…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 is the great commandment in the Law?” And 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 great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:34-40 esv
Back in May, I introduced you to my good friend (and colleague) who sends me stuff to ponder. It’s time to give him a nickname because he will periodically pop up on this blog. For now on we will know him as “The Flying Scotsman.”
Here is a cartoon The Flying Scotsman sent me a few weeks back!
First, this cartoon is not really a crack against theologians. I like theologians because they study religious faith, practice, and experience (I consider myself one). I often turn to the writings of Calvin and Augustine as I find them deeply instructive in my search for 42. Luther is also a good read, and Aquinas just boggles my mind. Each one was an incredible servant of the LORD in his own right and context.
So what is this cartoon trying to say? Why the “UH-OH” as the four theologians appear on the horizon? I believe it is a cautionary statement about “too much of a good thing…”
I think history and experience tells us that there is a danger of getting overly committed to particular traditions, nuances of theology, and religious practice to the point where these become more important than, and an obstacle to, being a faithful presence for Christ in a world that needs his grace (which is crucial now more than any other time in recent history). It can be a case of “too much of a good thing…”
Do you remember what the resurrected Jesus asked Peter on the beach when reinstating him: “…do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)
When I was in seminary, Dr. Elizabeth Platt (departed faithful servant of 42) invited us to “the most important one day of class we would ever have in seminary.” That day we unpacked what is known as the “suzerainty treaty,” a.k.a. God’s covenant with his people. God promises that he would bring down upon them all his love and benevolence and justice and grace. The people’s part is to love him with all emotion (heart and spirit), intellect, and physicality, and to love our fellow humans as much as we love ourselves. By golly, Elizabeth was right; it was the best class ever!
In our scripture passage, Matthew records that this “treaty” is spelled out by Jesus as he responds to an theological operative of the Pharisaic party. The Pharisees were a division of theologians (notice their rival theologians are also mentioned; the Sadducees) who sprang up after the remnant of Judah returned from exile; their goal was to keep everybody in line with the law. This was based on a fear that the rebuilt temple would be, like its predecessor, subjected to God’s “wrath” because the people were breaking their part of the covenant with God. They had done this many times before and the great Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians. (Note: Even the temple seemed to become more important than the One who dwells there, and people seemed to worship a beautiful structure more than God. Another case of ”too much of a good thing…”)
By the time Jesus enters the picture, the Pharisees have grown into the major political party of the Sanhedrin. They are also some of Jesus biggest foes during his ministry because their manmade rules weigh heavy around the neck’s of the people they were called to serve. Jesus’ answer presents the two parts of commandments (a condensation of the ten) which are the very foundation of the writings about the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is reminding the lawyer about the covenant.
Understand that the Pharisees (Sadducees and Essenes too) were trying to follow their God. They were trying to keep the covenant, and they seemed to be unaware that what they were really doing was actually having the opposite affect. They were so busy arguing their positions and enforcing traditions and practices that the divine will of 42 was getting lost in the mix. “Too much of a good thing…”
Now return to the cartoon. Jesus ascends into heaven After reminding the disciples what he taught them. They then remind each other that the core lesson is to love God and love neighbor. It is a profoundly simple and yet complex understanding of faith, but seems manageable enough. Then comes the theologians.
Again, I am not theologian bashing here, and I believe neither is the artist nor The Flying Scotsman. What it is pointing out is that we can over complicate things in our pursuit of loving God, and the result is that we paint ourselves into a corner of dogma that actually can block our ability to search for and experience 42. Too much of a good thing…
It is also a warning to us to be careful when we put into practice what guys like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther taught us. They wanted to enrich our faith journey and our praxis of faith. Their teachings are not to be used as weapons against fellow Christians (and others), or tools for division, especially in a time where it is important for us to be a unified faithful presence on God’s behalf.
Some of you might be thinking: “What is Pat talking about?” In the past two decades of service, I have seen move damage to Christ’s church by well meaning people who don’t even remotely see how their rigid theologies, practices, and political maneuvering have alienated and divided people. And if you think I am singling a particular tradition out, you are wrong; it comes from both ends of the spectrum. Hmmm…kinda reflects what’s going on in the world; doesn’t it?
So my recommendation (actually Jesus’) is this; Start with the basics. Pursue God with every fiber of your being (pray often, worship together weekly, study his word daily, serve at every opportunity). And for God’s sake, work on your relationships with everyone else!
The world has enough hate, aggressiveness, disunity, and apathy right now. Let’s be practitioners of love, gentleness, togetherness, and concern. That’s a good thing!