Rev. Harry Currie
Oct 29, 2023
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Ephesians 2:4-9, Matthew 22:34-46
If you are an old fogie like me, every night you watch some form of the national news.
I remember watching the CTV national news when the anchor was Lloyd Robertson, a Presbyterian, who used to write articles in the national Presbyterian Church magazine, when we used to have one.
If you have been watching the news nightly, it seems that most of the time the headlining news has been about the latest Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Hey, I am no expert on the history of Palestinian/Israeli relations and their conflicts and narratives. There are genuine complexities in this history made even more complex by extremist rhetoric, false narratives, and the understandable rage and despair felt by victims on all sides of the conflict.
Maybe you find yourself having a tendency to pick one side as the bad guys and the other as the better guys, and therefore to somewhat justify the one side’s actions as necessary and more righteous in order to defend themselves, or to press for their human rights.
But I think that there are some things that you would think shouldn’t need to be said, that maybe we should say.
Terrorism is wrong and is always wrong. Kidnapping and raping and killing civilians is always wrong. Posting executions online, parading mutilated bodies as trophies is barbaric. So too is starving civilians of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine.
Today, as we read and dig into an important story in the gospels, we are reminded of our duty to love God and love our neighbour.
Who is our neighbour? In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is our enemy who is our neighbour, and it is anyone in need who is our neighbour.
The command to love reminds us that if we care about human life on only one side of a conflict and not other side, then we are not following Christ’s command to love, and our moral compass is off kilter.
A child killed in Palestine is not worth less than a child killed in Israel, and vice versa, and the grief and anguish is the same.
For all that I don’t consider myself a literalist in scriptural interpretation, I think there are scripture verses that I wish this world would take more literally. Thou shalt not kill. Turn the other cheek. Forgive your enemy. Do not avenge yourselves. Do not judge. Live peaceably with all. Love your neighbour.
Today’s gospel story from Matthew is a story of Jesus being put to the test.
I know the introduction to this sermon was pretty heavy with the seemingly intractable Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but this chapter of Matthew’s gospel makes me smile a little bit, because Jesus is faced with three occasions of Jewish leaders trying to trick him or trap him.
It reminds me of so many jokes and stories and comedies where a line goes:
You have to answer three skill testing questions.
For Monty Python fans you probably remember: What’s your name? What’s your quest? What’s your favourite colour?
And if you got it wrong you are cast into the abyss.
And this trying to entrap Jesus, seems to me, to have the quality of many so-called reality shows on television where are group of people are put together to try and outdo each other in Cooking, or Singing, or Dancing, or Surviving or Amazing Racing, where the losers are kicked off the show and get nothing.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees are both trying to get Jesus kicked off the show so to speak, and to be humiliated and exposed as a loser.
Which just goes to show how threatened they are by Jesus.
They try to entrap Jesus with the difficult theology questions of the day.
Does a good Jew pay taxes to the oppressor Caesar?
What will happen in the resurrection, when someone has been married more than once?
And what is the greatest commandment.
Of the approximately 600 commandments found in the Old Testament, which one was the most important was a hotly debated item back in Jesus’ time.
These I think are important questions…questions that could be on a test for any minister, any church leader, any Christian for that matter.
What is the relationship between you, your loyalty to God, and your loyalty to your world, your culture, your family and any other loyalties?
I think I would rephrase the next question about the resurrection in this way. Where are you in the process of dying and rising to be like Christ, so that you are dead to the way of violence, and dead to the way of excluding the different, the less, holy, the not good enough and the poor; and being born again to be alive in love for all?
And of course, the third question: Do you really believe that love is the way to be in this world? and if so, are you actually doing it, living it, being it, at all times and in all situations?
Notice that love is a command. And contrary to all those sappy Hallmark movies where the beautiful girl falls for the handsome guy and in the end, they fall in love for ever, may we be reminded that love is not a feeling, is not just something reserved for the one we have strong sexual desire for…
But love is a choice to act in another’s best interest for their spiritual growth, and so we can love someone we do not like, someone who is an enemy, someone with whom we have profound differences.
And believe it or not this threatens the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Love threatens the ones with power. Love threatens those who hoard the wealth. Love threatens the ones who determine who is worthy and who is not. Love threatens the ones who make and enforce the rules. Love threatens the ones who use violence to get their way.
Love threatens those who judge, criticize, condemn, exclude and send people to hell.
