A sermon on Matthew 22: 34-46 by Nathan Nettleton
Many of the things that churches disagree and fight with one another over come back, sooner or later, to a debate about how we are supposed to interpret the Bible. Nearly all churches regard the Bible as crucial in seeking to understand who God is and how we can follow God’s ways, but agreeing that it is important is not the same as agreeing on how it is to be read and interpreted. In a whole range of debates, both sides are appealing to the Bible to prove their position. Whether we are debating the merits of women in church leadership, or same-sex marriage, or the ethics of war, or the rights and wrongs of global capitalism, or the summary execution of dictators and terrorist leaders, you will find both sides quoting the Bible at each other and accusing each other of selective use of scripture and questionable methods of interpretation.
It would appear that it was much the same in Jesus’ day. There were several major branches of first century Judaism — the best known being the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes — and each of them were characterised by different approaches to the Bible. In the gospel story we heard tonight, we heard the next instalment in a series of encounters where the Pharisees and Sadducees take turns to challenge Jesus over his understandings of Biblical teachings. Last week we heard a question from the Pharisees about what the Bible taught about paying taxes. That was followed in an episode we’ve skipped this year by the Sadducees trying to tangle him up with a question about who a woman would be married to after the resurrection of the dead if she had been married seven times in this life. And then at the start of this week’s section, we were told that after Jesus had silenced them, the Pharisees lined up for another go, and again it is a question about how to interpret scripture.
You see, these things really matter. People sometimes say that you can get the Bible to say anything you want, and there is a fair amount of truth to that. And what you get it to say will be bound up with what you think God is like and what you think we are like and what you think life is all about. It is not a simple one-way relationship. You don’t simply interpret the Bible and form your opinions about God accordingly. It is more cyclic than that. What you think God is like will equally shape the way you read the Bible. Whether we like to admit it or not, the things that most readily grab our attention when we read the Bible are the things that affirm the way we already think, and the things that might challenge our beliefs we easily pass over or put aside as things we don’t really understand yet. Most of us are not quite as honest as the person — I think it was Mark Twain — who said, “It is not so much the things I don’t understand in the Bible that disturb me, it’s the things I do.”
As much as we might wish otherwise, our cherished beliefs often carry more weight in our minds than what we encounter in the Bible, but either way, the two are clearly bound up together. And this really matters, because the ways we think about God and the nature of life do not only affect the way we read the Bible, but they also affect the ways we relate to God and the ways we behave and treat ourselves and one another. Those who see God as eager to cast sinners into a fiery hell will relate to God and other people differently from those who think God will stop at nothing to forgive and redeem every last person on the planet. Those who think that the Bible is a book of rules and regulations and that God will not accept those who do not live in meticulous obedience to them will behave and relate differently from those who think of the Bible as a love letter from God containing an invitation to freedom from the law. So whether the beliefs come first or the Biblical interpretation comes first, the two tend to reinforce one another, and if we’ve got them all messed up, then even Jesus is going to have a hard time getting through to us to change us.
The responses Jesus makes to the curly questions from the Pharisees in tonight’s reading give us a number of important pointers as to how he reads the Bible, and if we are to be followers of Jesus, then naturally we will want to be learning to read and interpret the Bible the way Jesus does. The first important thing to note is that Jesus gives an answer at all instead of dismissing the question as the wrong thing to ask. What the Pharisee asked was “which commandment in the Bible is the greatest?” Now there is a very vocal sector in the church of today who would want Jesus to be dismissing the question as wrong-headed. They argue that all scripture is equally inspired by God and therefore equally important for us to understand and obey. They says that everything the Bible says is, in itself, a completely true and reliable revelation of the will of God. Nothing is more or less important. This is sometimes called a flat view of scripture because it says there are no high points of greater importance, or low points that can be disregarded. Everything is the same. As you can no doubt imagine, this view usually goes hand in hand with a very legalistic understanding of the gospel. To these believers, the good news is that God has given us a comprehensive and definitive revelation of what is expected of us, and we can thus express our commitment to God by faithfully obeying every jot and tittle of it. Such believers are often very impressive in the rigorous discipline of the way they live out their faith.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to share their view of the Bible. Jesus is not at all critical of the question, and he has no hesitation in answering it:
“The greatest commandment is this, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So straight away we learn two things. Firstly, Jesus does not think all scripture is equally important, and secondly, the key to his way of interpreting scripture is to read all of it through the lens of the calls to love and be loved. Love God, love yourself, and love your neighbour. Everything else hangs on these calls to love, so you can be dead set sure that if you are reading something as meaning something other than an expression of love, you’ve got it wrong and you need to rethink it. If Jesus had thought that following the Bible as a rule book was up there in importance, he could have quoted something like Deuteronomy 28:1, “obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today,” but he didn’t. It is love, love and more love. Everything hangs on love. Everything is to be interpreted through the absolute primacy of love.
