“What does Jesus, the Messiah, stand for?” might be a better way of asking the question today. Like the once popular, WWJD, it’s a moral question. And as questioning and baptized believers in Christ, “What does Jesus stand for?” is a basic marker (question) we revisit often, consciously or unconsciously!
That said, I can now appreciate this odd and obscure gospel passage a bit better. I used to just ignore this sticky wicket in preaching, but actually, I think I’m beginning to see how they go together.
The Pharisees, who’ve been hanging around the edges in Jesus’ final days until now, watching and waiting to see if the Sadducees, the high priests and leaders of the people, could entrap Jesus, now see they will finally have to enter the fray, and give him the legal conundrum every Grad student trips on. After all, out of more than 700 laws in the book of Leviticus, who’s to say what the greatest commandment is? But Jesus, ‘clever like a fox,’ chooses the most common verse of all, the Shema, everyone’s morning and evening prayer, which had become an oath, a statement of citizenship, and a creed: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (might).” But a second command is its equal, Jesus quickly adds. And now he chooses from our 1st reading in Leviticus today: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Threading these 2 passages together wove a seamless tale, and important moral guide, that was impossible to deny. These were utterly familiar passages on their own, but cut and pasted together, they were able to capture, not just the greatest command or Law, but the whole of scripture. Together they cemented the identity, and moral reach, of a chosen, called and committed people.
But Jesus ads yet one more thing, the 3rd leg of the stool, if you will – the question of the Messiah, and the one who’s standing in front of them! The leaders in Jerusalem, of course, don’t believe “anything good can come from Nazareth,” and no matter how popular Jesus is, no matter how smart he is in answering their questions, no matter how compassionate he is in showing mercy, they will never believe he is the Messiah, for their interests do not line up. Jesus uses Psalm 110 to point out a contradiction, and trip them up. If David, the writer of the Psalm, quotes God calling David’s son Lord, how can he be the Messiah? Only if “the Son of David” – who they admitted was the Messiah – is also the Son of God! But the Pharisees refused to go there! It would be a proof that Jesus was right, that he indeed was the Messiah, and, the Son of God. Okay, admittedly, that’s still pretty obscure!
But the point is simply that “loving God, and loving neighbor” is a morality that is grounded in Jesus, the Son of God. In Jesus’ speaking, and in his person, a unified understanding of how to believe and act in the world, suddenly made sense, and we have a marker, a compass, to lead us.
Jesus’ world was crumbling. The Temple, holy city and its establishment was losing legitimacy, day by day, year by year. Its foundation was built on low moral ground, the Herod family. Like a bank to big to fail, it blocked the way of reform even as it claimed special sovereign status. As spectacular as Herod’s Second Temple looked - and it was beautiful - its leaders were too compromised, and clung too rigidly to the letter of the law. Power was consolidated in the 1%, while the 99, the regular working folk, tradesmen and artist(ans), homemakers and homeless, had been pushed aside. There was no place for them to sit at the table, until Jesus, as the third leg of the stool, offered it to them. Washing their feet as an example of his new Commandment, and, in love, offering all of himself on the cross, was a stumbling block for the leaders of Jerusalem, but the beginning of a new temple for them, and a way to reach out, empowered now, to change the world.
What is crumbling in our time that needs a moral fix? What do you think of the Messiah? Could he be the third leg of the stool for the times we live in today? And, what is the greatest commandment for us?
It’s hard to beat Jesus’ prescription for the greatest law: Love God with your whole being, and your neighbor as yourself. We can still get behind that, and believe it, lift it up in prayer and praise, and act it out in compassion and in service to our neighbors. With this moral, and religious, prescription, we can address the crumbling socio-political corruption of our time.
Today, in the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, they seem to be gaining authenticity from a broad representation, and a deep moral critique. “Too big to fail,” is not a future to build on. The corruption of checks and balances wounds society, and leaves it limping, like the missing third leg of our moral stool. Wall Street – set free from any significant regulation, to profit at the expense of the 99%’ – is symbolic of our moral malaise, if not the actual center of the crisis. And so, there’s plenty of crumbling going on that calls for a moral re-evaluation. We are called, by our faith, to show the compassion and willingness to change, the world so desperately needs.
“What does Jesus, the Messiah, stand for?” Jesus came to stand up for all people in the midst of the crisis of his day, which is the same moral crisis of every day. In dying and rising again, he founded more than just a social movement, of course – he lives, and continues to send the enlivening Spirit, for the transformation of all lives, and for the renewal of “the spirit of the Law” that lives in, and for us, in every age: for grace and forgiveness, for love and justice, for the inclusion of all. He is the third leg of the stool, our seat at the banqueting table of the Lord - where our Messiah and Savior, has set us free, to be a holy presence for others.