October 28, 2014

Because I Said So!


Text: Matthew 22:39b: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Jesus our brother, kind and good...” Remember that song? Some of us, at least, grew up with it; it’s a children’s song from Christmastime, an old tune called “The Friendly Beasts.” If you ever were in a children’s choir, you sang that song, believe me.

I’m sure the purpose of the song was to make us feel comfortable with Jesus when we were little. It was to give us a sense that there was a kind of familiarity, an unthreatening connection, with this person Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus our brother. Kind and good. What could possibly go wrong?

Many of you probably have brothers or sisters, and you might have an idea of an answer to that question. I don’t happen to have any, but I spent this past weekend in the company of many of my cousins celebrating a family birthday, and I observed them interacting as brothers and sisters—a thing I’ve always watched with the kind of fascination with which naturalists study other species.

What I noticed about these brothers and sisters all regathered together, eight of them in all, is that there are certain unspoken rules about sibling relationships. They are close, but close in a certain way, and not in other certain ways. Somehow they know, almost instinctively, where those boundaries are, and when they come up close to the fence lines of them.

Here’s a specific thing I’ve noticed. Watching my cousins interact with each other, I’ve noticed that there are important and not necessarily explicit rules in these relationships around the giving of advice. Getting advice from your co-workers, or your friends, or your neighbors, or from members of your church—that’s one thing. Getting advice from your brother seems to be another, very different thing.

So there is a little problem here. If we learn to cast Jesus in the role of brother at an early age, we are probably not likely to be willing to accept his advice, when it comes. And it comes today in very direct, unambiguous terms.

The Jesus we see in the gospel reading from Matthew this morning is nothing like a brother. He is by no means meek and mild, or for that matter very kind. It is a Jesus responding to a challenge—really a pretty childish challenge. Typically of Matthew’s gospel, it’s the Pharisees cast in the role of the children—the obstreperous, belligerent, testing, unwilling children.

They want to catch Jesus out in a trap. They are playing at puzzles. They ask him a question that they imagine to be unanswerable. Which commandment, of all the commandments we’ve received from Moses, is the greatest?

There are ten of them. But that’s not all; there are six hundred and three other rules, regulations, and laws in the Hebrew scriptures. So tell us, Jesus, which one of these is the greatest?

We heard the answer that Jesus gives in this morning gospel’s reading. It seems very unsurprising to us, because we’ve been hearing it all our lives. Indeed those of us of a certain age used to hear it every Sunday, at the very beginning of the communion service, in a little line called the Summary of the Law.

Because these words are so familiar to us, we can’t really grasp the drama in the exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus, or the way Jesus shifts the whole ground of the debate with his answer. The answer he gives is to restate the very first commandment of the Torah—love God—and then to summarize the other six hundred and twelve laws into this single phrase: Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus is claiming the authority to restate the covenant law.

This is not offered in the way of advice. It is not the calibrated counsel of a brother. This is a directive. It is a spoken in the tones of a parent, not a sibling. There is no room for bargaining, there is no negotiating, there is no wiggle room. Instead of a catching Jesus in a trap, they’ve discovered something even more real about his authority. Jesus is laying down the law here.

The church often wants to give us a sense of comfort with Jesus. That’s how we start out as children—Jesus our brother, kind and good. But we can’t leave folks there, and we can’t leave ourselves there.

We are concerned, maybe even afraid, of turning people off by talking about the Jesus who is clear, who is unyielding, who isn’t really interested in hearing our objections. We’re afraid of people not even giving us a chance if they hear something they don’t like. And in some churches that concern has become a kind of doctrine unto itself, the gospel of the inoffensive savior.

But of course, that is a faulty compromise. If we make it into something we completely agree with, there’s a good chance it’s probably not the gospel.

We need that voice of clarity, even when it jars us. We need that uncompromising directive, even when it feels as though it diminishes us.

•  •  •

I generally refrain from telling stories from this pulpit. Most of you have figured that out, I suppose; the message of the week almost always seems more important to me than any vignette. But here is one through which I understand what Jesus is saying.

