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Prop. 25, Yr. A, Oct. 26, 2008
Church of the Epiphany, Glenburn
Rev. Craig C. Sweeney
Soli Deo Gloria


     Let me just get this off my chest first: what God does to
Moses here is just rotten. The guy is 120 years old, he’s been
leading these fractious Hebrews across the desert for 40
years after doing everything God told him to do, starting, if
you believe these numbers in the Bible, when he was already
80 years old back at the burning bush - and now he dies, ‘at
God’s command,’ and he never sets foot in the promised land?
God leads Moses up another mountain and shows it all to him,
then tells him he can’t go in. What’s up with that?
     Scholars and theologians have speculated on that
question for centuries and no one has a good answer. The
standard line is that Moses is being punished by God for
disobeying one - ONE! - command of God. Remember back at
Meribah where Moses smacks the rock with his staff and
water gushes out? Well, God didn’t tell him to hit the rock
and this is apparently a sign to God that Moses didn’t trust
him.
     Well, I don’t like that. I suspect that Moses simply died
before they all got to Palestine and that the authors of this
narrative had to give it some kind of ‘godly’ spin. But the view
of God that they leave us doesn’t match up with the God I
find everywhere else in Scripture. Where is all of God’s
mercy?
     It is tricky to place oneself in the minds of those who
wrote Scripture down for us. Tradition has it, of course, that
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Moses himself wrote the Torah, these first five books of the
Bible, including - somehow - this part about his own death. I
think it is self-evident that he didn’t, but we really don’t know
who did. So for me, a humble parish priest, to challenge the
Bible is risky.
      But the lesson here for the Hebrews seems pretty clear:
you had better follow God’s commands. Look what happened
to Moses for breaking only one! Thus, perhaps, does the
astonishing work of living according to God’s commandments
achieve traction in Israel. For a good Jew in Jesus’ day, and
to this day for the Orthodox Jews, living according to Torah
is what it means to BE a Jew, period. Questioning the
commandments of God himself is tantamount to blasphemy.
      Moses died perhaps 1200 years before Jesus, but was
still considered the paramount prophet, as we read this
morning: ‘He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that
the Lord sent him to perform... [and] he knew the Lord face to
face.’ For Jews, only Elijah will come close to Moses’ fame.
      And to the Jews, Moses was the Law. In the Book of
Acts, James, the leader of the Jews in Jerusalem declares
that “Moses’ has been read in the synagogues for generations,
equating Moses with the Law.
      Now, there were various sects of Jews then, as there are
now. We hear of the Sadducees and the Pharisees most
often, but there were also the Essenes, out in the desert.
Each had their own view of what following the rules meant in
daily life. The Pharisees were the most scrupulous followers
of Torah, the ‘ultra-orthodox’ Jews of those times.
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     And in Matthew’s gospel, perhaps the most anti-Jewish
gospel of the 4, we hear that once in Jerusalem Jesus has had
to face down each of the important sects. In the part just
before our reading this morning, Jesus has silenced the
Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection. This week, we
hear one last time from the Pharisees who are trying to trap
this upstart Galilean rabbi into making a mistake so that they
can have him arrested.
     So they ask him another trick question - ‘Teacher, which
commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Now there are 613
laws in Torah, according to the Rabbis. Presuming to judge
that one is better than the other would be presuming to judge
God himself. To the Pharisees, each and every one of the laws
was equal in importance.
     Had Jesus said, ‘honoring your parents’ is the most
important, they would have immediately challenged him with
other examples of important laws. But Jesus is a good Jew
and he obviously knows the Law.
     But what Jesus really knows is the heart of God and
Jesus sees behind all the minutiae of rules and regulations to
what God intends by it all. And so he answers with the prayer
that every good Jew is supposed to say every day, the Shema:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your
soul and all your mind.’ AND, Jesus adds, ‘you shall love your
neighbor as yourself.’ This second part, Jesus tells them, is
equal to the first. Everything else in the Torah is just
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commentary on these two commandments. Indeed, we call
these two laws, ‘The Great Commandment.’
      It is interesting that in the English Christian scripture,
the last phrase is translated ‘with all your mind,’ while in the
English Hebrew bibles, it is ‘with all your might.’ I think the
Jews are closer, the Hebrew word is ‘mod’, which normally
means ‘very.’ We should translate that as, ‘with all your very-
ness.’ Translation can, as you see, be tricky.
