Sunday, October 29, 2023

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

“Connections” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Deuteronomy 6:1-9, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Matthew 22:34-46, NRSVUE)

As you might recall, this past New Year’s Day was kind of a wintery mess here in the Salt Lake Valley and so, like many of you, I spent much of the day shoveling snow. When I finally came inside around dinnertime, all I wanted to do was soak my tired and sore self in a hot bathtub for a while, and so that’s exactly what I did.

After I gotten out, dried off and put on my PJs, I noticed that the drain wasn’t making any noise and the water level in the tub wasn’t getting any lower. This was kind of strange, so after making sure that I’d pulled the  stopper (which I had), I did what many people would do — I grabbed a plunger and I plunged.

As I waited to see whether this activity would yield the hoped-for result, I walked down the hallway toward the washing machine in order to throw my wet clothes in it — and, when I arrived, I got a really great surprise: a puddle of water on the floor underneath the washer.

Suffice it to say, I started to believe that this might be a bigger problem than just a clogged bathtub drain. This belief was confirmed for me when I checked the floor drain next to our water heater in the utility room, which was also overflowing.

Realizing that I was in way over my head, we sought out the services of a emergency plumber (which was both easy and reasonably priced on New Year’s night). He determined that the individual inside drains were all fine, but the main line from our house out to the street was clogged, and so he proceeded to unclog it.

As he checked his work with one of those remote cameras, though, he saw  that the reason the line was clogged was that area where the pipe from my house met the city’s sewer line at the street was failing. And the reason this section of pipe was failing was that the maple tree in my front yard had decided to send one of it’s roots right through it. So the whole thing would have to be dug up and replaced.

What started with a bathtub that wouldn’t drain turned into all whole lot more. I had initially hoped that a plunger or some Drano might have done the trick, but no: As it turned out, we needed crews of tradespeople, backhoes, yards of pipe, permits, inspectors, repairs to the places that were wrecked by all the digging, three weeks of time, and a whole lot of patience (which, by the end of the project, was in really short supply around our house).

I tell you all of this not because I need to vent (though I do feel a bit better now); I tell you all of this because the whole unfortunate incident highlights a couple of larger truths.

First, things we take for granted can prove themselves to be more significant than we ever realized (you catch on to this concept pretty quickly when you can no longer count on the plumbing in your house). And second, things that don’t necessarily appear to be connected at first glance often prove to be very much related (hence my epiphany regarding the hitherto unappreciated relationship between my bathtub and the tree in my front yard).

Both of these truths are also revealed, albeit in a more theological way, in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. As the passage begins, the Pharisees are once again trying to trick Jesus into saying something that he shouldn’t say. At this point, they’ve already decided that they want to have Jesus killed; they’re really just searching for a way to make that happen. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a bunch of parables in which the religious authorities have set trap after trap hoping to catch Jesus, but he’s managed to dodge them every time.

The Pharisees seem to be growing increasingly impatient and/or desperate, and so they turn things up a notch here by summoning a lawyer to do their dirty work. Just to be clear, this isn’t a lawyer in the way we might think of it these days; this guy is an expert on Jewish religious law.

The question he poses here is meant to test Jesus’s ability to interpret and abide by the law, and we know this because Matthew actually says so. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” is what he asks. It may sound straightforward enough, but it’s actually pretty sneaky.    

You see, there are over six hundred commandments in the law according to the Torah, and the most devout Jews believed that all of them should be obeyed. So the very idea of naming a single commandment as the greatest was dangerous, because privileging one kind of implies that it’s okay to neglect all of the others. And if Jesus had simply named one, then the authorities would have used this as justification for branding him as a heretic. But Jesus actually chooses to answer the lawyer’s question, and his response is one of the most quoted passages in the New Testament:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” is what Jesus says.

But I can’t help but wonder whether our familiarity with this verse has led us to take a lot of its meaning for granted — the biblical equivalent of that thing in your house that you walk past every day without giving it much thought.

In formulating his two-part answer to the question about the greatest commandment, Jesus goes back to the Torah. And these Pharisees would have known exactly what Jesus was quoting and where it came from.

The first part — the one about loving God — comes from the Jewish prayer known as the Shema, which appears in Deuteronomy. Now, if you actually had to pick a single commandment to set above all the rest, this is probably about the safest choice that you could make; but Jesus doesn’t stop there.

The second part, which he describes as being like, or equivalent to, the first, is the call to love your neighbor. And this one is hardly new either —  you can find it in Leviticus.

Now, the Pharisees must have been absolutely floored when Jesus gave them an actual answer to a question they’d asked him. “You want to know what the greatest commandment is? I’ll (literally) do you one better by giving you two. And even though they sound like two, they’re really one.”

You see, once again, Jesus’s answer to one of the Pharisee’s questions serves to reframe the entire debate. They’re so fixated on looking for one thing, that they don’t seem to notice that Jesus gives them something else, something far more than what they’re asking for. And while this all might sound complicated, it’s actually kind of simple.

Think for a moment about what holds these two commandments together here, the one thing that enables Jesus to assert that they are essentially the same:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The answer is right there staring us (and the Pharisees) in the face; the answer is love.

Jesus is saying that love itself is the greatest commandment;

it’s the glue that holds all our relationships together;

it’s the essential premise from which all else proceeds;

it’s the truth that underlies all six hundred and thirteen commandments;

it’s the hook upon which hangs all the law and the prophets;

it’s the verb that guides all other actions;

it what makes the world go ‘round.

But we, like those Pharisees, often lose sight of the forest for the trees, focusing so much on the letter of the letter of the law (all of the things we shalt and shalt not do, and which of those things might be more important than others) that we fail to honor the very spirit of the law, which, of course is love.

The scope of that love, for Jesus, is all-encompassing and infinite. Whom are we to love? The answer is God, our neighbor and ourselves. These Pharisees, in all likelihood, would have interpreted the call to love their neighbor very narrowly; to them, the term “neighbor” would have meant people just like them. And let’s be honest — are we really all that much different today?

But Jesus understood “neighbor” in the widest possible sense, and so the commandment, as he presents it here, is to love God, yourself and everybody else — absolutely everybody else. For Jesus, the distinctions among us — and between God and us — are overcome and made irrelevant by love; for through love we become aware that we are truly one.

All of this talk about love is not meant to make it seem like love is easy – because it’s not. Real love takes work; it involves commitment, it means putting the needs of someone else above your own.

But don’t ever forget just how much God loved the world;

don’t ever fail to remember the ways in which Jesus showed his love for God and for us;

and don’t ever lose sight of the fact that we really are all connected by the love we show God and one another.

Because love really is the point of it all.