Locking God out, letting God in

Pentecost 20
Matthew 22:34-46
Marian Free

In the name of God whose foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. Amen.

When I was young I, like many of my contemporaries, had an autograph book. We’d take the book to social occasions and ask people to sign it. If we were lucky they would not only sign the book but write a short rhyme or a riddle. I had completely forgotten about riddles. These days I only seem to come across them in fairy tales. For example, a King offers his daughter’s hand to the first person to solve a riddle or a princess will only marry the Prince who asks her a riddle that she cannot answer and so on.

In my autograph book were such riddles as:
“If your B empty, put :
if your B full, stop putting : ”
It was a play on both punctuation signs and letters and if you don’t remember it, you will need to see it written. I found this one on the Internet, but I would have had to become a member of the site to find the answer – so I’m relying on you to help me out. It goes: “What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and the beginning of every ending?”

In today’s gospel Jesus poses something like a riddle. When he asks the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is they reply (as expected) David’s son. Jesus then challenges them using part of Psalm 110: “If David thus calls him (the Messiah) Lord, how can he be his Son?” The Pharisees are stumped. How can the Messiah (whom they expect to be the son of David) also be the son of God? It does not seem possible.

With the advantage of distance (and with the knowledge that Jesus is both God and human), we might realise that the question is really a matter of semantics. Jesus is using a portion of Psalm 110 to insinuate that David is calling the Messiah “Lord” (or God) and questioning whether David would call his own son God. If he does, then the Messiah must be both human and divine – something the Pharisees would find impossible to comprehend. As a result, they are unable to respond to Jesus’ question.

Jesus is playing with words. The word lord in English as well as in Greek can refer both to God and to someone in authority. This is quite different from the Hebrew in which Yahweh is the word that we translate as Lord. In Hebrew then, the relevant part of Psalm 110 reads, “Yahweh said to my lord.” This makes it clear that the second “lord” is a human being and therefore could reasonably refer to David’s son. In both Greek and English, the sentence reads, “The Lord said to my lord”. Jesus implies that this means that God (“the Lord”) is speaking to another divine being (“my Lord”) who by definition cannot possibly be the human David’s son. It was expected that someone of David’s line would again sit on the throne of Israel. That person would be a human being, a true descendant of David – not God. Jesus is using the Psalm as if the word lord in Greek means God in both places and is challenging the Pharisees to explain how the Messiah can be both a son of David AND a Son of God, both human and divine. Such an idea is completely novel to them and they have no answer.

Over the last few weeks we have observed Jesus in debate with different groups of church leaders. In turn, they have attempted to discredit Jesus by asking him questions that they expect will either confound him or expose him to ridicule or even risk. They have asked him no less than four questions designed to show him up – two general and two about the correct interpretation of scripture – the question of John the Baptist’s authority, the question about paying taxes to Caesar, the question about the resurrection and the question about the greatest commandment. On each occasion Jesus has proven himself more than adequate to the task, answering both wisely and cautiously. The church leaders have not been able to embarrass him or to catch him out – just the opposite. Their failure has given Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate that not only is he a good debater, but that his knowledge and understanding of scripture is at least comparable to that of the church leaders.

Now Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking a trick question of his own. The end result of this series of questions is that instead of Jesus’ being made to look foolish, it is the Pharisees’ inability to interpret scripture that exposes their lack of understanding. Jesus has proven himself more than their equal as an authoritative interpreter of scripture. They don’t dare continue their line of attack.

It is foolish to think that we can outsmart God, use scripture to our advantage, or twist the bible to make it say what we want it say. It is a waste of time to become obsessed with parts of scripture at the cost of the whole, to focus on individual details rather than seeing the full picture, to worry about little things rather than be captivated by complete message. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time had become fixated on one particular view of the world and of their faith and in so doing had closed themselves to other possibilities. They expected a Saviour, but they expected that Saviour to behave in a particular way and so were completely unprepared for a Saviour such as Jesus turned out to be. They thought that they were able to read and interpret scripture, but their reliance on their own interpretation meant that their minds were closed to God’s revelation in Jesus.

The Pharisees were not necessarily bad, but they were locked into a way of thinking that prevented them from seeing Jesus for who he was. Let us this not be our mistake. May we always remain open to God’s continuing revelation so that we can see and rejoice in the new things that God is doing in and around us. God forbid that we should ever believe that we know all that there is to know or worse still that we think we know just how and when God will act for that would be to close our minds to possibilities and to shut God out rather than to let God in.

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