(The following is a sermon sent to me today from my good friend Angus Miles Watkins. Angus is also a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Ashville, NY in one of the nicest retirement “retreat centers” I have seen! I enjoyed this sermon very much and reprint it on my blog with his permission. Comments may be sent directly to him at, email@example.com) Angus presented this sermon at a few churches around Western New York.)
(“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said….” Mt. 22:15ff
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, thy gathered together, and on of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to trap him. “Teacher which commandment in the law is the greatest. 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.’….. later,[while the Pharisees were still hanging around, Jesus confounded them with a question of his own put to them, after which they never dared ask him any more questions.]” Mt 22:34-41)
Even back in the eighth grade, I was a real outdoors nut. And when I couldn’t be outside hiking, exploring, or fishing, I loved to read those outdoor life-type magazines. I read an advertisement in one of those magazines that invited me to take a correspondence course in taxidermy…So! With all the enthusiasm of youth, I fired off five dollars a week to the Northwest School of Taxidermy. I got marvelous information back in the mail about the art of mounting trophy fish and game to hang on the wall. They included a neat little set of scalpels and probes and stuffing materials– all essential for every budding taxidermist. “Fantastic!” I thought to myself.
The first lesson manual that I held in my eager hands suggested that one should start off by trying to stuff a pigeon… Somehow I got hold of a crow that flew into a window and, needless to say, I really botched the job. By the time I finished, it had lumps in all the wrong places and it probably resembled an aardvark more than a crow. I buried that disaster in the backyard, leaving a pile of feathers behind in my room.
But I didn’t stop there, you see, because the next week the manual for session number two from the Northwest School of Taxidermy showed up in the mail. And lesson two required that I stuff a fur-bearing animal of some sort. I had a trap-line with my buddy, Stanley Hollow Horn. It just so happened that week we found a skunk in one of our traps and it was beautiful. So here we had a candidate for my next lesson in stuffing animals…a skunk! Stanley agreed to help me skin the skunk, although he didn’t look really excited about the project. So we stood out in my backyard in the middle of a Montana winter many Januarys ago and started skinning that poor skunk suspended from a poplar tree. Well! The tears started pouring down our cheeks from the smell of that skunk and Stanley couldn’t stand it anymore so he deserted me and ran home. I kept at the skinning a little bit longer but then I hit that spot that really exploded the smell all over me, so I ran over to my house in defeat and misery. For some reason, my family didn’t want me to come into the house and my mother was terribly upset that I’d ruined a brand new winter parka… She set a bucket of warm water and a bar of soap outside the back door and told me to get out of my clothes out there in the back yard in Montana in January. And what was left of that skunk just dangled out there, half-skinned, but victorious. THAT WHICH WE HAD TRAPPED WOUND UP GETTING THE LAST WORD IN on Stan Hollow Horn and me. So ended a budding career in taxidermy! So much for trapping!
But! Trapping has been going on for a long time, ever since the times of cave people.. The Bible is no exception, either, because even in the gospels, we catch up to a group of people who want to give trapping a try. The Pharisees are very interested in giving trapping a try. What do they have in mind to trap? Obviously, it’s not what but whom! The Pharisees want to trap Jesus. In the gospels there are numerous references to both the Pharisees and Sadducees desiring to trap Jesus. In Matthew alone, we see four individual references to wanting to entrap Jesus. One place it says, “some Pharisees came to trap him, so they asked him to perform a miracle for them.” And in our reading today (if you do it in the Good News translation), it says, “the Pharisees, hearing that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, came together…and tried to trap him with a question.”
So! It’s trapping season now, and the Pharisees are after Jesus. And right off, we ask ourselves, “Why? Why do the Pharisees want to trap Jesus?” What is it that he has done to make them want to GET him? Our reading of the gospels and biblical commentators about the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, suggest that there are a number of reasons for their wanting to “get” Jesus.
For one, in their enthusiasm to preserve all the smallest details of the Judaic law, Jesus rightly accuses them of inattention to larger aspects of the law. For example, he is willing to heal people on the Sabbath! For instance, he harvests food on the Sabbath in order to feed someone who is hungry. That did not sit too well with the Pharisees who were very rigid about Sabbath observance. Then, too, we know how severely Jesus denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees for their self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Another important reason for the Pharisees wanting to trap Jesus is ENVY. Jesus has gained a tremendous following among the people. As it says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowd was amazed at the way he taught..for he wasn’t like the teachers of the law; instead, he taught with AUTHORITY.
It’s no surprise, then, that they want to trap Jesus. It’s no surprise.
As for the trap itself: they do not go for a number five steel-jawed trap like the one Stanley and I used. No, they have bigger game in mind. The trap they have in mind is to force Jesus into saying something that would jeopardize his standing with the people. The Masters of the Law want to TRAP him with the Law. They want to force him into making a simplistic capsule comment about the Law. So they spring the trap and ask, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” What IS the greatest commandment? Like predators after their prey, they think they are secure on their own turf. The Law is THEIR home court, or so they think.
The trouble with simplistic answers (as the Pharisees know all too well) is that simplistic answers raise follow-up questions from all sides. For instance, if Jesus simply answers, “Love the Lord your God,” he would be accused by the activist types of neglecting the role of WORKS in matters of faith. On the other hand, if Jesus were to say simply (and exclusively), “Love your neighbors,” there would be those who could accuse him of being a humanist, neglecting love of God! WHAT A TRAP!
This is high drama..the tempters’ snare is set. And what does Jesus do? Does he flee the corner? Does he strike back defensively? No, instead of making an exclusive statement as the “baiters” would have him do, he makes an INCLUSIVE statement! He says, You shall love God with all your heart, mind, and strength AND you shall love you neighbor the way you love yourself! He says BOTH/AND!
We have arrived at the heart of the story, folks. We’ve arrived at the point that the Pharisees realize their trap has been a dud! And they and we are amazed at what Jesus has done! He has said that love for God and love for neighbors are inseparable, and that we should never focus on one to the exclusion of the other!
It was about this point that I was working on this chat earlier in the week that I was having that caged-up-in-the-office feeling, floundering in a swamp of other matters that begged to be addressed, and not really knowing where this tale was going. So I went for a walk after the last snowstorm. I watched a pair of squirrels chasing each other. It was then that the realization hit me what today’s sermon is meant to be about, namely, that the gospel is not about trapping people, but rather about setting people free!
As this story of Jesus moves forward toward its culminating events, we will see as we always do, that he eventually allows himself to be trapped– if only momentarily– in a tomb. But in all love, God FREES him from even that box. The gospels are not about trapping people, but about setting them FREE!
And, you know, even TRAPPERS can be set free. WHEN WE GET PRE-OCCUPIED WITH PLAYING POWER GAMES WITH OTHERS, CONTINUALLY TRYING TO GAIN CONTROL AND TO TRAP ONE ANOTHER, trying to find fault with one another’s point of view, a horrible stench begins to gather around ourselves–like that of an un-skinned skunk. And I believe it is only when we experience the love of God that we will be set free from the hard-hearted things we sometimes do.
There are so many who are hungry to be set free– from despair, from unrewarding work, from hunger, prejudice, fear, illness, and loneliness. Thank God for a Jesus whose life stands as a constant reminder to us– a God who invites each of us here to consider persons we know who are stuck in one box or another by life…and do what we can to work with them in an effort that leads to their freedom. What a joy and privilege it is to be both beneficiaries and servants of such good news. Amen!