The Theological Cypher

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 25/Year A ▪ October 29, 2023
Matthew 22:34-46

Anyone who has ever experienced living in creative, artistic city or area of a community knows the energy of a live show or an impromptu “happening” when performance artists get together to sharpen their skills, entertain, educate and gain visibility.  It might be a dance battle, a poetry slam or a rap cypher. Out of the three, it occurs to me that the rap cypher provides a close image for our gospel passage. A rap cypher is an informal gathering of people and onlookers when rappers go toe to toe in freestyle rap battles. 

Because of the skill and artistry that improvised rap demands of the performer, the rapper who silences the other with their superior lyrics, timing and charisma, can earn much respect and credibility. The cypher is also a risky endeavor because those who once were on top, can be toppled with one inadequate performance. The cypher is finished when one of the contenders is incapable of response, and is left silent.

Week after week, Jesus’ opponents, all religious leaders of the people, had verbally challenged Jesus about his authority in the presence of gathered people, many of whom followed Jesus. And, Jesus refusing to be trapped, responded with parables instead, which shed light on the inadequacy of the religious leaders to interpret the law of Moses and the prophets. For the last few weeks, we have been privy to an ongoing theological cypher that only ends when one contender, the collective religious leaders, is incapable of response, and is left silent.

Just before our passage today, that is exactly what happened when a crowd heard Jesus shut down the Sadducees. The Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, asked Jesus a question about resurrection. Jesus shut them down by questioning their own understanding of God and Scripture, and said to them, “…You are wrong, you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (22:29). Jesus had silenced them, and the crowd was astounded by his teaching.

In our passage in the 22nd chapter of Matthew today, the Pharisees had heard about Jesus’ silencing of the Sadducees.  One who was a lawyer (learned in Mosaic law) stepped into this ongoing cypher to test Jesus with a question. The Greek verb for “to test” is peirazo, used in Matthew’s gospel only with Satan testing Jesus in the wilderness (4:7); and with the Pharisees, who put Jesus to the test about paying taxes (22:18); and now concerning the greatest commandment in the law.[1] The lawyer does not just want to strike a blow to Jesus’ credibility; the question, soaked with insidious intent, was meant to hurt him, and keep him from causing them further trouble. 

This theological cypher began smoldering when Jesus answered the challenge, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” While noting that it was indeed the greatest and the first commandment, Jesus dropped more knowledge on the supposedly knowledgeable lawyer.

Jesus said, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself…On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:37-40). The commandments were understood to be of equal importance. For Jesus to simply say that one was more important than all others would have been an “ah ha—gotcha!” for the lawyer. Instead, Jesus underscored the equality of the commandments.

The cypher really heated up when Jesus said that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself was like the greatest and first commandment. The Greek word used for “like” is homoia, and it doesn’t mean that something is similar; it means that it is the same, with equal importance, and is inseparable from the first.”[2] The commandment, then, is not love God and then love neighbor. We are to understand that loving God is loving your neighbor and loving your neighbor is loving God.  One cannot love God and hate neighbor, and one cannot love neighbor and reject God. They are inseparable.

The other word to clarify is love. Love, as it is used here, is not the love characterized by affection. It is the self-giving, covenanted love of God for his people that never leaves his people. It is the love that God sent to restore the lost to the house of Israel. And, it is the love which became flesh in the person of Jesus that God sent to restore all of humankind to unity with God and with each other. 

This theological cypher created a platform for Jesus to publicly set the Pharisees straight, and to show the inadequacy of the theologically learned to interpret scripture and to expose their incapability of living the law as it was commanded.

To love one’s neighbor is to commit to doing them no harm. In all of the confrontations, leading up to this passage between Jesus and his opponents, the intention of their questioning, was to do harm to Jesus’ character, to his reputation, and ultimately to his physical safety.  One might conclude, based on Jesus’ statement, that the Pharisees engaging in such violence, done to their neighbor, Jesus, “…neither [knew] scriptures nor the power of God” (v.29), and had shown themselves to be no lovers of God.

We live in a culture that encourages rejection of our neighbors. We live in a culture that rewards physical, mental and spiritual violence done to our neighbors, and then ignores the human collateral damage. Given what we know of the greatest commandment, we might conclude that we live in a culture that is no lover of God. Even as we live in this culture, the constant struggle for faithful people is to take up that cross daily of being counter cultural.

None of us is immune to the culture in which we live which competes, without ceasing, with our desire to love God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds. And, there will be times when the culture succeeds in pulling our attention away from God and toward myriad forms of idolatry. Though we may stumble, Christ remains constant. When we stumble, we have the gift of knowing how to get back to the light.

If we truly believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, and actually live that understanding in our daily lives, it would not be possible to do harm to another; it would not be possible to deny justice and peace to anyone; and it would not be possible to disrespect the dignity of any human being.

As followers of Christ, who are always being formed into his full stature, we each have our own spiritual work to do. As Christ’s body in this dark and broken world, the church uniquely exists to bring his light and bear his hope—we have work to do.

The life-giving work of making Christ known is not easy. Our faith in Christ assures us that we are empowered and well-equipped by the Holy Spirit to do that which we are entrusted and for which we are purposed.  I will, with God’s help, love God. I will, with God’s help, love my neighbor. I will, with God’s help.   Amen.   

[1] “Matthew 22:43-40 Commentary,” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 8: 424.

[2] “Matthew 22:43-40 Commentary,” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 8: 426.