When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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 greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Can you think of a time in your life when you’d just had your fill of nonsense, when you were tired of playing the game, and you’ve just said “enough”? Maybe it was in some toxic workplace situation or a retail encounter gone south, or dealing with some bureaucrat; maybe it was in some dysfunctional relationship with a friend or even a family member. It’s usually a bad thing to speak in universals, but I think it’s safe here to say we’ve all been in that situation at least once in our lives, and probably a lot more than just once., where we’ve just had it, where we’ve cut to the chase and spoken our minds and let the chips fall where they may.
That universal human experience is actually at the core of the Reformation – that important process in the history of the church; the movement that’s come to have the historical motto, Ecclasia reformata; semprer reformanda secundum verbi Dei; “The Church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It was an era when people like Jan Hus, John Wycliff, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and many others, simply couldn’t hold their thoughts and their tongues any more against what they saw, correctly, as the church’s errors, and they spoke out – often at great personal risk, and in some cases, costing their lives.
We’re stepping into the middle of a similar situation in today’s gospel text. This story is actually part of a larger section of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus has already made his final entry into Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. We can’t ever know exactly what Jesus must have been thinking during this time, knowing what was about to happen to him, but it’s probably pretty safe to say that he was filled with anxiety, upset, fed up with all the nonsense that he saw, and that was being thrown at and dumped onto him – all the pettiness, the hypocrisy, all the counterproductive hairsplitting arguments that had grown like barnacles on the hull of both religious and social life, and he’d probably just had enough of it. Jesus was never known pull his punches much in normal times, but in these last days, that seemed to be amplified. His actions and words during this time indicate that he just mentally and literally didn’t have time to waste by engaging that. It’s during this time that he shocks people by vandalizing the tables of the moneychangers, the businesspeople exploiting people in the Temple courtyard, and even going so far as engaging in violence against them, attacking them with a whip. In this same timeframe, he swats away repeated efforts by different groups of people to catch him in some kind or another of social or theological trap. In this section of Matthew’s gospel, we hear how they tried to trap Jesus with the question of whether it’s right to pay the Roman tax, which we just looked at last week. It also includes a story where Jesus is presented with a nonsensical hypothetical of a woman who had seven different husbands, and asking Jesus whose wife she would be after the resurrection, which, by their example, they were trying to show couldn’t exist. In each of these stories, we see Jesus’ refusal to play a game set up with rules he can’t win. Each time, he engages them by establishing his own rules for their game. Jesus’ opponents are trying to argue theological minutiae in order to use God and scripture as a weapon, but Jesus makes it clear that he’s focused on bigger, more important things, truer things. And keeping with his practice of changing the rules on his opponents, refusing to play a rigged game, Jesus’ answer to his opponents here refuses to accept their premise that you could ever possibly reduce God’s priorities to just one single commandment as being the most important. He answers their demand for one commandment with two – with a third one embedded within the second. He answers them that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength; AND to love your neighbor as you love yourself. As he tells them this, he says that the second one is “like” the first – but the Greek word used here is homoia, which means that they aren’t just similar; they’re actually of equal importance – the second is so related to the first that they’re actually inseparable. That, in short, you can’t have the first without the second, and vice versa.
In these, his last days, Jesus focused time and time again on trying to impress on these people coming to him that it was wrong to use religion and interpretation of scripture in a way that it would become a theological trap. The Jesus stories in this section of Matthew add up to a condemnation of any attempt to use God or scripture as a weapon of oppression or hurt; to use them in a way to entrap people instead of liberating them. He was pointing out that everything – everything – hinges on love. That it’s the very meaning and purpose of life, and anything that obstructed that kind of love was wrong.
The Reformers understood that, at least in part, anyway. They recognized all the legalism, not to mention the greed and self-interest on the part of the institution of the church, that was sucking the lifeblood out of the good news of the gospel, of God’s liberating love for all people. They saw how religion was being used to entrap and exclude and condemn, rather than to liberate and include and to promote love. They were calling out the flaws in the institution and were calling for a systemic restructuring of it – not to eliminate it, but to make it more true to its proper purpose. In short, what they were doing was a theological version of the same kind of systemic change that many in our country today, including our own denomination, are calling for in our own civil and social structures.
The Reformation had noble goals, and it made many great strides toward those goals. But the historical Reformers were also the product of their own times and places. They could only see so much; their reforms could only go so far, and even as far as they went, they themselves quickly fell victim to much of the same legalism and self-interest, and the same kind of exclusionary use of God and the scriptures that they’d rebelled against.
And here’s where we come into the picture. The Reformation wasn’t a fixed point in history; it’s an ongoing process that’s never stopped; it keeps going on and on, like in Billy Joel’s song We Didn’t Start the Fire, and we’re every bit as much a part of the process as John Calvin or John Knox, and I’m really not exaggerating one bit. The Reformation is an idea – it’s the continual, slow-moving, historical bending of the arc of our human understanding of this central truth – that throughout all of human history, God has been calling us to continually move more and more toward love; this inseparable threefold love of God, neighbor, and self that Jesus identifies in today’s gospel text. The ongoing Reformation process is all about becoming increasingly aware that faith in Christ, and the gospel that Christ proclaimed, isn’t about us finding some perfect doctrine that will gain us a golden ticket into eternity. Rather, it’s about us coming to understand more and more that we’re “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalmist says, and precious in God’s sight, as Isaiah tells us, and that has to lead us to treating one another with more and more love, more and more justice, more and more equity, working toward more and more peace – and that if we focus on loving people in the present, we’ll gain eternity; while if we focus on eternity, we may well lose both.
If continuing the Reformation process in our own time sounds like work, hard work; like adding even more to our already packed to-do list, like something we’ll never be able to do, that’s partially true – it can be hard work. But here’s the good news for all of us that’s embedded in all of this: God isn’t just calling us to move more and more toward love; God is also enabling and empowering us to do it. We aren’t doing it alone, any more than Luther or Calvin or Knox did. The Good News is that God is with us, and never leaves us. We are not alone; never alone, even in what might seem to be the darkest of times.
And hear this, too: in countless ways, God isn’t just calling us and enabling us to do things laid out in the dark past. God is still speaking to us, revealing to us more and more about this way of love that we were designed and created for. Ways that we would have never understood, never been willing to accept, two thousand years ago. Five hundred years ago. Fifty years ago. Ten years ago. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that he has so much more that he wants to teach them, but they aren’t ready for it yet. Since Jesus’ time, and since time of the Reformers, God has enabled us to have greater understanding that has led us to move more toward love in countless ways in both the church and in our society. And the process will continue long after we’re gone. God will reveal even more to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and they’ll get more of God’s ongoing revelation, to the point that they’ll look back on us as if we were barbarians by comparison.
So maybe the best way we can remember Reformation Day this year is to recognize that it’s still going on, and that we’re an active part in it, whether we want to be or not. And to recognize that the real spirit of the Reformation isn’t to create new and different ways to keep arguing about all the same kinds of counterproductive, exclusionary nonsense that none of us really has time for; but rather, it’s that love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are so completely intertwined and interconnected as to be inseparable, all part of the same cloth. And to recognize that the entirety of the scriptures, the entirety of the gospel, the entirety of our faith, centers on the idea of extending and expanding that love more, and more, and more.
Thanks be to God.