Integrity in Faith

Pentecost 19
Matthew 22: 34-46
Marian Free

In the name of God, who asks that we have integrity in ourselves and that we do not compromise our faith in order to conform to the world around us. Amen.

During the past year we have witnessed just how bloody and brutal dictators can be, and how ruthlessly they act to crush any opposition to their rule. We have the violent repression of protests throughout the Arab world as non-elected and non-democratic leaders have tried to cling to power in the face of increasing dissatisfaction with their authority. We have seen too the lengths that repressed peoples will go to in order to bring about change in their nations. In Libya alone it has been estimated that up to 25,000 people have been killed in the course of the uprising. For those on both sides of the political divide, the struggle has been costly and deadly.

Those who have the courage to take on authoritarian governments and those who follow their lead do so knowing that their lives are at risk. Throughout the Arab world this year, there have been attempts to oust despots and military rulers. Thousands have lost their lives in the process, economies have been compromised, basic services have been severely disrupted and homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. Even in the case of victory the protestors will have to completely rebuild their country.

There is no romance in resistance. For many, living under a repressive regime is the lesser of two evils. The rule of a dictator may be tyrannical and harsh, but so long as one stays within the law one can avoid the sort of brutal crack down that we have witnessed in Libya, Yemeni, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. One can go quietly about one’s business without fear of reprisal. The situation may be bad, but it could be a lot worse. It is easier to fit in than to face the consequences of rebellion.

It was just such a situation that the leaders of the Jews were trying to avoid in first century Palestine. Rome had occupied that land for sixty three years and, while the Empire had brought many benefits to the countries it had conquered, it kept the peace by ruling with an iron rod and imposed heavy taxes which impoverished the ordinary people. Within Palestine there were many who resented the occupation and who organized or participated in resistance movements.

These groups were seen as a threat to the peace and security of the region – not only by Rome, but also by the Jewish leaders who had come to some sort of accommodation with the occupying power. The leaders knew that as long as they didn’t tip the boat, as long as they co-operated with the Roman Government, they could be reasonably confident that they could go about their business undisturbed. For this reason it was in their interest to confront and discourage any resistance among the people.

On the other hand, those who felt the full weight of Rome’s might were drawn to anyone who dared to confront the power of the Empire. At the time of Jesus there were several such resistance groups that had gathered around leaders who promised to liberate them from Rome’s dominion. These leaders were called in Hebrew “Messiach” which, when transliterated, is our English word “Messiah” and their activity threatened the peace and stability of the region.

In today’s gospel, the Jewish leaders are continuing the line of questioning that began at the start of chapter 22. Their intention is to trick Jesus into saying something that will discredit him in the eyes of faithful Jews, or that will prove him to be an insurgent and therefore bring him to the notice of the Roman rulers. However, as we saw last week, Jesus is not so easily drawn into their ruse.

The Pharisees try one more time to catch Jesus out: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds by quoting scripture and demonstrating that not only does he know the sacred texts, but that he also knows how to interpret them.

Jesus has answered the questions of the Jewish leaders and now it is his turn. Demonstrating that he knows what the Pharisees and Sadducees are up to, Jesus asks a question of his own. He knows that one of the things that they are trying to prove is that he is an insurrectionist, someone claiming to be the “Messiach” who is gathering followers to mount a rebellion against Rome. Jesus knows too, that in popular imagination this “Messiach” is considered to be the son of David – Israel’s most powerful king – the one who will set Israel free. So he poses a trick question of his own: if the “Messiach” (the anointed one) is the son of David how is it that David calls him Lord?

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110 to create a conundrum – how can the Messiah be both David’s son and his Lord? The anointed one cannot be both son and Lord. Jesus might be of Davidic descent, but this does not have to mean that he plans to lead an armed uprising against the Roman Empire. Jesus’ question challenges not only the conclusions that the Jewish leaders have drawn from scripture, but also their assumptions about himself and his role. They have presumed that he is an insurrectionist, but Jesus has shown that the premise for their assumption is baseless. His question has no easy answer. Jesus has done to the Pharisees what they hoped to do to him. He has exposed their lack of understanding and managed to silence them. From then on, no one dared to ask him any question.

The Jewish leaders who have tried to outsmart Jesus find that they are outsmarted. Jesus knows the Jewish faith as well, if not better, than they do and he will not allow himself to be painted as the leader of a rebellion. He will not be made a fool of in front of the Jewish people nor will he allow himself to be made out to be something that he is not.

Jesus comes through the debates unscathed whereas the Jewish leaders are exposed as both ignorant and petty. Jesus does not have a problem with Judaism or with the Jewish people. His argument is with the leaders of the Jews who have compromised themselves and their faith and become bed-fellows with their oppressors.

We live in a free and democratic society, but that does not mean that we do not make compromises to fit in with the world around us, nor does it mean that we are any better than the Pharisees at discerning who does and who does not threaten our security and stability. Jesus was very clear about who he was and what he stood for. No matter what the cost to himself, he maintained his integrity, his absolute loyalty to God and his commitment to the faith that he held.

This is the example we are called to follow – steadfastness in faith, no matter what the cost, integrity in our lives, no matter what the reaction of others and complete obedience to God no matter what the temptation to do otherwise.

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