The Law of Love

(Year A, Sunday closest to October 26, Gospel reading Matthew 22:34-46)

“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” – Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV)

640px-Moses_repeated_the_commandments_to_the_people_(detail)
Moses repeated the commandments to the people (ca 840)

What does it mean to love with all your heart, soul, and mind?  The Greek word used in both verses 37 and 39 for “love” is agape, which the mature Christian should recognize as the all-encompassing love that transcends familial and romantic loves.  This is the sacrificial love that looks for no gain for the one expressing and living it.  The first and great commandment is to agape the Lord God, such that it suffuses our entire being and therefore our every word, act, or other fruit bears evidence of that love.  The second commandment, which is like it, making it equally great and preeminent, is to agape humans as fellow bearers of the Image of God.

So, it’s that easy!  Just like the Beatles sang, “All you need is love.”  Love Wins in the end, so all we need to do is keep loving and not worry about any silly rules right?

Well… not exactly.  Look back at Jesus’ words, in verse 40: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus is clearly not setting aside the Law of Moses here (as he says in the Sermon on the Mount, he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it); he is refocusing the Law back to its original intent – Love God, and love your neighbor, and here’s how to do it.  The Law of Love is the foundation upon which the statutes of the Law of Moses find their stability.  The Law of Love does not supplant the Law of Moses, but it gives life to what would otherwise be a lifeless set of dreary rules that only served to make the Jews an “odd sort” to their neighbors, and which the Pharisees turned into a harsh yoke and a crushing burden.

If all the Law and the Prophets depend on the Law of Love, could it possibly be that the commandments of God are codifying and exemplifying how to love God and neighbor?  Jesus says in John 14 that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  He doesn’t say that if you fail to keep his commandments, it’s okay as long as you “love” him, because God knows our hearts, and knows the truth of our being, which is that we are what we do.  By giving us the Law and rules of life, God gives us patterns of living which tune our hearts toward Him.  If we say we love Him but then scorn those patterns of living, then we love our own expectation of personal sovereignty more than Him, and our will becomes an idol.  But if we keep His commandments, we find that we are actively living out love for both God and neighbor.

Loving our neighbor is about seeking the true welfare of those around us.  This is why evangelism is so important to Christianity – the Gospel is the ultimate message of Love for mankind from God, and must be shared to all who can hear it.  This Gospel is not always well received because it requires an amendment of one’s life and sacrificing one’s will to God’s, both of which can be painful.  But true love does not shy away from harsh truths and difficult realities when necessary to save lives.

Loving God is about earnestly seeking His will for us, and seeking how we can conform our will to His, rather than the other way around.  Thanks be to God, for He has already given us the means to successfully find His will, in prayerful meditation on His Holy Scripture.  Therefore, a love of God necessitates living a life informed by and seeking counsel from the Scriptures.  A life lived in constant derision of Scripture, to include patronizing reformulation contorting the plain words of Scripture to suit my personal wishes, is one that gives lie to the statement “I love Jesus.”

It is important to note that while I can say “I love God; therefore, I follow His commandments,” or “I love my neighbor; therefore, I follow God’s laws,” or even “I want to love God and my neighbor; therefore, I follow God’s commandments to teach me that love,” I cannot say “I follow God’s commandments; therefore, I love God and my neighbor.”  This is the error of the Pharisees:  not that they painstakingly followed the Law of Moses, but that they did so with no regard to the heart of the Law (the Law of Love) and that they did so hypocritically.  Following the Law is a consequence of loving God and neighbor, it is not a stand-in for that love.

Consider this week the commandments of God that you may struggle with understanding or following, and pray for an outpouring of grace and peace to help in sacrificing your will to Him.  Consider also those commandments that you do follow readily, examining the heart behind that obedience, and pray for a heart that seeks to do God’s will out of earnest love for Him and His people.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Rendering to God What is God’s

(Year A, Sunday closest to October 19, Gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22)

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ [21] They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22:15-22, ESV)

Moeda_de_César_(1790)_-_Domingos_Sequeira_(Colecção_Família_Loureiro_Borges)
Caesar’s Coin
(1790)

Nobody likes paying taxes – at least, not anyone I know.  True, some people are more accepting of it than others, recognizing that paying taxes is a duty of “good” citizens, and expected of members in a well-ordered society.  If I expect to benefit from the services of the government which rules me, then I should fulfill my duty to pay into its coffers.  But just because I recognize that paying a tax is a consequence of “doing business” as it were, that doesn’t mean that I engage the activity with any real enthusiasm (unless of course I expect to receive any kind of refund).

