What’s Love Got to Do with It?

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Matthew 22:34-46

1.

Just yesterday—or was it the day before?—Jesus turned the literal tables over in the Temple courts.

Which led to challenges from the Temple leaders about authority: Tell us, they demanded, by what and whose authority are you doing these things?

Which led to a series of parables from Jesus about what the kingdom of God is like: a vineyard planted by a landowner, he said, or a wedding banquet given by a king; tax collectors and prostitutes will enter it ahead of the religious leaders.

Which in turn led to a series of three debates: about taxes; about the resurrection; about the law of God.

Don’t make too much of politics, Jesus says; Caesar is neither Satan nor God.

God is not the God of the dead, he states; but of the living.

It’s not about the law, he declares; but love.

And, by the way, since I have your attention, why does David call his own descendant Lord?

And with this question he turns over another table—a mental table this time.

Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has faced continuous opposition. Through it all—in his metaphors, parables, and debates—he brilliantly has overturned tables literal and figurative!

But here, with this third debate—did you catch it?—the verbal opposition comes to an abrupt halt. The last verse from today’s passage says, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

In terms of drama, here the scene ends. In the next scene Jesus will spend some exclusive time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The conspiracy against him will continue to develop; but quietly now, secretly, in the shadows, in whispered arguments in dark corridors; and it will become greedy, self-serving, treacherous. Here, now, the house lights have dimmed; the stage hands are rearranging the props.

Obviously, with this abrupt halt in the Passion play, Jesus has made his point. Obviously, after Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with love, he has turned another table on his opponents, a final table, with this stuff about David and the Messiah. Obviously!

He’s brilliant. He’s dialectically and rhetorically unstoppable. And thus no one will dare to attempt to trap him verbally again!

But—wait a minute!—I don’t know about you but I’m confused.

It may have been obvious to them, in Jesus’ day; but not to me! Just what in the world was it? What table did Jesus just overturn here? What point did Jesus just make, exactly, to put such a decisive end to the debates?

He pointed out to them that the greatest commandment is love; but then he turned their attention to the Messiah being both David’s son and David’s Lord.

I get the part about David’s son: the Messiah is some kind of king. Also, I get the part about David’s Lord: the Messiah’s kingship will far surpass David’s in some spiritual way. But how is this stuff about David and the Messiah connected to love? To channel Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

2.

This is a riddle, for sure. Nevertheless, today’s Gospel confronts us with it. Shouldn’t we therefore try to figure it out? Here’s my take:

Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

Now, let me explain.

The religious leaders’ established perspective was of God as supreme King.

To be sure, many scriptural metaphors liken God to a king.

As a mighty king, God delivered Moses and the people of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. God is called king throughout the psalms. King David is called a man after God’s own heart. Even Jesus sometimes uses a king in his own parables: A king decided to throw a wedding banquet; and so on.

But there are other divine metaphors throughout the scriptures too, many and manifold, which liken God to other things: a father, a mother giving birth, a lover, a friend, fire, light, wind; and the list goes on.

God is like that. God is unexplainable, like a benevolent king who puts a stop to injustice and oppression; yet also like a lover, intimate and personal.

We try to explain; but, really, how can words convey God at all?

Now, it is a wonderful thing when a benevolent king exercises justice on behalf of his people.

But, to carry out this metaphor a little farther, a king is mostly removed from his subjects:

  • He has his palace up and away from the common people
  • He is largely aloof, detached from the experiences of daily peasant life
  • He must establish and maintain order over his subjects, order that comes through rules, regulations, and taxes
  • He must make judgments when laws are not kept
  • (And, for what it’s worth, he is male)

The trouble comes when people view God through one lens at the exclusion of others.

When people view God only as supreme King, God becomes mostly removed from them, up and away in his palace in heaven, aloof, away from the day-to-day experiences of his people. God is understood to establish order over his people through rules, regulations, and taxes—aka obligatory tithes. When his people sin against him, God presides as judge over them.

And now, the original metaphor—all that stuff about benevolence; or putting an end to injustice and oppression—has been largely forgotten.

Moreover, when the people viewing God through this lens happen to be leaders, as were Jesus’ opponents, they act accordingly, appointing themselves as spiritual kings over their “subjects.”

But the kingdom of heaven, Jesus teaches, is like a wedding banquet. It’s a king who is the host, sure; but he is there in the midst of the festivities, mingling with the guests, sharing, laughing, and dining with them; even with tax collectors and prostitutes!

Jesus is confronting his opponents with their need to change perspective.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as king; but Jesus told them not to make too much of politics.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as ruling from on high, far away and largely separate from the lives of his people; but God is God of the living, Jesus said, dwelling with and among the people as they dwell with God.

Jesus’ opponents viewed God as maintaining order by the rules and regulations of the Torah; but the greatest commandment is love, Jesus declared.

The Messiah, David’s Lord, will not rule and reign as David’s son—he will not rule as supreme King, far off in his high palace, removed from the daily experiences of his peasant subjects.

Rather, God is love. God is relationship. Like a friend and lover, God dwells among us and in each of us.

God is upending the hierarchical, dominating systems of the world that breed injustice, fear, and judgment—systems political, social, and religious.

It seems to me, then, that in all his confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders since entering Jerusalem a few days ago, Jesus is proclaiming a largely forgotten yet very real side of God. It’s not the side they’ve all been looking at for so many centuries; not the side from which they’ve inferred hierarchy, fear, judgment, rules, and regulations—but the other side, the overturned side, the side that reveals God as friend and lover.

Thus: Jesus was demanding a change in perspective.

But this change was so radical that it would upend his opponents’ entire system of spiritual domination and control. It was a threat to their established religion. He was a threat to them. As far as they were concerned, the debating—not to mention his life—had to come to an abrupt and decisive end.

The curtain drops; the lights dim; the scene ends.

3.

Now, I don’t know about you, but all this makes me a little uncomfortable. For, doesn’t the modern Christian church, by and large, continue to view God as king rather than as friend and lover?

To view God as king is to view him (male image) as a distant, powerful being; who spoke and thereby brought the sun, moon, stars, planets, trees, plants, animals, and us humans into existence. He continues to operate in our world, but aloof, as sovereign judge from his throne far away in heaven.

This view makes sin and guilt focal points of our faith.

Theological concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation are all defined by sin: sin is what we repent from; it’s what we are redeemed, liberated, and saved from. Yet none of us is able to meet the requirements of God’s law; none of us measures up—yielding no small amount of guilt.

And so we who are the church end up acting like the God we image. Far too often we appoint ourselves as judges over the world around us, keeping track of broken moral laws, feeling guilty and ashamed ourselves.

That’s the message the world has heard anyway; and it’s an old, tired message.

But God is a friend; and does a real friend make rules and regulations to be obeyed or else? But God is a lover; and does an ideal lover want his beloved to feel guilty?

Think about just how radical this turning of the tables is! Jesus is telling us today that God is not all about law and record-keeping and sin and judgment. Rather, God is love.

What does this perspective do to sin?

It’s still there, sure: sin is part and parcel of the human condition. But it is no longer an all-encompassing, guilt-inducing focal point of our faith. It no longer defines and constrains concepts like repentance, redemption, liberation, and salvation.

No longer do we stand condemned, as if stuck in a jail cell awaiting a judge’s sentence. Instead, we are merely estranged from the lover who seeks to win us back, who knows us personally, and who cares for us intimately.

God is our friend and lover.

This is the message Jesus proclaimed to the world so long ago;

This is the message which confronted the religious establishment;

And this is the message we are called to proclaim today.

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