Martin Luther wasn’t really looking to start a revolution. He was looking for a discussion. Luther was a professor at the University of Wittenberg. Wittenberg had only been founded about fifteen years before, and was sympathetic to people who wanted to reform the church. When he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg (if he actually did that, which we’re not really sure of), it was an invitation to discussion among sympathetic scholars. He wrote them in Latin, the language of scholarship but not the language of the people. And he didn’t make any attempt to distribute him. Others arranged for them to be printed, and someone else translated it into German. In short, Luther was hoping for a lecture series and maybe some reforms in church fundraising practice. Instead, he threw Europe into chaos for two centuries.
When we start talking about why an obscure university professor/monk posting mailing some discussion questions upended the world as they knew it, there are a lot of factors. The desire for political autonomy among German and Swiss city-states, the great need of reform in the Catholic church, the invention of the printing press and new networks of information distribution. But I want to highlight one of the theological reasons for the Reformation turning from an academic seminar into a conflict that tore Christendom apart. And to do that I want to take a look at our Gospel passage for today.
Last week we read the first in a series of Q&A’s between Jesus and the important political factions in Jerusalem. Today, we’ll be reading the last in that series. The next time Jesus has an encounter with the political authorities of Jerusalem, Judas will greet him with a kiss.
In our story for today a Pharisee challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment; Jesus responds with two. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then Jesus adds a second commandment, from Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments,” he says. This isn’t a controversial statement. Rabbi Hillel, a famous Pharisee and contemporary of Jesus, once said that he could recite the entire Torah standing on one foot. When asked to perform the feat, he lifted his foot, stated Leviticus 19:18, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” And then put his foot down. “The rest is commentary,” he said. So how did we get from Jesus giving a fairly conventional and answer to a question of law to the chief priests and elders meeting to plot his death? What is it about these commandments that so upset the powers that be? And what was it about Luther’s theses that turned them into the flashpoint of a major religious conflict?
The answer is found somewhere in the next two chapters, which I like to call Jesus’ discourse on love. I’m probably the only one who calls it that. And to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend you read them at a wedding: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Probably better to stick with Corinthians. But it is about love because Jesus is talking about what it means to follow the law of love, and what it means to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The two commandments Jesus’ offers are hardly objectionable. But Jesus has a very different ideas about how those commandments should be applied, and it becomes clear as he lays into the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees about spiritual practices and matters of the law.
Before we go further, I want to talk about how we should read texts like this, in which Jesus condemns the Jewish authorities of his day. The portrayal of Jewish authorities in the Gospels is one side of an argument from 2,000 years ago. It is not an accurate portrayal of Judaism now. Nor is it a portrayal of the whole of Judaism then. Jesus is a reformer making complaints from within Judaism about unjust practices. Jesus isn’t condemning Jews, then or now. He’s condemning hypocrisy. If we’re looking for chief priests, scribes, and elders in the modern world, we don’t need to look further than ourselves to find them.
In the chapters that follow, Jesus’ blasts the legal scholars of the day for making the law impossible to follow except for a select few. Jesus says “they tie onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing to lift a finger to help them carry those loads.” The purity codes and laws, the tithes and sacrifices required all added up to more than the average person could handle, which meant that decent people were condemned as impure and unholy. And that of course meant more fees, offerings, and payments to the priests for purification of sin.
But what Jesus says is that they have missed the point of the commandments. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” The Pharisees claimed to take loving God so seriously that they even tithed on the plants they grew in their window gardens, but yet they benefitted from a society that denied justice and mercy to those who needed it most.
What Jesus is saying is that the law of love and the law of justice are inextricably tied. What Jesus is saying is that you cannot love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself. He’s saying to the powers that be, “Look! Look around you. Look at your neighbor, and tell me that you are loving your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.”
Luther’s complaints hold a similar thread. As we start talking about Luther’s conflict with the Catholic church, I want to offer a similar caveat to what I said before about Judaism. The Catholic church of the 1500s was in need of reform, and Luther’s complaints were accurate in many ways, but aren’t faithful descriptions of Catholics now, nor are they the whole story of Catholicism then. The Catholic church has undergone significant reform from the Council of Trent to Vatican II, and Catholicism now has one of the strongest histories of fighting for justice and love.
At the heart of Luther’s 95 theses is the accusation that sellers of indulgences are guilty of a deep spiritual abuse of the people. Luther’s upset for two reasons. The first is that indulgence sellers are bilking the poor out of their hard-earned money with a promise of forgiveness that God offers for free. The second is that by promising forgiveness through the purchase of indulgences, indulgence sellers are hiding from the people the only path that truly does lead to God’s forgiveness: true, honest repentance. Luther’s demand is that leadership truly look at his neighbors and tell him that indulgences are truly the Gospel of Christ. Because they are coming back to him poorer both financially and spiritually, having been relieved of both their money and the desire for repentance.
What turned Luther’s complaint from an academic exercise into an act of rebellion was the connection between faith proclaimed and faith enacted. Luther’s ideas (and more significantly, how quickly they spread) insisted that sin and redemption could not be reduced to a financial transaction. But that financial transaction was particularly valuable to the Catholic hierarchy, and in choosing to protect the lucrative fundraiser they neglected the weightier matters of faith. Take a look at the three theses we’ve got in our bulletin today. Luther is demanding that love of neighbor is more important than paying for the forgiveness of sins. Anything that claims to be of God, but leads you away from loving your neighbor as yourself does not have the Gospel in it.
This is what made Jesus and Luther dangerous to the powers that be. It’s not that they believed in love. It’s that they believed that you cannot love God while ignoring justice, you cannot claim to follow the law of love if you neglect its weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith. That is what turns an agreement on matters of the law into a disagreement. That’s what turns a teacher with beautiful ideas into a teacher with dangerous ideas.
Because tying love to justice is a dangerous idea. More often love is divorced from justice, and coopted to silence its claims. A pastor brings a woman into his office and says, “You need to forgive your husband for what he did to you last weekend.” And when she says, “I’m not sure I’m ready to do that,” he says “that’s not very loving of you.” Forcing victims to console their abusers coopts the language of love for the purpose of avoiding conflict. A parent is angry that her special needs child is being neglected by the school. She comes to the principal’s office, but is denied a visit. “I can’t talk to you until you stop being angry with me.” Justice denied in the deference to manners.
Love divorced from justice can be coopted to tell us that we have to love oppressors and oppressed in the same way, so that we tolerate systematic abuse and abject poverty. Without justice, love can be coopted to silence dissent: if you love me you wouldn’t criticize my actions, some say. Or if you love your country you shouldn’t acknowledge its failures.
We’re much more comfortable thinking of justice and love as separate concepts that are unrelated. But love without justice and justice without love both bend towards brutality. One is toothless, covering the sins of the powerful at the expense of their neighbors. The other is nothing but teeth. Justice without love quickly becomes bloodthirsty, and lacks the potential for reformation and resurrection. And neither, Jesus is saying, lives up to the fullness of God’s call to us.
What upsets the Pharisees, then, is neither the command to love our God with everything we have, or to love our neighbors the way we wish to be loved. Neither of these is controversial or arguable, then or now. What upsets the powers that be is the implication that they are the same thing. That’s what got Jesus in trouble so many years ago. And if we’re serious about following him, that’s where we’ll look for trouble now.