Jesus and the Lawyer

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Listen while you read

Since October 1, I have put 2000+ miles on my car commuting back and forth from Atlanta. My children will testify that the slightest technical task baffles me and so I fearfully keep my car radio right where it is, which means that I have listened to NPR for two hours a day and have that artificial sense that I am alert to all things considered. So, while I would ordinarily be focused on the changing leaves or the return of college football, I waited with baited breath for the promised afternoon newscast announcement of the cases that the US Supreme Court would hear during the present term. The court does not entertain every case that comes before it. It only “answers” questions of rulings that are in conflict with similar lower court rulings or cases whose outcome will apply to every citizen, or cases where similar-sounding laws appear to address the same issue, and in these cases, the high court serves the role of a traffic cop, determining which law has priority.

Not unexpectedly, all of these criteria were on my mind as I read again the story of one of Jesus’ encounters with an attorney. One wonders what criteria Jesus used to decide which questions he would entertain. It seems that some of his answers were clearer than others, and one has to wonder whether there were times he was answering a question that was only implied or whether sometimes he just rolled his eyes and walked away. Teachers are fond of saying at the first of term that “there are no stupid questions” but I think we all know that some questions are smarter than others.

When the self-important Pharisees—the governors of religious ritual purity—heard that Jesus had shut down the Sadducees—the governors of religious law—they tried a new tactic to trap Jesus. They sent in a single lawyer to trick Jesus.

“Which commandment in the law is the most important?”

It seems that the question meets one criterion, that is, it asks for a ruling regarding the priority of the laws. And, since all Jews were subject to the law, the answer would have national importance – meeting the second criterion. Finally, it would appear that the lawyer’s question goes to the heart of what Moses—the original framer of the Jewish constitution—intended, satisfying the third criterion.

And so, Jesus grants the writ of certiorari, and entertains the lawyer’s question.

“Which is the greatest commandment?”

Looking for AN answer, he gets two answers. I imagine Jesus was glad that the lawyer asked, because his answer will become the new “law of the land”; at least if one believes that Jesus sits as the highest court, not abolishing the law, as he says, but filling it full with meaning.

And so we come to the answer.

“Love” he says “Love God with everything you’ve got. Love God with your heart, the thing in your chest that pumps blood everywhere. Love God with your soul, the breath that you breathe in and out, the meager bits of mystery that you can muster, those moments when you could swear you just saw a miracle. Love God with your mind, with your worrying and calculating, with your imagination and ideas, your dreams, your riddles. Capture every cell of your being and offer it bound and dressed on the altar to God in love. And then, in a different way–in the way that you consider yourself, take care of yourself, provide for yourself, and honor yourself–in that way, love anyone that is not you…that is, your neighbor.

The answer changes everything. It is at once both simple and challenging. As Augustine of Hippo finally summarized it, “Love God and do whatever you please.”

We hear nothing more out of this attorney. Jesus turns on the Pharisees who he knows are behind sending the lawyer to him. “What do you think of the Messiah?”

Well, indeed. I guess that’s what it comes down to for all of us. What do we think of a Messiah who breaks us out of our small and precise legalization of religion and demands instead that we come in with “all or nothing”? That’s a pretty tall order and I’d wager that most of us prefer an ala carte religion, buying in to what makes sense and giving a pass to what doesn’t. It’s a tough pill to swallow to say to someone who has lost a child, or seen every dollar you ever earned scammed by some greedy con game, or who has been betrayed or abandoned. Some of us feel like there is just nothing left to offer God.

Fortunately for us, nothing is God’s favorite resource. Out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. Jesus cured blindness with dirt and spit. He fed thousands with a boy’s lunch, and turned some jugs of water into an open wine bar at a wedding feast.

Broken is where most of us begin. When the God of our childhood, the God that was little more than a religious Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, becomes the God of real life, broken is how we meet him with virtually nothing to offer. I think God looks on that which we admit to, that nothingness, and says, “Now that I can do something with!”

It’s not pretty to watch, much less to experience, but in the end it may actually be the most effective evangelism skill we have, although by accident. Certainly, when someone has just realized that the God they thought they knew turns out not to be anything like the living God, the furthest thought from their mind is “Golly, I hope this experience brings others closer to Christ.”

Jesus doesn’t contrast “good” and “evil” but “truth” and “evil.” As Nadia Bolz-Weber observes, “The truth doesn’t just feel like it’s crushing us, but it actually does. Yet, at the same instant it crushes us it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens.” (Pastrix 2013)

So, if this kind of honesty is the best way to engage God and love ourselves, then what does it really look like to love our neighbors the same way? What does it look like to chat over coffee on a Sunday morning? Are we too quick to say “I know just how you feel” when we really don’t? Are we too slow to say “Let me take the kids for the afternoon and bring them back to you after supper” when we know full well the marriage is straining under the constant demands of two small children? One of our false gods is that being a Christian is about being good, when it sounds like it’s about being present, practical, and real.

Perhaps it would help if we had new images of “good Christians”. After all, wasn’t that what he tried to give the lawyer–a new image of the law that wasn’t about what not to do but was all about what to do and how to do it? Maybe we could begin with a new kind of honesty in our prayer life or in our family life. Maybe the outcome wouldn’t make it to the level of a US Supreme Court case, but better; it would make it to the level of a conversation recorded for Story Corps– a memorable, remarkable, magical moment when we realize we are living witnesses to what happens at the intersection of our limitations and God’s limitlessness.

Perhaps our private prayer of thanksgiving to God should begin with thanking God for being there at our wit’s end, even when we can’t recognize Him, and use whatever energy we have left to fan the sparks of a hope that “nothing” is still God’s favorite material to work with.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
October 26, 2014

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