Jews in the first century A.D., living under Roman rule, were no different in the negative view they held for taxation.  What was different was the underlying principle behind that viewpoint.  Our dislike of paying taxes is rooted in the notion that if I am to be taxed, I should be fairly represented in the activities imposing that tax, itself rooted in the Age of Enlightenment view that the individual is the pilot of their own ship.  The first century Jewish rejection, especially by the multiple populist movements collectively called the Zealots, was rooted instead in an objection to the inherent idolatry of the Roman tax system, which was justified in part by the coinage used to pay the tax, which bore the likeness of Tiberius Caesar and was inscribed by a claim that he was the son of a god (specifically the “divine” Caesar Augustus).  This wasn’t merely “taxation without representation” – instead, it was, from the point of view of strict interpretation of the Law, participating in a pagan religious act.

With this backdrop, we can understand the the trap the Pharisees and their momentary allies the Herodians planned to lay for Jesus.  On the one hand, if he supports paying taxes to Caesar, he gives his enemies what they need to label him a false teacher, it will cost him the support of the populists among his disciples.  If, on the other hand, he comes out against paying taxes, the Pharisees can easily go to the Roman authorities and warn them of the rabble-rouser fomenting sedition and treason within Jerusalem.

Something I had never noticed in the narrative is the inherent hypocrisy on the part of Jesus’ would-be accusers, evidenced in the very fact they had one of the Roman coins in their possession!  To put it into context, there were at least two coinages in first century Palestine, one being the official Roman coin which bore the pagan image of Caesar as well as the blasphemous assertion of his deity, another being the coin used for everyday commerce which bore neither objectionable element.  For the Pharisees to have a coin at the ready meant that they themselves were entangled in the Roman economy, which painted them with the same collaborating brush they sought to paint Our Lord.

Of course, Jesus’ response is the famous phrase “render unto Caesar” which has been appropriated both by movements friendly and antagonistic to the imposition of taxes (and involvement of church in State and vice versa generally).  On its surface, the phrase “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” seems to plainly support paying the coin (which bears Caesar’s image) back to the Roman state – though there are interpretations which view this considering the hypocrisy of the Pharisees carrying the coin of idolatry, going so far as to rephrase it as “render to Caesar his blasphemous coin.”  This interpretation would give Jesus’ words an ironic cast, by heaping more shame on the Pharisees for trucking with the oppression of the Empire.  This interpretation, to me at least, seems lacking – especially in light of how Jesus concludes his response: “render to God that which is God’s.”

I submit that Jesus’ response is not an evasion of the question at all.  He answers it pretty plainly, in my eyes at least.  The coin bears Caesar’s image, so in Jesus’ view, paying the tax was merely giving the coin back to its owner.  Paying or not paying the tax was not the core issue Jesus was concerned with, otherwise, he would have left it at “render unto Caesar” and we would not have been commanded to “render unto God.”  So, what is God’s?  If the coin – by virtue of bearing Caesar’s image – belongs to Caesar, then the thing which Jesus refers to as being God’s must be something that bear’s His image.  So, to answer “what is God’s?” we must then consider what bears His image – and the well taught, mature Christian should know immediately that Jesus is referring to us, humans, created in the Image of God.

