Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tested and Approved -- A Lectionary Meditation

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

Tested and Approved

            Life is full of tests.  Not just academic ones, but tests of character, of endurance, of strength, and of knowledge.  At the end of most tests, if we fulfill the requirements, we gain approval.  For clergy, there is a process that leads to ordination.  There are hoops to jump through that test our strength of character, our ability to lead, and our knowledge of the things of faith, so that we might be effective leaders in the church.  That doesn’t mean the tests are perfect, but they’re designed to help us discern our calling.  In academics, the tenure process functions much the same way.  We have to take written and in the car tests in order to gain our drivers license.  Each of these actions is designed to lead us to the point of gaining approval so we can do the things we’re called to do.  Even political campaigns can be seen as tests, often tests of endurance and sometimes of character (though not always).  We may not like the tests, but having passed them, we usually understand the value (even if we’re not totally satisfied).

            Three texts of Scripture and three stories of testing.  Moses may not cross the river, but he is hailed as a great prophet.  Paul has been tested, and demonstrates his integrity.  Jesus is tested, and his responses silence his critics (at least for the moment). 

            Deuteronomy 34 tells the story of Moses’ death and the transition of leadership to Joshua, Son of Nun, who is full of the Spirit.  In this final chapter of Deuteronomy, God leads Moses to the top of Mount Nebo, above the plains of Moab, where he can see into the Promised Land.  Here it is: the goal, the destination, toward which he had been moving for all these many years of wandering in the desert.  He gets to see it, but like the others of his generation, he will not enter the land.  It’s been a hard road getting here, but someone else must lead the people into the Land.  I sense sadness in Moses, but maybe that’s more me than him.  But you can’t help but feel for him.  Here is Moses, the one who engaged God face to face, who received the commandments, who faced down Pharaoh, but it will be his descendants, not him, who gets to experience the Land of Promise. 

            The writer of this obituary says that Moses, the servant of YHWH, died in Moab and was buried, at the Lord’s command near Beth-Peor.  The writer notes that to that day, no one knew the site.  There would be no pilgrimage site.  Moses was the leader, the one who spoke with God, but there would be no turning back.  His burial spot would not be the center of a cult of Moses.  The people mourned – the standard thirty days – but then they got on with life.  They had a new leader, one who had been set aside by Moses through the laying on of hands.  This was his ordination.  He would have both governmental authority and spiritual authority.  Others might serve as priests, but Joshua would lead with the wisdom imparted to him by the Spirit. 

            Although there would not be a pilgrimage site, the Deuteronomist, notes that that never before or ever afterward, would there be a prophet like Moses.  He might not get to cross the river.  His burial site might not be a place of pilgrimage, but he left a legacy.  He had known YHWH personally.  He had engaged signs and wonders that were unequaled.  He had been tested and approved.

            Paul’s story is different than that of Moses, but he too was tested by God and found to be approved by God.  Paul has a great sense of confidence in his own integrity.  He writes to the Thessalonian Church, not in defense of his ministry, but simply to remind them that when he and his co-workers came to that community, they spoke with boldness and not with deceit or flattery.  Their motives were pure, because they sought the approval of God and not mortals.  They could have made demands on the people, requesting that they provide financially for them, but they forgo this possibility, so that they might be gentle nurses, tenderly caring for the people, so that they might know and experience the good news that is Jesus.  The point is that they had been tested by God, and approved by God.  Their message could be trusted, because they served with integrity.  They walked the talk, as they say. 

            I think that many of us who serve the church find this passage to be both a challenge and a cause for reflection.  Paul has this inner strength, this confidence in himself due to us own sense of connection with God.  When I look at what Paul is saying here about his own integrity and his willingness to speak boldly, I’m taken back to a book on values based leadership I’ve recently read.  Harry Kraemer writes:
True self-confidence is an inner quality that establishes your leadership and enables you to empower your team.  Far more than just competency at your job or mastery of certain skills, true self-confidence is the attribute that allows you to see and accept yourself exactly as you are.  With true self-confidence you are comfortable with your own skin, recognizing your strengths as well as your weaknesses.   [Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr., From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership, Jossey Bass, p. 45].
This seems to describe Paul.  He knows who he is, what he’s called to be and do, and so he doesn’t need to manipulate people through deceit or flattery.  There is integrity to his message, and so the people can trust him as leader.

            Jesus also knew what it means to be tested.  His critics and opponents were always testing him, trying to trip him up.  Modern political debates can’t hold a candle to the kinds of testing that Jesus endured.  But in each case, his critics went away discouraged and defeated.  He always had an answer, or so it seems.  In this passage from Matthew 22, the Pharisees hear that their rivals, the Sadducees, the religious party that was most connected with the Temple, had been silenced by Jesus.  Now it was their turn, and so they got a lawyer, someone who knew the Law, and sent the lawyer to test Jesus.  In other words, they hoped to entrap Jesus.  In politics they call it a “gotcha moment.”  These tests never seemed to work out, but that didn’t mean people gave up trying.

            In this scene, the question is rather simple.  Which commandment is the greatest?  And the answer is simple – it’s the one Deuteronomy laid out – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Deut. 6:5).  And the second is based on the first – love your neighbor as you love yourself (Lev. 19:18).  As I learned as a child in the Episcopal Church, upon these two commandments, hang all the Law and the Prophets.  If you want to know the Law and keep the Law, then abide these two and you will fulfill them all. 

           It’s not much of a trap, but it does allow Jesus to establish for us the foundation of our faith.  Love God and love your neighbor (though Jesus will expand this second commandment to include our enemies as well). 

            Now that the lawyer had his chance to challenge Jesus, Jesus took the opportunity to challenge the Pharisees.  He sets up a trap of his own, or so it seems.  Who is the Messiah?  He asks.  They give one possible answer – “Son of David.”  But Jesus replies:  how can David, full of the Spirit, call the Messiah Lord.  That is, in this particular interpretation of  the first verse of Psalm 110, an enthronement Psalm, Jesus appears to be suggesting that the Messiah is more than the son of David, but Lord of David, and greater than David.  In fact, in this interpretation, the Messiah will sit at the right hand of God and the enemies of the Messiah will be placed under the Messiah’s feet.  The passage looks forward to the ascended Jesus, the one who sits at God’s right hand.   While Jesus passes the test, the Pharisees apparently don’t, because they walk away in silence, unable to or unwilling to ask him any more questions.  

            So here we have three stories of testing.  In each the main character – Moses, Paul, and Jesus – not only pass the test, but are found to be approved by God.  They are laid out before us as examples of how to live the life of faith with integrity.  The calling is there for us to hear.  How will we respond?  Will we live our lives with integrity?  Will we pass the tests?  Will we stand approved by God?      

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