      But the essence to us is clear, I think - and I shortcut
this phrase to ‘love God with all you’ve got:’ your heart, your
soul, your very essence. Love God totally.
      But I rather like the translation to ‘with all your mind.’
To me that says we are supposed to think about all of this,
struggle with it, challenge it, get past the ancient written
words and get to the essence of what God wants from us.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that the essence of following the
Law is simply to love God totally and love one’s neighbor as
oneself.
      Then while the Pharisees are pondering this response,
which truly can’t be challenged, Jesus seemingly jumps in with
a complete nonsequitor. ‘What do you think of the Messiah?
Whose son is he?’ They immediately answer what every good
Jew knows, ‘the son of David.’
      This doesn’t mean that the messiah would be born to
David, who has been dead some 900 years, but that he would
be of David’s lineage. This was the accepted premise for
Jews, that the new king of Israel, who would deliver them out
of the hands of foreigners and restore the land to power and
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prestige, would be descended from the famous King David
himself.
      And Jesus answers with a riddle - why then does David
call him ‘lord?’ This makes sense when you know that David
was presumed to written all of the psalms, thus when Jesus
cites that psalm, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right
hand,’ the good Jew would hear, ‘David said to the Messiah,
whom David calls Lord, sit at my right hand.’ Well, Jesus tells
them, no one would call his son ‘lord.’
      And this stumps them and we hear that from that day
they did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions. Riddles
can do that, the unexpected answer can shut our mouths as we
think about it. Like a parable, a riddle has a twist to it, and
that twist surprises us.
      This riddle from Jesus is not so out of place as it first
seems. In essence what Jesus has done is to make them
think, to use their minds. He is making them stop and think
about something that they had always taken as a given - that
the messiah would be a descendant of King David. Jesus
doesn’t come right out and tell them that they are wrong, he
simply challenges their simplistic acceptance of Scripture as
written, he makes them ponder what they previously took as a
given. He urges them to use their minds.
      Love God with all your heart, your soul and your mind.
Think, for crying out loud. Loving God isn’t just about reading
and following the rules.
      As we read the gospels, the books about Jesus’ life and
teachings, passion and resurrection, we hear again and again
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that Jesus is more concerned with people than he is with the
rules of Torah. But, when asked what the most important of
the laws is, he doesn’t abandon Torah, he zeroes in on it’s very
essence: God wants us to love him and show our love of God by
loving each other. In that sense, Jesus is still a good Jew.
      And you can make the case that each of the major
religions of the world are basically about these two things:
loving God and loving our neighbors. So what is important
about being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus?
      Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not all that good at
loving my neighbor. Loving my neighbor as much as myself is
counter-intuitive, it contradicts my self-preservation
instincts. I have been bred to put my own wants and needs
above all else. This simple restatement of ancient Jewish laws
is easy enough to read and analyze, it’s nearly impossible to
live out. I’m too selfish.
      And I’m selfish, or self-centered if you like, because I
live in fear - fear of not having enough, fear of being hungry,
fear of getting sick, and fear of death - which is at the
bottom of all our fears. All of those fears urge me to take
care of myself, first and foremost. Loving my neighbor
sounds good, and I’ll work at it, right after I take care of
myself.
      So how do I stop being so self-centered? How do I learn
to love others as much as myself? As Paul says, ‘who will
rescue me from this wretched body of death?’ I need
someone who will rescue me from my fears, I need, in short, a
savior. I need someone who will save me from fear, because
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fear feeds all of my sins. Putting myself first is the root of
all sin.
      And in Jesus, I have found that savior. Loving God with
all I’ve got is challenging enough, but loving others as much as
I love myself is way tougher. But what God has done in Jesus
makes this possible.
      What God has done in Jesus, in his death and in his
resurrection, has been to destroy the power of death. What
God has done in Jesus has to make death insignificant, just
another step in my life, a break from this self-centered
existence on the way into God’s kingdom. What God has done
in Jesus is to set me free from the fear of death.
      Fear of death is the root of all self-preservation
instincts and if I no longer fear death, I am truly set free,
‘ransomed’ as we say in the Church, from my instinctive slavery
to fear. This is what makes it possible, not easy, but at least
possible, to begin to love others as much as I love myself.
Being free from the fear of death, through faith in Jesus and
the resurrection, makes it possible to trust God and love
others. That’s what being a Christian means.
      Love God with all your heart soul and mind. Think about
being free from fear. Love others as much as yourself. AMEN