And when Jesus asks the Pharisees the somewhat complicated question: if David calls the Messiah Lord, how then can the Messiah also be David’s son…
…know that Jesus is making a point. If the Messiah is greater than David, then more important than restoring the rule of David and all that implies about power and law and place and hierarchy in Israel, is the Messiah’s way of love of God and love of neighbour.
And may I remind you that this concept of love is not just a Jesus thing. Jesus puts together two scriptures from the Old Testament from Deuteronomy 6:5 and from Leviticus 19:18.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
This story of the greatest commandments being love is found in all three synoptic gospels.
John’s gospel has Jesus saying that he gives us a new commandment: Love one another.
And the commandment to love neighbour in not just from the Jewish law and highlighted by Jesus, but is found repeated by Paul in Romans 13 and Galatians 5 and is also found in the letter of James.
Jesus puts the love of God together with loving one’s neighbour, so that to love God is to love neighbour, and when we love our neighbour, we are loving God.
And of the 600 and some commandments of the law Jesus says there are those that are more important than others.
It is a general principle of biblical interpretation. When you find two contradictory scriptures, and you will, then which scripture takes priority?
Jesus facing his imminent death, with people trying to trick him and expose him as a fraud, when asked what is the most important thing…
He doesn’t answer the most important command is to eat healthy
He doesn’t say that the most important thing is to kill your enemies…
He doesn’t say that the most important thing is to believe the bible and have the right theology.
He doesn’t say which church to attend, or whom to exclude, or even tell us to be good.
Jesus tells us to love. That’s it. Love God and love your neighbour. And your neighbour is everyone you meet.
When you come against different theologies, different morals, different scriptures, different personalities, different church groups, different books…
The guiding principle is love. Does this lead to liberation, equality, compassion, service or love? Or does this lead us to violence, oppression and inequality?
We all make choices when we interpret scripture so why not choose love?
Love is at the core of who we are and who we should be.
Do we really believe that?
The British author Karen Armstrong who joined a convent as a teenager, is a prolific respected religious author.
She wrote that Jesus spent a lot less time talking about theology and went around being compassionate and loving people.
In her book: 12 steps to a Compassionate Life she wrote:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion, to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate, to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures, to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity, to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
Riffing off a quote by Brian McLaren, putting in my words…
There are two kinds of Christianity. There are two kinds of Judaism. There are two kinds of Islam. That goes for any religion or even non-religion.
The first kind is that of control. The religion tries to control you, make you conform, make you follow their rules, make you fit in, make you exclude those who don’t fit in,
The second kind is that of transformation, where you become a kinder, better person, imagining a better world, and serving that cause.
Both kinds of Christianity and both kinds of religions have bad people in them and good people in them. Neither kind is perfect, but any religion, dogma or faith that is the kind that controls instead of loves, is a false Christianity or a false religion.
Love is the way to be.
Let me quote from Justin Martyr about 100 years after Jesus:
“…we who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”
Let me quote from Tertullian around 200 years after the birth of Christ:
"Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy... See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other."
Let me quote from Dan Clendenin from his article On Israel and Palestine on the webzine Journey with Jesus:
Those who know their Bibles will recognize that what follows are pretty much verbatim quotes from Scripture. They should express what Tertullian called the "distinctive signs" of our Christian communities.
God is the father of every human family, and the whole human family, such that there is no "them" but only "us." Honor and protect the dignity of every human being, for every person bears the image of God and is of equal value.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
You shall not kill. Do not oppress the stranger. Give special care for the poor, the widow, the alien, the orphan, the prisoner, the homeless, and the hungry. Remember the children, for they exemplify the kingdom of God. Live at peace with all people. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Do justice, and love kindness.
I started with the Palestinian and the Israeli conflict. And I know that I will not be able to change what will happen and maybe we together will not be able to do much, but lend our voices to seeking non-violent solutions, to finding a peace with justice, to creating a world one day where Israeli children and Palestinian children walk hand in hand and will study war no more….
But maybe the bigger conflict, the tougher test we will face is an internal one where Jesus asks us three questions.
It probably won’t be exactly:
What is your name, what is your quest, what is your favourite colour?
But it might be these three
One: Where does your ultimate allegiance lie? Is it Jesus?
Two: Is the resurrection happening in you? Are you dying to self and being born again to love?
Three: And do you really believe that the greatest commandment is to love and if so, what are you doing about it?
For after all how we answer those questions determines how we will live our lives.
The real reformation question is whether we will re-form our lives around Jesus Christ…
Specifically: Will we live our lives loving?
I know I preach too much about love. But until the world all starts loving, until the world reforms around the principle of compassion and love, I don’t know what else to do.