Sunday, 26 October 2014

Whose Son?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 26th October 2014 11.00am

Matthew 22.34-46
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  37 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.'  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

41  Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:  42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David."  43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,  44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet" '?  45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"  46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18  
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. 
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

The people of my country have been awaiting his return for a thousand years.

All the prophecies and legends are clear that he is coming back;
            every child learns the stories of his great deeds at their mother’s knee,
                        how his kingly rule united the country,
                        how he brought peace and prosperity to the people,
                        and how he will come again to aid us in the hour of our greatest need.
He’s coming again, we all know it,
            the question is when, and why is it taking so long?
Albion has suffered many trials,
            and still King Arthur has not returned.

The Jews are not the only nation to have a messiah mythology,
            and the archetype of a absent-but-returning hero,
                        of one who has now gone, but will come again,
            runs deep within the psyche of many people-groups and religions.

From the Graeco-Roman gods of Dionysus and Mithras,
            to the Redivivus belief that the emperor Nero
                        would return from the grave to re-take Rome,
            to the English Arthurian legends of the middle ages,
                        to the heroes of the ancient Welsh Mabinogion,
            to Gandalf returning from the fires of Mount Doom
                        to the death and return of Superman;
the trope of a hero who dies, or goes away,
            only to return victoriously, in the nick of time, to save the day,
            is one which we find repeated through many cultural incarnations.

For the Jews, the figure they were waiting for
            was called ‘the Messiah’ in Hebrew, or ‘the Christ’ in Greek.

Originally, for the Jews, the Messiah was a word that had been used to describe
            someone who was anointed with oil to perform their role;
            either as a Priest, or as a King (Lev. 4.3, 5).[1]
So, King Saul is ‘anointed’ by the prophet Samuel as the first king of Israel (1 Sam 10.1),
            and David, who succeeded him, is similarly ‘anointed’.
In many ways, as time went on,
            David became the quintessential ‘anointed one’ in the Old Testament,
                        and a couple of places even record promises by God
                        to secure David’s kingship forever (2 Sam 7.12-13, Ps. 89).
His kingship acquired mythic status,
            not dissimilar to that of King Arthur in the culture of the British Isles.

In the Judaism of the few hundred years leading up to the time of Jesus,
            the term ‘Messiah’ developed further,
                        and came to play an important function in the Jewish imagination.
Though variety exists,
            messianic expectations from this period
                        are typically of a coming Davidic military leader,
            who will free the Jewish people from foreign occupation,
                        and restore Israel’s borders to the extent
                                    that the David stories claimed for them.
                                    (e.g. Psalms of Solomon 17)

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from about the time of Jesus,
            reveal an interesting expectation of not one, but two Jewish Messiahs;
            one militaristic, and the other priestly.

And Jesus certainly wasn’t the only important historical figure
            to be named the Messiah.

For example, it was also a term that was applied
            to the non-Israelite King Cyrus of Persia (Isa 45.1),
            who brought an end to the Babylonian exile of the Jews in the sixth century BC,
And much closer to the time of Jesus,
            ‘Messiah’ was used of the leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
            which took place in the second century BC.

All of this lies behind the gospel writers’ invitation
            to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or the Messiah.

It seems that questions over whether Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah
            had been asked of him during his lifetime,
with, for example, John the Baptist asking Jesus
            if he was ‘the one who is to come’
            or whether John and his followers should wait for another? (Luke 7.20).

However, a related question, to sit alongside that of whether Jesus is the Messiah,
            was the question of, what kind of Messiah is he?
Is he a priestly Messiah, or a militaristic Messiah,
            Will he restore the temple, or the monarchy?
Whose messiah will he be?
            The messiah of the religious radicals?
            Or the messiah of the political radicals?

And it is these questions that underlie the exchange
            that Jesus has with the Pharisees
            in our reading today from Matthew’s gospel.

The Pharisees have heard that Jesus has managed to out-smart the Sadducees,
            and they decide that it’s now their turn again to play ‘Ridicule the Rabbi’.
So they wheel in their specialist lawyer,
            to ask Jesus a tried-and-tested no-win question
            with the intent of trapping him whatever his answer.

‘Tell us, teacher’, they say, ‘which commandment is the greatest?’

The idea is that whichever command Jesus picked,
            would get him into trouble.
If, for example, he picked ‘having no other gods before the Lord’,
            they would accuse him of moral laxity
            because he was relegating the command about adultery.
However, if he picked ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’,
            he’d be accused of idolatry because he’d ignore the first command!
And so on – the perfect no-win question
            to derail the cock-sure carpenter from Nazareth.

