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Spiritual Armchairs vs. Mature Discipleship

Where Gratitude Abounds
Gospel Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost (Last Third)
In my divinity school days, I took a course on Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish theologian who wrote thirty-some books to deepen people's capacity to understand, appreciate, and appropriate the Christian faith. I remember Professor Paul Holmer sharing that Kierkegaard attributed humankind's greatest illness not to ignorance, but to a lack of peace of mind. Much of Western thinking still seems to cast a heavy vote for the former and not for the latter. If one believes one's greatest illness is ignorance, one will spend lots of time discovering and gathering facts. If one comes to believe that his/her greatest illness is a lack of peace of mind, Søren Kierkegaard invites them to come to know Christ, which in his day was not synonymous with the institutional church.

Formal Judaism had one of its professional expressions in the sect called the Pharisees. Birthed around 175 B.C.,1 this group sought to preserve Judaism and the Law at the time that Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria was forcing Greek religion and culture upon the Jewish people. The Pharisees, that is, the Separated Ones

were the men who dedicated their whole life to the careful and meticulous observance of every rule and regulation which the scriptures had worked out ... at most there were not more than 6,000 of them ... they were dedicated legalists ... (and) they were men in desperate earnest about their religion ... They could, therefore, develop at one and the same time all the faults of legalism and all the virtues of complete self-dedication.2

It is this commentator's opinion that the Pharisees had such a mind and heart for the legal facts of the Jewish faith that they had thereby overlooked their more underlying need for a peace of mind that came through a personal acceptance of the true hoped-for Messiah, i.e., more through Christ as Messiah than through the more popular nationalistic, militaristic notion of a prince more like David.

I believe they had another spiritual malady as well. Søren Kierkegaard lived at a time when Hegel, the great philosopher, lived. Hegel had come up with a construct by which to understand historical events: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. An event occurs, a counter-event follows, and a synthesis event takes hold. Many learned people were impressed. Not so Søren Kierkegaard. He likened Hegel and certain others to having an "armchair" approach to life. That is, intellectually and philosophically, some bright minds would sit and debate matters of truth and be very persuasive. But as soon as they left their sitting positions, they behaved as if the truth they had just spent hours debating held no personal, abiding significance for their own lives. As I remember Professor Holmer phrasing it, such great intellects would spin great castles of thought, but once leaving their armchairs, chose, morally and spiritually, to live in doghouses by their side. The presenting malady? In matters of morality and spirituality, truth is not just objective; it is deeply personal. And we don't show we truly know it or have it until we live differently because of it. Discussion is not the heart of truth; incarnation is the enlivenment of truth -- God's truth -- in and through persons.

The Pharisees certainly grasped Law as truth, and they lived differently legalistically and with a certain admirable piety. But the precious Spirit of God, dwelling within our hearts, minds, and wills, has the chief role, not of detailing God's Law through further rules and regulations, but of removing further blindness from our minds and hearts, so we can see and receive God's truth embodied in the true Messiah, Jesus the Christ. To experience God's truth through Jesus is to experience profound alterations of some of our most cherished religious conceptions. Facts and knowledge, as important as they are, are all the more useful once they are in the hearts and hands of disciples maturing in a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. The temptation is that they too often block our view, because they are valued and cherished for themselves, rather than made secondary to devotion to Christ. The Love of God for us must be so well-seeded, welcomed, into the soil of our lives, that Jesus' two-commandment teaching in this passage -- our loving God and each other -- takes on profoundly new dimensions that legalism stifles more than enhances. Disciples know that God's objective truth delights to give personal evidence of its existence and value through persons, not primarily through armchair discussions.

One can divide this passage into two parts. In verses 34-40, Jesus draws upon his knowledge of the Torah, the Law and wisdom of Israel, to answer the lawyer/Pharisee's question (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). It is a traditional answer to a traditional question. It is the historic wisdom of the faith that one cannot place anything more important above the commands to love God and neighbor. It is truth that is already known, but we choose to keep it on the mental shelf of our lives (the armchair stance) rather than put it into action through our lives (the mature discipleship stance).

The second part of this passage, verses 41-46, expresses an originality of Jesus that is also deeply personal, "If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" It is really Jesus' attempt to get these Pharisees to think much more personally about David calling the one from his seed also his Lord, that is, the Messiah.

The two sections of this passage, according to one commentator, reveal a helpful tight bond to one another, through Matthew, the Gospel writer:

Throughout Matthew's Gospel, we find great respect to tradition. Matthew depicts Jesus as the one who comes in fulfillment of the faith of Israel, rather than in supersession of Israel's faith. Jesus knows and loves Torah and quotes from it freely in Matthew. Thus the sermon ... first considers questions and traditional answers. Then it gets to the heart of the matters -- where are you in this debate? What think you of the Messiah?3

