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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In the Form of a Question

Matthew 22:34-46

How many of you grew up in churches where they made you memorize Bible verses? You had Sword Drills and Bible Bees? Do we have any champions? How many verses would you say you memorized? I’m just going to say it: those of us who didn’t raise our hands find you intimidating. Especially those of us who are ministers.

It’s the fear factor of being put on the spot and looking like an idiot. About ANYTHING.

“What’s the greatest commandment?”

“What’s your child’s phone number?”

“I don’t KNOW! I just press his picture on the phone! Please don’t think I’m a terrible parent!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, we have to take him away now.”

If you HAVE memorized a lot of scripture, good for you. Because not only do you have a lot of good knowledge, you’re also not so scared when you go to church that the preacher’s going to call on you. (Don’t worry, he’s Presbyterian. He doesn’t know, either.)

In today’s scripture, the Pharisees put Jesus on the spot. But it wasn’t about the scripture. It was about the fear factor and intimidation and what they do to us.


It’s a sad truth that fear and intimidation have always gone with religion like peanut butter and jelly. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Scientologist – you just can’t beat fear and intimidation for producing converts and enforcing the rules.

Religious leaders then twist fear and intimidation into blunt force ways to pit one group against another, saying, “Oh, don’t be like them. They don’t know the true answers. Their souls are in jeopardy (pun intended).”

That’s what’s going on in today’s scripture. It’s a Bible Bee and Jesus is getting quizzed. Not because the quizzers want to know the true answer. But because they want to use fear and intimidation to make him look like an idiot, and to clearly show how wrong it is to be like him.

Not only do they want to make Jesus look bad, they want to make themselves look good, better, look best.

Fear, Intimidation: that’s the name of today’s game. And it’s played in the form of a question.


Matthew, chapter 22, verse 34 starts, saying:

When the Pharisees (Jewish Sect A) heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees (Jewish Sect B) (and I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear so much talk about SECTS in church), they (the Pharisees) gathered together…

OK. Quick background for those of us never in a Bible Bee.

The Pharisees were one of three main branches of the Jewish faith. The other two were the previously mentioned Sadducees (whom Jesus had just finished schooling) and the Essenes.

The Sadducees were the upper class folks with money, connections, and power. If there had been country clubs, these were your members. Sadducees didn’t believe in stuff they couldn’t see, like life after death, resurrection, or Jewish rules that weren’t in the scriptures. Not too surprisingly, in the verses right before this one, the Sadducees asked Jesus a question about the afterlife. They didn’t BELIEVE in the afterlife. But what you said about the afterlife told them all they needed to know about you.

Way down at the other end of the religion, you had the Essenes. Essenes wouldn’t have been caught dead in a country club, but if they had tried to get in, they probably would have left that way. Essenes had no problem at all with stuff they couldn’t see. They were mystics. They were smelly men who lived in caves, ate bugs, and had visions. (Maybe in that order.) Essenes asked Jesus no questions because staying away and not talking to strangers was important to them.

Pharisees were the men in the middle, and when I say men, I mean men. Pharisees were the sect that survived. Pharisees were faith-preservers. They were your friendly, neighborhood pastor-men. Well, maybe not that friendly. But if you were competing in a Sword Drill or a Bible Bee, having a Pharisee on your team was a good thing. Pharisees didn’t MEAN to be intimidating. It’s just that they could do these amazing things like, READ, and memorize scripture, things common people didn’t have the education or leisure to pull off.

Now, one more group we can’t forget, and that’s the Romans, the occupying overlords. The Romans had their boots and their swords at the necks of all the Jews of Palestine, all the time. Rome let the Jews exist, but only under pressure that would make Kim Jung Un very jealous. If you were a Jew and you got out of line, or you let preachers like Jesus stir up trouble, not only was your status in danger, your life was in danger. Your families were in danger. Romans would quiz you, saying, “WHAT’S going on here?” And then they would kill you. So it wasn’t simple jealousy that made the Pharisees want to test Jesus; it wasn’t just the need to feel superior by winning the little Scripture-Off; it was fear and intimidation. They felt it, and they passed it on.


and one of them (of the Pharisees).. asked him (Jesus) a question to test him…

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

(Quick, Jesus. Let’s hear it.)


