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, although mortal political and religious enemies, the conservatives and liberals of their day, arrayed themselves in an unholy alliance against Candidate Jesus, who threatened both groups, their backers, and their chances at controlling the opinion machinery of their beleaguered colonial nation.
Sadducees thought they had him right where they wanted him when they concocted a story that would quickly illustrate the silliness of the doctrine of resurrection from the dead, which the Pharisees supported and which Jesus seemed to court. And Pharisees, seeing a window of opportunity to entrap Jesus, wanted to test and see what he thought was the greatest commandment, since he had this habit, at least in the Matthew report, of saying things like, “You have heard it said that thus and such is the law, but I say to you so and so,” enough to make a Pharisee jittery, but more than enough to make a conservative Sadducee develop hives.
Neither Sadducee nor Pharisee cared a fig for what Jesus really thought, let alone for what the Truth might be, were it other than what they already had decided it to be. What they wanted was to justify their own narratives, their versions of what was what. And the reason they were aligned against Jesus was that he was calling people to a new narrative, one that was full of surprises like “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and “Love your enemies” and “Judge not that you be not judged; forgive and you shall be forgiven.” Both liberal and conservative wanted, naturally, to cling to their own stories. How best to deal with Jesus? Trap him. Expose him. Maybe even smear him as anti-Israel, anti-Law. Possibly—who knows?—brand him a Zealot, a terrorist, an enemy of the state, a clear and present danger to the national security, such as it was.
So the Pharisees recruited their brightest and best, a lawyer, who the Matthew report says, had an agenda not just of testing, but scrutinizing, accusing, or even disciplining Jesus. (Mark, reporting the same story, relates that the lawyer was a seeker, considerably more sympathetic.) “Teacher—” one wonders if he gritted his teeth when using the title—“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” We will never know what the lawyer was primed to say after he got what he must have known would be the answer to the question. He could easily anticipate that Jesus would give the answer that he himself would give: the shema, of course. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But Jesus does one better. Notice that he does not only answer the question, he goes further and answers another one that he has not been asked. “Not only is there a first commandment, but there is a second one which is like it.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and love your neighbor as your self. On these two commandments hang the Torah and the Prophets.
In our continuing effort to figure out what it is to practice the Christian faith, Jesus’ answer gives us the hinge on which swings the door of abundant life. The whole kit and caboodle hangs on the love of God and the love of neighbor. The love of God involves the entire human being—heart, mind, soul, strength—and the love of neighbor is calibrated to match one’s own love of self, family, flesh and blood. It is tempting to see Jesus’ answer as providing a two-piece foundation. But on closer examination, we see that there is scarcely any way in which we can obey the first commandment and not the second. If Jesus’ ministry demonstrated anything, it was that the Reign of God was about relationships with people, right relationships. The one prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray was a simple one that brings things down from heaven to earth by the third petition. Then it gets into daily bread, forgiveness, temptation, deliverance. The love of God expresses itself in the love of neighbor, and the love of neighbor presupposes the proper love of self. It is all one continuous love, not to be divvied up into competing or discrete “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions.
How do we practice the love of God, neighbor, and self? The baptismal covenant, which we shall be renewing next week on the Feast of All Saints, gives us a handle. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as your self?” is one of the key questions. Notice how loving our neighbor is the connecting link between love of God (seeking Christ) and love of self. Our covenant is to seek Christ in all persons. We do not promise to find Christ in all persons, but we do promise to look for him in all persons.
We do that, first, by acting kindly towards other people. We do that before we analyze them or even before we theorize about why. “Love is patient, love is kind,” says St. Paul. We treat people on the Metro or in traffic jams in the supermarket check-out line with the courtesy that we would extend to Christ, and with the deference that Christ shows to us. In his directions as to how we go about loving God and neighbor, Richard Baxter, the great Puritan divine of the 17th century, put it this way:
Love God truly, and you will easily love your neighbour; for you will see God's image of him, or interest in him, and feel all his precepts and mercies obliging you hereunto.
To this end let Christ be your continual study. He is the full revelation of the love of God; the lively pattern of love, and the best teacher of it that ever was in the world: his incarnation, life, and sufferings, his gospel and covenant, his intercession and preparations for our heavenly felicity, all are the great demonstrations of condescending, matchless love. Mark both: God's love to us in him, and his love to man, and you will have the best directive and incentive of your love.
All of this is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Is this not what you expect to hear in church? So why does it seem so hard? What gets in the way? Let’s take another look at the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were not bad people. At least they didn’t intend to be. They were captives of their own world views, I would argue. So cocksure that they were right, they couldn’t see anything beyond the boundaries of their own opinions. And to that extent they function as negative models for us. Sadducees and Pharisees are those who assume that theirs is the only way, the right way to think, to act, and to appropriate other people. What is more, they have themselves convinced that God agrees with them. I don’t know that they engaged in scurrilous political attacks on each other, but I do know that they could easily have justified doing so, because each thought they were acting on behalf of God.
What happens when we stop acting as if we own God and start loving God and the world God has made? What happens when we open ourselves to the possibility that not only our friends but also our enemies deserve respect? Above all what happens when we begin to follow Jesus in his project of developing a new story that does not see humanity divided into camps of believers and non-believers, saved and damned, nation and adversary, friend and enemy? Might it be possible to construct a new framework that views humanity as one?
Frankly, it is risky. There are always those who are ready to take advantage of kindness and forbearance, and to crush gentleness with overbearing force. In this world where destructive individuals are real menaces, dangerous, operating by standards that are themselves hostile to the gospel of peace that Jesus embodies, it is suicidal to believe that love of neighbor entails blindly trusting everyone and assuming the best of the worst. Yet, the risk is that, if we capitulate to the old stories that encourage distrust, rivalry, and self-justification, what virtue, if any, will we be nurturing? Valor? Prudence? Justice? At the end of the day, we might have to face the stark truth that only by loving God and our neighbor are we able to cultivate the virtue of hope. Hope is the dynamic that drives us forward to a future more rewarding than the prospect of a permanently factious, squabbling, or even murderously violent, and thus degraded, humanity.
There is nothing simple or easy about seeking Christ in all persons, nothing naïve or elementary about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. All our acts of courtesy and kindness, of mercy and generosity, of consideration and caring we perform in a world that is in the grip of partisans committed to narrowness, like Sadducees and Pharisees, and you name the other parties. It is a world that is perilously fragile, jerked around as it is by the forces of evil. But if that world is ever to become a different place, where the poor have a crack at a better life and even the rich have a chance to heal their souls, is there any alternative to starting to hope, to believe, to act in a way that envisions a life-giving, healing story? And if we are going ever to have a different, peaceful, and just society, is there any better place to start than by loving the God of peace and justice with every fiber of heart, mind, soul, strength, and, hard as it may be, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008