I remember once in grade school that a gang of older grade school kids surrounded me in an alley while I was walking home from school. I was certain they were going to do harm to me, so I fastened my attention on the leader. The words I selected and the demeanor in which I shared them, fortunately for me, silenced them and sent them on their way. I counted myself very fortunate, and I was grateful that neither they nor any other gang approached me again for some time. In verse 34, not long after Jesus successfully responded to the question-and-answer barbs of the Sadducees, enough to quiet them, another fraternity of challengers, the Pharisees, wanted, with their questions-and-answers approach, to try Jesus on for size. He was no less able to meet their challenge as well. Although verse 34 seems merely to set the stage for the verses that follow, it also holds for us, on a more personal level, a precious insight. When others challenge us in matters of faith, knowledge, and principle to see if we will stand or fall, we can, like Jesus, and since the resurrection, through Jesus, respond with God's power and truth. We just need to do a difficult thing, daily: stay close to God, cherish His Word enough to continue growing in knowing it, and be willing to stand for Him, at the very time that the enemy is working through others to topple us. Very much like Jesus, we need, not a mere human level of strength and insight, but a divine-human compound combination of empowerment and godly understanding to meet challenges set otherwise to topple us. Keep the faith, and the faith will most certainly keep you.

In response to the Pharisee/lawyer's question of verses 35-36, Jesus gives two answers intimately connected in verses 37-40: Love God with all you've got inside and love your neighbor, outside of you, as yourself. And Jesus states in so many words in verse 40 that if one were mature enough to understand these two com-mandments, one would see their foundational qualities for all other laws given through the prophets. My question is: "Why did Jesus respond to the Pharisee's request for the greatest commandment by quoting him two commandments?" Might it be because he wants them to move from their primary motive of entrapping him to the better motive of appreciating the application value of these already-known commandments in their own lives? If you and I could picture the scene then, even though they may be standing as they question Jesus, might they, attitudinally and dispositionally speaking, at this point be in an armchair posture of relating to a traditionally taught and known truth? Jesus shares two commandments to encourage them to move from their armchair awareness to a personal practice of loving God, by loving others they might not otherwise love. If one loves God with a great and sure intensity, from God's point of view, that intensity should not significantly lighten up by the time it reaches others. Learning to love others, as God's love counsels and accompanies us, moves us far away from armchair discussion to heart-to-heart sharing. In the words of one commentator,

The Pharisees don't want to grow in their faith and understanding. What they want is to play a little theological ping-pong. Pharisees 4, Jesus 0. That's what they want in their theological one-upsmanship. And Jesus gives them nothing controversial, new, or radical. He merely quotes back to them what they already know from their days as kids in Sunday School. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Class is over. School is out.4

Just at the point while they're still gathered and may be done with Jesus, especially given his comeback invitation and challenge to them to move from merely quoting scripture to embodying it in their lives through genuine practice, Jesus now completes their day by putting a precious and original question to them in verse 41-42. He asks them what they personally think of the Messiah, including the matter of whose son he is. He's trying personally to draw them into an intimate awareness of Messiah. They give a traditional, memorized answer, thereby keeping their distance, emotionally and spiritually: "Messiah is the son of David!" So, by asking a unique question, for which, in their experience and catechetical background, they have no further formal, prepared answer, he actually is inviting them to stretch emotionally and spiritually. In verses 43-45, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1, a Messianic text, where it is believed God invites the Messiah (His Son) to sit at His right hand: "The Lord says to my Lord; sit at my right hand." The Jewish leaders and people thought this through enough to know that the Messiah would come through David's lineage, but obviously not personally and thoroughly enough to appreciate that this son through his lineage would be more Lord than Son. To understand and to appreciate that would fill both head and heart with a love and regard for God and neighbor that would thereafter alter one's perceptions and actions. It alters one's perceptions because one would see that it is no longer "adequate to call the Messiah, Son of David. He is not David's son; he is David's Lord."5 In verse 46, we note that his questioners are left speechless, daring never again to ask him any more questions, thus implying that they retreated to their accustomed thinking, debating, and acting. But had they taken what he shared and said to heart, they would have been transformed by the connection that indeed this one from David's lineage was and is his and our Lord. Furthermore, their armchair debates would no longer eclipse activity, but be better evidenced in new fruit through activity, that is, the traditional notion of Son of David would yield to the greater matter of Son of God and that is something always larger and greater than any tradition or strings of tradition. Practice in fruitfulness would supersede matters of intellectual knowledge and elocution, for the Son of God, the Messiah Jesus and those transformed by his presence and Lordship over their lives believe that right understanding is intimately connected to right activity. They belong together: loving God and loving neighbor; cherishing Messiah and living Messiah-discipleship lives. In the words of one Bible commentator:

What good is our creed, our enumeration of our beliefs, if those beliefs don't make any difference in the way we live, in the ways we act? It is not enough to believe something; we must live it as well ... Call for the question, the question. Now to the very heart of the matter. What think you of the Messiah?6


1. William Barclay, Matthew, Volume II, Westminster Press, p. 282.

2. Ibid., pp. 282-283.

3. William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, October-December, 1996,Vol. 24, No. 4, p. 16.

4. Ibid., p. 16.

5. Barclay, op. cit., p. 280.

6. Willimon, op. cit., p. 17.

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