Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life
By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor
Matthew 22:34-46 is the last in a string of questions the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been asking Jesus. Earlier on in 22:15, Matthew says that the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said, meaning they wanted to get him debate them with the goal of getting himself into trouble by saying the wrong thing (politics and religion have changed so little). They pursue this with the Sadducees, who have no real affections for Jesus either.
First up to bat are the Pharisees, who ask Jesus a question about taxes, to which Jesus responds with the famous, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (or something like that). Later on than this, but still before Proper 25’s focus text, the Sadducees come and ask him a complicated question about levirate marriages in order to get him to, in a roundabout way, admit that there is no resurrection (because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection). Jesus wasn’t having much of that either. So he responded, then sent them on their way, leaving the crowd astounded.
To me, the Pharisees and Sadducees here always come across like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus, trying to go toe-to-toe with Moses, but can’t quite squeeze a win out of it. Now, we get to our focus text and the last of the tricks up the local leaders’ sleeves. In their final quip here they ask Jesus which commandment of the Law is the greatest. I’m always reminded here of Conan the Barbarian who was asked a similar question: “what is best in life?” Conan responded something like: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to be more in Conan the Barbarian’s camp rather than Jesus the Messiah’s. Jesus responded very differently. He went for two quotations from the Hebrew Bible. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The first bit about loving God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your might.” In Deuteronomy’s context it is the establishment of the requirement of loyalty to the LORD, the God of Israel (whom readers have just been informed is one and will later be told how to do this). The second bit of the Law which Jesus commends as greatest has to do with people and comes from Leviticus 19:18: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” Jesus goes on to say that on this hangs all the law and the prophets. All of the big, important stuff about God and people and the relationships among these respective parties can be boiled down to a threefold love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.
It was hard to argue with this, even though the Pharisee who asked was a lawyer, so it seems as if they just let it go. What stands out most to me in all of this is that as Jesus is winding down his ministry (this comes after his entrance into Jerusalem) he is getting to the point. He is also done with taking a bunch of trick questions and dealing with the same old antagonism from the same old folks. He goes on after this to give nothing less than a scathing criticism of the Pharisees. The Pharisees and Sadducees just wanted to play games. They wanted to use theology as a weapon against Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t having it. He gave constant deflections and in the process let us all know what is best in life, and it isn’t war or defeating one’s enemies (sorry Conan!), it’s love.
There are a lot of times in life when a lot of folks will turn this commandment of love into another kind of Pharisaic trick. I know that in my own experience as a queer person I’ve often been given the false choice of loving God or loving myself. Plenty of folks tried to convince me that I could love God and hate my sexual orientation, or I could love my sexual orientation and hate God. Theological entrapment.
Another example of this comes from the congregation in which I work. It is about half African American. A lot of the older black folks in the congregation recall having the Bible used against them as a weapon too, with white preachers and local leaders harkening to Scripture to twist and turn it, trying to wring out of it a definitive statement that people of color were less than whites, and to justify their segregation and marginalization, much as their white forebears did in defense of the institution of slavery.
In both the case of the social oppression of the queer and black communities (both of which have had a lot of media recent media coverage due to the Nashville Statement and the violence in Charlottesville respectively), people want to use God as a weapon of oppression or hurt, trying to entrap people in it rather than letting them be liberated by it.
A final thought on what speaks to me from the text today is that I really relate to Jesus’ position here. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have approached me to “just discuss” the issue of queerness and religion in order to basically entrap me. What offers a lot of hope to me as one who still continues in this kind of struggle is that when Jesus was cornered and confronted with religion in this way, his response was ultimately that loving God and loving one’s neighbor and loving oneself is the highest calling in life. The hope here is that he did not let the struggle with the local leaders break his spirit or distract him from the core of his message. This threefold love is the measure against which all Christians must measure their lives. It is the core of the Gospel. It is, more or less, not just what is best in life, but perhaps even the meaning of life itself.
The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.