From a practical perspective, I believe we should pay our taxes if we submit ourselves to the rulers that have been placed over us, as St. Paul commands us in multiple letters.  And from a cultural and contextual commentary perspective, it is interesting and illuminating that Jesus’ response is given the rhetorical upper hand by the mere fact his opponents were participating in the very system they were supposedly preaching against.  But the deeper matter, which is what Jesus always is getting at, is to be primarily less concerned with who has the right to demand money from me, and more concerned with Who has the right to demand my heart, soul, and strength.  If I get that part right, then the question of “what belongs to Caesar?” will be answered satisfactorily before God.  If I neglect that question, then it’s a toss-up whether I offend against the laws of men (both unwavering anarchism and unquestioning collaboration will lead to moral and ethical failures absent the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit), but it is certain that I will offend against God, and by failing to consider what is His that I should render to Him, I commit idolatry in placing the created order in a place of higher importance.

This week, when considering any of the number of issues confronting the Church and its relation to the earthly states, consider before God whether your response to them is primarily in pursuit of your acknowledgement of Whose image you bear.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

 

Are You Wearing Your Wedding Garment?

(Year A, Sunday Closest to October 12, Gospel Reading Matthew 22:1-14)

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment.  And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’  And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  For many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:11-14 (ESV)

The first time I read this parable, I was stumped.  Why did the king react so harshly to a man who had, based on the earlier details of the story, been gathered in from the street to attend the wedding feast?  It seemed incredibly unfair, and no matter how I approached it, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Isn’t this reaction, as well as the words of Christ at the end, seemingly out of character for how we think the Gospel is supposed to work?  If we read the king to be Almighty God, then there is seemingly a disjointing of message.  We read in the Epistles that God wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  But how does that work with him being willing to cast out a man simply for coming in off the street in the wrong clothes?  How does this desire that all should be saved marry up to “many are called, but few are chosen”?  Isn’t Jesus, and therefore God, being a little harsh in this judgment?

After reading this Gospel once, I turned to the Epistle lesson as a source for inspiration for this week’s reflection.  But my curiosity would not let me leave a troubling message alone so easily, and so I read it again.  And again.  But no matter how much I read it, I had trouble getting it to click into place.

So, admitting that I didn’t currently have the insight to make headway on the meaning of the parable, at least not the closing verses, I turned to the commentary in the ESV Study Bible.  This is one of many instances where I am profoundly glad for the work of academic theologians and all other professional scholars whom God has gifted with studious minds and knowledge of how to approach even these parables which seem intractable and at odds with how we think things are supposed to work.

The ESV Study Bible puts forward two possibilities for what the wedding garment represented, either one of which satisfies the impasse, and neither of which could be said to be far-fetched.  I encourage the reader to investigate and come to their own conclusions.  The point, for this reflection, is that the wedding guest lacked something that the king saw as essential for the guest to be accepted to the feast.  And when I read this, the message clicked for me.  This parable isn’t about the king flying off the handle at a random guest who wasn’t dressed as nicely as the king would have liked – this is about the character of the wedding guest, and how they demonstrated to the king their lack of respect for his station and their ingratitude for his invitation.

There are three clues in these four verses which make it clear that the king was not being arbitrary, and the guest was not worthy of the company of the king.

First, the parable states the king saw “a man who had no wedding garment.”  This makes it clear that at least many of the other guests, if not all of them, did have appropriate attire for the feast, because otherwise this man would not be notable, or the text would have referred to the group of people without garments.  This suggests that either garments were provided for the rest of the guests, or they had the presence of mind to run home and change before coming to the feast.  For the guest to not have a garment marks him out as not being mindful of what was expected of him.

Second, the king’s initial response, to ask “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” shows that it is not merely about the guest arriving in the wrong attire; otherwise, wouldn’t the king have just skipped asking for an explanation and thrown him out right away?

Finally, and what increasingly becomes the damnable element to my mind, is the guest’s response – or, more properly, his lack of response.  “And he was speechless.”  When I first read the parable, and came across those four words, I glided over them and didn’t really digest the meaning.  Now, they resonate with the recurring assertion throughout the New Testament that we will be required to give an account of ourselves in the last judgment (Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12, 2 Corinthians 5:10).  For the guest to be speechless is at best a demonstration that he was unprepared to be in the presence of the king, and at worst is an attempt to evade and try to slip by unnoticed (think of the Pharisee’s response to Jesus when he asked them about where the baptism of John came from in Matthew 21:27).  In either case, he is shown to not be worthy of being in the presence of the king, and is cast out.