But, as with the Pharisees previous trap,
            the one about paying taxes to the emperor, which we heard about last week,
Jesus shrugs off their trap with ease;
            giving them an answer that covers all the bases:
            ‘Love God, and Love Neighbour’, he says.
Both commands, but neither ‘commandments’.

Jesus takes the popular Shema command from Deuteronomy (6.4-5)
            and combines it with a lesser-known injunction
                        to love of neighbour from Leviticus (19.18)

The Pharisees would have been right in there
            with the ‘Love of God’ part of Jesus’ answer,
but by adding to it the love of one’s neighbour, as an equal command,
            Jesus highlighted to the Pharisees
            the weakness inherent in their own super-religious ideology.

So far, so clever.
            Well done Jesus!
Not only has he, once again, dodged the trap that has been set for him,
            but he has also managed to prick the pomposity of the Pharisees,
            unmasking their potential for heartless religious conservatism.

However, this is not just a story
            about Jesus beating the Pharisees at their own game.
Because the story continues,
            with Jesus taking the opportunity to push the Pharisees a bit further
            by setting them a riddle of his own.

‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

This is a classic riddle, one with a seemingly obvious answer,
            which will turn out to be unsustainable.

The clue to this being a riddle is in the phrase, ‘what do you think…’,
            which is something we’ve heard from the lips of Jesus before
                        as he has asked a variety of difficult questions
                        to stimulate thought from both disciples and opponents alike.
                                    (17.25, 18.12, 21.28).
            But most recently, it is the phrase that the Pharisees have used
                        when asking Jesus their previous question about paying taxes.[2]
            ‘What do you think,’ they asked Jesus,
                        ‘is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ (22.17)

‘So’, says Jesus back to them, ‘what do you think… whose son is the Messiah?’
            And the Pharisees, after a few moments of careful thought,
            supply what they believe to be the safe and scriptural answer:
                        ‘He’s the son of David’.

He’s not the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth,
            he’s not the son of Kokhba,[3]
            he’s not the son of righteousness,[4]
he’s the son of David.

However, in giving this answer,
            the Pharisees have been forced into revealing their hand,
because it turns out that what you hope for, tells a lot about what you believe in,
            and the Pharisees were hoping for a Davidic Messiah,
                        a military messiah,
                        a messiah who would overthrow the oppressors,
                        and restore the nation to its former glory.

The answer they give to this seemingly innocent question from Jesus,
            is far more revealing of the Pharisees’ deeper motives
            than they realise.

So Jesus decides to push it a bit,
            and takes his riddle to the next level:

‘Right then,’ he says, ‘so the Messiah is David’s son, is he?’
            ‘So how then is it that, in one of the worship psalms written by David himself,
                        he calls the messiah his “Lord”?’

The logic is simple:
            If David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’,
            how can the Messiah be his son?

At this point the Pharisees back off,
            but not simply because they’ve been caught out on a technicality
                        in some obscure game of Hebrew Bible proof-texting.
            Rather, they back off
                        because the whole basis of their belief in a Davidic Messiah
                                    as a military, politically centrist, nationalistic hero
                        has just been unmasked and exposed to ridicule.

They have just discovered
            that what you hope for, reveals a lot about what you believe in.
And Jesus, in subverting the neat logic of their hoped-for Davidic Messiah,
            has also subverted the cold logic of their militaristic, nationalistic God.

This, it turns out, is not simply a story
            about how Jesus is cleverer than the Pharisees.
Rather, it’s a debate about the nature of faith itself,
            and it raises fundamental questions about what is meant by salvation.

Is our hoped-for salvation
            simply synonymous with divine vindication of our shared ideology?
Is salvation to be understood in terms of victory for ‘me and mine’?
            With ‘them and theirs’ of, at best, secondary concern?

You see, the answer we might give to the question
            of what kind of Messiah we hope for,
will tell us a lot
            about the God we believe in.

And Jesus, it seems, is challenging in no uncertain terms,
            any kind of belief in a Messiah that is understood
            as a politicised, nationalistic, tribal, partisan, Davidic hero.

And yet, the people of God, both in the first century,
            and in the twenty-first century,
            and in all the centuries in between,
have found it all-too-easy
            to become trapped in a belief system
            that is predicated upon a Davidic ideology.

Any attempt to equate national identity with the people of God
            represents an expression of Davidic messianic ideology.

From the Christianisation of the Roman empire under Constantine,
            to the development of Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire,
            to the alliances of the middle ages between Church and Monarch,
            to the contemporary tabloid-esque assertion
                        that ‘we are, after all, supposed to be a Christian country!’
            to the anointing of the Monarch in Westminster Abbey
                        by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury…

We have repeatedly, through Christian history,
            revealed that what we long for is a Davidic Messiah.
The people of Christ have joined their voices with those of the Pharisees,
            in answering that the Messiah is the son of David.