Now this doesn’t mean that we have a failsafe method to settle every biblical argument. Not by a long shot. But another thing it does mean is that being on the right side of every Biblical argument is not the most important thing either. If you have the most perfect interpretations of scripture, but you have not love, then you are a useless clod. I think the Apostle Paul said something like that. I’m not saying that rightly interpreting the Bible is of no value. It is enormously valuable. But when the conclusions are unclear and you are not sure which way to go, always risk erring on the side of love. There are lots of Biblical teachings I’m not sure about. There are several issues on which I have formed views that put me out of step with the majority view of the church over most of its history, and that always makes me all the more uncertain. I don’t know for sure whether I’m right in my views about opening the communion table to the unbaptised. I don’t know for sure whether I’m right in my views about same sex marriage. I don’t even know if I’m right in my views about the atonement. But what I do know is that Jesus did not rank getting my interpretation of these things right as being the most important things. And when I stand before God to give an account of my faithfulness, the primary question will not be what do you think about homosexuality or the atonement, but did you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and did you love your neighbour — even the least of these, even your enemy — as yourself.
Now, no small part of why this is so important is because it is about what God is like. It is about being true to who God is and not misrepresenting God. Which is what I think Jesus was getting at in the follow up question that he put to the Pharisees, the one about whether or not the Messiah was the son of David. It sounds like a change of topic, but I don’t think it really is. You see, this is not really a question about genealogy so much as about character. To describes someone as a “son of David” was not primarily a statement about genetic lineage. Rather it was a claim that this one was the new David; that this one would do as David did and represent the same values and standards that David did. And of course David was the greatest warrior king in Israel’s history. His reign was the high point of Israel’s military power and he was the one credited with wiping out Israel’s enemies and killing tens of thousands. And so in Jesus’s day, with Israel groaning under the humiliation of Roman occupation, the longing for a messiah who would be a new David, a son of David, was a deep and fervent hope. “Whose son do you think the messiah will be? asks Jesus. And when they give the expected answer, “the Son of David,” he playfully quotes scripture verses back at them to undermine that view. Why? Because even though Jesus himself is of the genetic line of David, the fearsome warrior David is not the sort of figure that Jesus is going to model himself on. And it is not the sort of image that Jesus is going to allow us to base our images of God on. I’m not pretending for a moment that the Bible does not contain stories that portray God as a fearsome warrior who is eager to wipe out his enemies. It does. But part of what we are seeing Jesus do here is choose between those images and show us how his reading of the Bible always steers us away from such an understanding and points us towards a God who is always and utterly consistently a God of love and mercy and compassion, a God who will suffer our violence, but never return it.
Now this is pretty important in a week like this. Once again we’ve seen dancing in the streets over the killing of a feared and hated tyrant. A man who had been responsible for the humiliation and murder of thousands was finally humiliated and killed himself. Our hunger for justice and our lust for vengeance very easily merge into one in such cases. And if we imagine God in the image of King David, then we can easily imagine the warriors who dragged Gaddafi out of his hole and killed him to be executing God’s judgement. They more than likely saw themselves that way. But Jesus challenges and dismisses such views of God. What are the most important things the Bible has to say? Love, love and love. God is a God of love, and in every situation acts for love and calls us to act for love. So of course Gaddafi had to be prevented from continuing his murderous reign. Love demands it. But Jesus-sized love also demands that even a murderous tyrant be treated with the dignity and compassion that are due to every human being as sacred bearers of the image of God. Love cannot let him continue to do as he likes. There is no contradiction there. Love often has to say ‘no’. Just ask Jenny how many times a day she has to stop little Ollie doing what he wants precisely because she loves him. But if we are following the one who teaches us that the most important things are loving God and loving one another, even our enemies, then we can take no pleasure in the humiliation and murder of any human being, even the perpetrators of the most heinous evils.
By way of contrast, we may well conclude that we could, in the name of the God of love, stand with the non-violent protesters in the Occupy Melbourne movement, perhaps even after their presence in the City Square was declared unlawful and armed police were sent in to forcibly remove them. Sure, what they were doing might have been illegal, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be much of a stickler for obeying laws. He was often in trouble on that score. But he does put a high value on raising the prophetic voice to call for change. And he does put a high value on a willingness to put your body on the line in non-violent resistance to hostility and brutality. I don’t pretend to know all the rights and wrongs of the particular protest, and it seems that even the movement itself was only working out what they were on about as it went along. But I do know that some of them were there because they were followers of Jesus, and I do know that even if the whole thing was not entirely right, you could end up being in the midst of it by erring on the side of love.
Now I could easily go on for another hour or so unpacking further examples of the way Jesus reads and interprets the Bible, but I’ve gone on too long tonight already. There are plenty more stories that show how Jesus interpreted the Bible, and there are plenty more examples of dilemmas we face in our world where the sort of interpretative decisions Jesus made make a huge difference to our understanding of what it means to be God’s people and how we might best live that out in practice. But all of them bring us back, again and again, to a God who is known only in love, who is characterised unfailingly by love, and who probably wouldn’t much care what else we got wrong if only what we get right is love, love, and more love.