Let me ask YOU a question.

It isn’t really a question; it’s more of an observation phrased in the form of a question, and here it is:

Isn’t it amazing how much you can tell about a person just by how he or she answers one simple question?

And another: Isn’t it interesting how much you can tell about a person just by the questions he or she thinks are the greatest?


For example: What do you think of Mr. Obama?

Should gay people should be allowed to marry?

Do you think prayer should be allowed in schools?

Is global warming really a thing?

Have you recently traveled to West Africa?

Do you watch TLC?

Are you Christian or Muslim?

Democrat or Republican?

Apple or Android?

Carnivore or vegetarian?

Smoking or non-smoking?

Paper or plastic?


Really, one question, maybe two, are all it takes to make up your mind about somebody. Isn’t that kinda the way it works? “So WHY do you admire Lane Kiffin?” Nobody ever gets to that question.

The right question, the right answer in fifteen seconds or less can save you. Everybody knows that. If you want the kids at the cool table to like you, you’d better get the answers right, the clothes right, the image right. And get it quick.

Wrong answers make groups deny us and say goodbye to us. Everybody knows that. Or at least fears it.

How have you been classified and identified? What groups have you been shoved into because of one or two opinions? Or your income? Or your marital status? Or your occupation? The clothes you wear? The news channel you watch? The version of the Bible you read? The church you attend? The school you graduated from?

How do you classify and identify other people? Why do we choose to dislike one group and like another?

How can we do it so quickly?

Because we know the answers we’re looking for before we ask. We just phrase them in the form of questions.


In order to figure out what Jesus was – Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene – animal, mineral, vegetable – Presbyterian, Baptist, or Catholic – in order to classify him, they asked him a question. Just one. No intimidation there, right?

One of them… asked him a question to TEST him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Fantastic question. How you answer this one says everything anybody needs to know. Great job, Pharisees.

It may interest you to know that Jesus’ answer was NOT original. His answer was one that pretty much every Jewish child would have known. Pretty much all children would have said this was about the first, if not the only scripture they’d ever learned. They sang it every time they praised God. They said it every time they worshiped. It’s kind of the Jewish equivalent to, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s an answer Mary or Joseph would have made him memorize at the earliest age.

“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One… and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, in case you want to memorize them, too.

What’s even more remarkable about this answer is that not only can a little child remember it, a little child can DO it. Before they grow up and make sectarian idols of HOW they love God, which God they love, and which neighbors they love – before they grow up and fall into fear and intimidation – little kids can love God and love their neighbor… almost naturally.

Even if your feet stink, your head hurts, and you don’t love Jesus, (a Jimmy Buffet song which sadly does NOT appear in the new hymnal) you can still love your neighbor, and treat her with respect, as you’d like to be treated yourself. That golden little rule appears in the sacred texts of every major religion, as well as episodes of Barney, Backyardigans, and Mister Rogers.

How many people have been hurt, how much blood has been spilled, not because we’ve FORGOTTEN these childhood commandments, but because we’ve claimed to OWN them? Embellished them? Bedazzled them? Turned them into denominational laws or sectarian IDOLS in order to prove how different we look and right our answers are?

Jesus says, to love. And unlike fear and intimidation, love doesn’t separate you from anyone. Love binds you to them. Love, says the Bible, never ends. (1Cor 13:8) It has no borders.

The Bible says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment….” (1Jo 4:18)

So put away the pointed questions and the fear and intimidation that go with them. Put away your fear of being embarrassed because you don’t have the right answers. Love God, love your neighbor, and don’t worry about which group that puts you in.