But this is not how Jesus describes himself.

Every time, in the gospels, that Jesus is called ‘Son of David’,
            it is someone else using the language.
He never calls himself the ‘son of David’,
            and in fact, when he does use the term, here in Matthew,
                        and in the parallel passage in Mark’s gospel,
            he does so to undermine its use of him.

Jesus does not, it seems, see himself as a Son of David,
            he is not the Davidic Messiah.
He is not the answer to the put-upon-people-of-God’s desire
            to have their powerlessness reversed,
and he is not the ‘just cause’ in whose name
            armies might march to overthrow the evils of the ‘other’.

Rather, Jesus uses a different title for himself:
            Consistently through the Gospels,
                        Jesus describes himself not as the ‘son of David’
                        but as the ‘son of man’.

The pursuit of a Davidic ideology has taken the people of God
            into conflict, division, and violence.
It is a failed ideology based on nationalism and power-politics,
            and it is not the path that Christ sets his face to.

He does not go to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans,
            leading the longed-for rebel-army to victory over the oppressors
            and establishing the kingdom of Davidic justice and peace on earth.

Rather, he breaks out of the Davidic ideology,
            by identifying himself not as the son of David,
but as the son of man from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.

The Messiah Jesus is the son of man,
            he is the son of the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel,
            he is a child of the margins,
                        not of the centre,
            he is the offspring of the oppressed,
                        not the progeny of power.
            He is the scion of the kingdom of heaven,
                        not the spawn of the kingdom of David.

And as such he challenges those of us who bear his name,
            and in whose lives his spirit is active,
to turn our backs on our dreams of a Davidic messiah.

He challenges us to give up our dreams of power,
            and our hopes for vindication for our deeply held convictions.
He calls us to step away from our ideologies
            of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism.
He calls us to abandon the cause of the ‘Christian Country’
            and to look instead for the in-breaking kingdom of heaven,
                        which knows no national borders,
                        and transcends all political creeds.
He calls us to relinquish our dogmas of certainty,
            and to embrace the quest for questions

He calls us to love the Lord our God,
            with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind,
And also to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

The ‘love of God’, on its own, gives birth too easily
            to a tribal understanding of faith,
where we are defined in opposition to those who love God differently to us,
            or those love a different God to us.

The ‘love of God’ on its own, all too easily makes Pharisees of us all,
            as the quest for the Davidic messiah takes shape in our midst
            and we seek to ‘take the world’ for the God we believe in.

The ‘love of God’ on its own, all too easily justifies a desire to win the world for Christ,
            it justifies the Cross of St George on the Shield of the Crusader,
            and it justifies the all-too-frequent equation
                        of earthly territory, with the kingdom of heaven.

The current crisis in Iraq and Syria is predicated upon an ‘us and them’ dogma,
            where two sides, each believing that they are right, and that the other is evil,
            are fighting for territory, resources, and ideological superiority,
                        all in the name of God.

Both sides believe that the end justifies the means.

            And so Islamic State fighters are prepared to perpetrate terrible acts of brutality
                                    on innocent aid workers and local populations alike,
                        because they believe that this furthers their divinely sanctioned objective.

            But we in the West are prepared to live with the unfortunate phenomenon
                                    which we call ‘collateral damage’
                        because we believe that we are in the right
                                    and that the enemy must be stopped.

This is where Davidic messianism take us.
            This is where devotion to our God, and our God alone, takes us.

And so Jesus says to the Davidic Pharisees,
            that they need to learn to love their neighbour as they love themselves.

And who is my neighbour?
            Well, that’s another story for another day…

But what if my neighbour in this global village of ours doesn’t look like me,
            or believe like me, or speak like me.
What if my neighbour in this great city of ours
            is an immigrant family from another part of the world,
                        ‘coming over here…’
(Actually, my neighbour is an immigrant family,
            they’re from India, and they’re really nice,
            but you know what I mean!)

The rise of xenophobic, anti-immigration, racist politics
            in the so-called Christian countries of the western world,
is another function of our embracing of a Davidic ideology,
            that sees us-and-ours as more important than them-and-theirs.

And it’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop with us.
            because if it doesn’t stop with us, it’s not going to stop.

It is directly challenged by Jesus, the son of Man,
            who calls us all to love God,
                        with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds.
But not just to love God, and not just to love ourselves,
            but to love our neighbour as ourselves.

[1] See ‘Christ’ in Beavis, Mary Ann, and Michael Gilmour, eds. Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture: A Handbook for Students. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012, p.87.
[2] See Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 2006.

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