Sermon for October 25th, 2020
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Division is nothing new.
People have been divided from one another almost since they first walked the earth. We love to separate ourselves into factions, into parties, or clans, or races, or cultures, or nations; we divide ourselves up into groups and then we look for and find easy ways to sort people into one group or another. Are you using the right words or the right language? Do you look like someone that I might like? Are you hanging out with the right people? Are you supporting all of the same causes that I support? Very often we will find out one thing about someone and we think that that tells us everything we need to know about that person. Humans have always been prone to doing this; it seems like division is a terrible problem right now, and it is, but it’s not new.
There is real division going on in the background in today’s gospel passage. You may not immediately recognize it, the names of the parties may be unfamiliar, but Jesus is preaching to people that are divided. And I’m not talking about division between the Jews and the Romans, I’m talking about division within the Jewish people. Jesus’s own people, people of the same race and the same religion are divided amongst themselves. There were different parties of Jews in Jesus’s time and the two main parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Now we aren’t a church where people generally take notes or write things down during the sermon, but please at least make a mental note of this distinction, because the conflict or the division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is going on in the background throughout the gospels, and Jesus and his followers are often getting caught in the middle of it. You need to understand who these people are.
The Sadducees are Jews that take a very strict narrow reading of scripture and they are really only concerned with the Five Books of Moses. The prophets, the histories, the wisdom literature, the Sadducees don’t care much about those scriptures. The Sadducees are in charge of the worship in the temple. The rituals and the sacrifices, these are the things that are the primary concerns of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were also the elite. They had the political power and influence at the time of Jesus. There is also one other curious thing about the Sadducees: they didn’t believe in an afterlife. The idea that someday the dead would come back to life, the idea of resurrection which eventually becomes a central tenet of the Christian faith, the Sadducees didn’t believe that. Once you were dead, you were dead, that’s what the Sadducees believed.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very concerned with the study of scripture and with tradition. And the Pharisees didn’t just study the law (the five books of Moses), like the Sadducees, they also studied the prophets. And while the Sadducees ran the temple in Jerusalem, it was the Pharisees that ran the synagogues throughout the land. The Pharisees cared about ethics and right conduct, because the Pharisees believed in a future judgement. The Pharisees had a bit more of the common touch about them; they were more popular and perhaps a little less elitist than those Sadducees that ran the temple. And most distinctively, the Pharisees believed in an immortal soul. The idea that someday the dead will rise again, it is the Pharisees that believe that and that belief is forevermore causing friction with the Sadducees.
So you have these two Jewish parties that don’t agree and don’t really like each other. And then you have Jesus, who comes along preaching to both groups. Now you will recall that the Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, but Jesus does believe in a resurrection. Jesus says he IS the resurrection. Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees than he does with the Sadducees. Jesus studies the prophets; Jesus worships in the synagogues as well as in the temple. Jesus has a lot in common with the Pharisees, and maybe that is why he is so critical of them.
But one time the Sadducees tried to make fun of Jesus’s belief in the resurrection. They asked him if a woman marries seven times and then dies, when she is resurrected who will she belong to? And Jesus answered them and said: she will belong to God. Well that shut the Sadducees up for a while. And when the Pharisees heard about it they said to themselves “aha! This guy is on our side!” So the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into making an overt statement that would condemn the Sadducees. They wanted to force Jesus to pick a side. Maybe they wanted to use Jesus to further their division with the Sadducees.
So they ask him “what is the greatest commandment?”
Well Jesus was never afraid of being controversial, but this time his answer was completely uncontroversial: Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. This was straight from Deuteronomy. This was something that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have agreed upon. They had different ideas about how to go about it, but even the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, even they loved God. The Pharisee that asked this question probably hoped that Jesus would pick something that the Sadducees disagreed with, but he didn’t. He picked what united them.
And then he adds, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law…and the prophets…I imagine Jesus added, glaring down at the Pharisees. You want to use your tradition to separate yourselves from one another…and all the while your own tradition and your own God, is telling you that you need to love one another.
People have been trying to use Jesus as a tool and as a wedge in their own divisions since he walked this earth. But Jesus wouldn’t play that game then, so I can’t imagine he’s going to play it now. The Pharisees were looking for another reason to be separated from their neighbors the Sadducees, and instead Jesus gave them a reason to come together.
When we ask Jesus what is right, are we doing so because we actually want to be closer to God, or are we asking so that we can separate ourselves a little more from our neighbors? Are we looking for reasons to be divided, or are we looking for reasons to love?
I think that human behaviour has been much the same throughout history, but so too has been God’s response. We want to tear ourselves apart; God wants to call us back together.