The king is, just like our King, a powerful figure who is worthy of awe, respect, and even fear.  We hope that when we approach the judgment seat of God we will both be clothed in the wedding gown of righteousness and Gospel truth, and to give an account that is pleasing to Him.  This is the point of the parable – that we who are called to the presence of God do so in the manner and under the terms that He has set for us, and that when He speaks to us, we respond to Him.  The wedding guest did neither of these things, and was cast out.

This week, consider what terms God has set for us generally to come before Him, as well as anything you personally may be required to do in pursuit of those general terms (disciplines you may be called to take up, or behaviors the Spirit urges you to set aside).  I also urge you to consider how God is speaking to you, and how the Spirit is directing you to respond to His call.

Grace and peace to all.

Citizenship in Heaven

Below is an excerpt from a sermon preached on 08 October 2017, on Philippians 3:14-21.  It has been edited to better fit a print format.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” – Philippians 3:20-21(ESV)

What does it mean to be a citizen?

To be a citizen is to belong to a community – to be an integral member of a body of people.  Citizenship affords the citizen the right to be defended by the ruler – to have assurance that their lives and livelihoods will be protected so long as the nation stands.  In a well-run State, the citizen is provided for in order to preserve the social order and ensure the continued well-ordered function of society.  A citizen is also disciplined, and restricted by laws that place bounds on what it is acceptable for the individual to do.

It is for these reasons that Paul depicts our life in Christ as citizens of Heaven.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I immediately know that I am joined to the body of believers that makes up the Body of Christ.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand that I rely on God for protection, just as in my civic life – if I am a good citizen dwelling in a just society – I rely on the instruments of the government to defend my life and livelihood.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand most completely that I am not a citizen of this world – that I am a sojourner among a strange people, a wanderer that is making his way home.

We, like Paul, are refugees fleeing the tyranny of Death.  Imagine the worst regime you could live under or be threatened by, and the one who seeks to oppress us is worse, and indeed the orchestrator of all of them.  We, like Paul, have been granted asylum, and not just asylum, but naturalization; indeed, we will be made as if we had been born within the bounds of Heaven from the beginning, reckoned as natural-born citizens of the Kingdom.

With this in mind, is it any wonder that Paul is moved to tears by those who “walk as enemies of the Cross”?  They are just as oppressed as we were, they enjoy no more favorable status than we do, though it may look that way on the outside.  And yet, they have chosen the blasted warzone for their home, though green pastures and quiet waters were a few steps away.  They choose to rebuild the shanty that has been blown down over and over, and will be blown down once more, when a house with a sure foundation is just a little further inland.  They are the prisoner in a camp who is given a modicum of sham authority to berate and degrade their fellow prisoners, when in the end the Oppressor will kill them along with those in bondage with them.

It would not do justice to Paul’s analogy to turn this into a discussion of “good” versus “bad” citizenship – he doesn’t leave room for there to be a “bad” citizen.  His contrast is between those who are citizens and those who are not.  Those who are await a Savior from Heaven who will change us from being naturalized asylum seekers to being natural-born citizens of Heaven.  Those who are not citizens pledge allegiance to a power that uses them up and affords them no benefits or quarter or justice.  We who will recite the Nicene Creed in a few moments pledge allegiance to a powerful God who sustains and builds us up, raising us to life, providing shelter from the enemy, and affording us the justness of His mercy in the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since we are Citizens, we are part of the community of Believers.  Each of us contributes to the building up of the congregation, each voice lends its distinct note to our common refrain.  We are protected from the perils assaulting the soul and the spirit, that the roving lion who is our enemy is kept at bay from inflicting true harm.  We may be killed in the body, or struck with illness, or have our minds clouded in age, but we will be made new, and will never depart the presence of our God, and will not fear the tribulation and woes promised to the earth and the waters.

As Citizens, we are expected to perform certain duties – a citizen of the United States pays taxes, follows laws, and in some cases, answers the call of the Nation to come to its aid and defense.  Citizens of Heaven laboring on Earth are called to sacrifice to God and the Church, our time, talents and treasure; to remain Holy, as our Father in Heaven is Holy; and to stand against the power of the Enemy, relying on God for our salvation in battle against the oppressor.