Many years ago—I was in third grade, I think—a new kid showed up in our class. His family had just moved to town, because his father had taken a new job.

It turned out his father traveled from time to time on business, which was something I could not really imagine; my father worked in gas stations. And so it was that one day, right about this time of year—right in the midst of this kid’s first few weeks with us—he showed up in class one day with a really cool necklace.

Now, mind you, this would have been in about 1969, so the words “cool” and “necklace” could be uttered in the same sentence. It wasn’t so much the necklace that was cool as the pendant on it; it was a cast metal hand, with two fingers making a peace sign, with an image of the White House in the middle. As horrific as that sounds, I think that was it.

Into class came this kid wearing this enviably cool thing. Of course, immediately he became a target.  I’m not sure whether it was morning or afternoon recess, but what I do remember is that I asked to look at it, took it in my hand, and for reasons I still do not understand grasped it far too tightly. It was just made of pot metal, and so of course one of the fingers snapped off.

My new classmate, rightly proud of this gift from his father, cried tears of genuine anguish. We were, after all, just ten years old. I felt more disappointed in myself, more truly shocked at how careless I could be, than I ever had in my young life. It was an all-around awful moment. And when I went home I still felt bad about it.

I can’t imagine that the young man’s parents called my parents; they weren’t that sort of folks, and anyway in the Midwest in those days that wasn’t how parents raised kids. I’m pretty sure that instead what happened was that my mom saw that I was awfully upset, and before long had the story out of me.

And I am equally sure that pretty much the same thing happened in that other boy’s house. I can’t be certain.

But what I know is that my mother did not worry greatly about offending me in what she said to me. She told me to march right over to that boy’s house—he lived just around the corner; to apologize; and to offer to buy him a new necklace to replace the one I’d ruined.

And I don’t know, but I am fairly certain, that pretty much the same thing happened in his house, in the inverse. I’m pretty sure he was sternly instructed to be forgiving, and to accept whatever meagre apology I offered, if indeed I offered it. There may even have been parental collusion of some kind.

But of this I am certain; I did make that walk to his door; it was maybe two hundred yards, though it felt like twenty miles. I did ring the doorbell; I did apologize, and offer to replace the necklace; and I did know the incredible relief of having my apology accepted. I was never able to find an exact match for the necklace I had broken, but I found something I thought conveyed the same idea—I think it was a peace sign or something—and to my surprise I was actually excited to find it, and to give it.

•  •  •

Now, this story is not really about early mistakes. It’s about the quality of moral guidance we need, and the kind we think we’d prefer. We want to decide for ourselves what recommendations to accept, and which feel a little too encroaching. We want to retain final authority over our own actions. That feels more in keeping with what we think is our dignity.

But had I been left to my own designs, I would probably never have figured out by myself how to do a thing I dreaded to try to make things right. Without a strong parental directive, given without the slightest room for negotiation, I wouldn’t have done the right thing. I’d like to think more highly of myself, but the fact is I didn’t do it until I was told to.

We don’t like being instructed that way. We think we are not children anymore. But when it comes to our spiritual lives we still stand in need of direction, even though it may sometimes come at us without cushion or comfort.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Apologize when you hurt someone. Forgive those who have wronged you. When those directives come they never seem to offer any clear benefit to justify the discomfort and difficulty.

But here is one thing more I know. Forty-five years later, maybe almost to the day of that long ago October on the playground, I had dinner last week with that same boy. We remain friends today—and I do not doubt that has a great deal to do with our parents’ guidance clear then. We are now both older than our parents were then, of course, But—at least speaking for myself—perhaps not significantly less in need of directives from time to time. And I am sure I would not today know the gift of that friendship had it not been for some pretty clear moral instruction from a source uninterested in dialogue.

Jesus our brother, kind and good; there is a time and a season for that sweet notion. But we are headed toward the end of the church year, and we will be getting there through a series of lessons that remind us in no uncertain terms that the man from Nazareth is also our teacher, our guide, our judge—and our king. When the advice sounds too harsh, that  is likely a sign that there is greater profit in taking it seriously. The grace we find to do so yields gifts we cannot imagine, and can never fully deserve. Amen.