The character of God throughout Scripture is to value the broken and contrite heart above all other offerings.  Unlike an earthly tax imposed by a State, which serves to sustain the daily operation of the government, our contributions are neither imposed nor are they for sustaining either God or Church.  God made everything we would give him, and the Church at times has subsisted in the desert.  Instead, our free offerings are the fruits of our appreciation in being granted asylum; we give gifts not out of obligation or because we want continued favor, but because our King gave us gifts, and we want to be like Him.  Practically, we accomplish this when we pledge a portion of our income, give sacrificially to support the ministries around us, and volunteer our time in the liturgical life of the church.  In these sacrifices, our citizenship is realized in the emulation of our Ruler.

Earthly nation-states have codes of laws governing the acceptability and suitability of the actions of the citizens under their rule.  These laws define the standard of conduct for citizens to follow, and set the bar for everyday interaction between citizen and community.  In the Heavenly State, the standard is Holiness, which is more than perfect action in accordance with God’s commandments – it is recognizing that I, having been granted asylum, am no longer bound by the clamor within me that beckons me to overindulge in food and drink, to put off work I can do during the week for when I have more time on Sunday, to lust and covet after what I don’t have, or to forego my prayer time because I want to get out the door for work just a little bit earlier.  Holiness, simply put, is refusing to cede ground from the height that God has called me to, lest I sink into the sinful mire that the world around me tells me is normal because it is “human nature.”  Our citizenship is confirmed in the Holy Spirit urging us toward right conduct and turning our hearts away from our “nature” and toward our Savior.

It is true that in most countries, only a few citizens are called on to defend the nation by force of arms.  In America, our military is staffed by an all-volunteer force, and only a few of them are called to active combat roles.  In contrast, we citizens of Heaven who labor on earth are not citizens who wait in the homeland for the army to return; we are that Army, undertaking missions and campaigns to advance the Kingdom in daily lives by seeking the welfare of others, even those who would be our enemies.  All of us are called to stand against the Enemy in our daily lives, whether he assaults us in our personal struggles with addiction, habits, and the various temptations of our mortal bodies, or whether he assaults us from others’ unreasoned hatred of someone who is different from them or us.  We are not expected to defeat the Enemy, because Satan is too much for us to beat finally – but we resist his call and his lures and seek to break his hold over others by showing them another way.  In following the banner of the Cross wherever it leads, we daily lay claim to our citizenship.

It should be clear that Paul’s vision of citizenship is an inherently active one.  Because of this, it should be no surprise that when he says “we await a Savior” he likewise intends an active waiting.

We wait for Heaven to send a Savior, not as someone who sits and waits, but like someone who is walking on a road, waiting for their friend to come and join them.  Part of this walk, and this waiting, is ensuring that our daily life looks like that of our Godly examples given us both in Scripture and by Providence in our lives.  This includes living out the commands and practical advice given by Paul and the other Apostles, as well as heeding the words of those God has placed in our daily lives as examples and authorities.  God has placed spiritually mature brothers and sisters among His people who have seen similar struggles to ours and whom God has blessed with an opportunity to witness to us.  In the Tradition of the Church, he has raised up Apostolic witnesses in our Bishops and Priests to provide voices from authority when we need more clear words of comfort and discipline.

Keeping our walk in this way is not only for our benefit, but for those who will come after us, so that we may be those spiritually mature siblings to the next generation of Christians, both physical and spiritual little children.  Going back to the Army metaphor from a little earlier, we watch our mature brothers and sisters in Christ like a new recruit watching seasoned veterans and learning the courtesies and customs of the army we march in.  In turn, we walk as those veterans for the benefit of the ones looking to our example.

Continue to meditate on this idea of “citizenship of Heaven,” and what it means to await our Savior as citizens.  Examine your walk, and consciously live your lives to be held up as an example for those that come after you.

“Our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior.”  Lord come quickly, and change us from asylum seekers and naturalized aliens to natural born citizens under you.  Amen.