01 - Silenced, September 5, 2010

2 Corinthians 4:6-15

Matthew 22:35-46

St Matthew tells us that the Pharisees came to Jesus not to ask an innocent question but to entrap Him. Read St Matthew’s text more closely, however, and we’ll see that even more than this is taking place.

St Matthew writes: “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadduccees…” This word, silenced, is the same word Jesus uses in His parable we read in last Sunday’s Gospel to describe the guest who got into the marriage feast of the King’s Son without a wedding garment. When the King confronted the guest for having no wedding garment, the guest was “silenced”. This is the same word St Matthew uses this morning to describe the Sadducees as being silenced by Jesus when, in the Gospel passage that immediately precedes this morning’s Gospel, He proved the resurrection to them from the OT. (The Sadducees did not teach the resurrection.) The Pharisees, obviously, believed they would fare much better than the Sadducees when they asked Him, what is the great commandment in the Law?

 A historical detail from the Judaism of Jesus’ day may illumine why this was a loaded question. In Jesus’ day, there were two main schools of rabbinic teaching: the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Both rabbis flourished in the first century BC. The differences between the two rabbis are illustrated in this story told of them: A Gentile came to Shammai and asked him to explain the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai, whose teaching was much more strict and demanding than was Hillel’s, answered the Gentile by dismissing him. The Gentile went to Hillel. Standing on one foot, Hillel said: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation. Go and learn.

You can see that the teaching of Hillel was closer than was Shammai’s to the teaching of Jesus. In this morning’s Gospel, the Pharisees come to Jesus as the Gentile had come to Shammai and Hillel. Jesus answers the Pharisees with a teaching very similar to what Hillel gave to the Gentile; but then, more like Shammai, Jesus denounces the Pharisees as Shammai had dismissed the Gentile. First, He answers the Pharisees, and so shows them respect as rabbis of the Law; but then, He immediately exposes their hypocrisy by asking them about the Messiah, or the Christ. If the Christ is David’s Son, He asks them, then how does David say to Him: “My Lord”?  The Pharisees, says St Matthew, were not able to answer Jesus a word. They were, in effect, silenced like the Sadducees before them, and in a way dismissed like the Gentile who came to Shammai. Moreover, St Matthew says, no one dared from that day on to ask Jesus anymore questions.

But, as I said, far more is happening here than disagreement over interpretations of the Law. The school of Shammai did not agree with the school of Hillel, but their disagreements only provoked livelier and, no doubt, louder debates. Neither school was able to silence the other. More than that, the two schools in their sharp disagreement did not for that reason go looking to put the teacher of the other school to death as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to put Jesus to death.

To those who know the OT scriptures, as did the Pharisees – and this is the great irony clearly visible – it is very clear that what is happening beneath the surface in this series of exchanges recorded by St Matthew between Jesus and the Pharisees is that the Last and Terrible Day of the Lord’s Judgment, which the prophets foretold, has begun. And, Jesus is the Lord, the Divine Judge.

We read in the prophet Zephaniah: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.”[1] (“The Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated His guests.” It seems to me that this sacrifice of Zephaniah is the wedding feast of Jesus’ parable we read last Sunday. Like a Bridegroom, Christ consummates His union with His Bride Israel on the bridal bed of His Cross. By His perfect sacrifice on the Cross, He consecrates His Bride – He declares her holy and He dedicates her to Himself – and in the water and blood that pour forth from His side, He pours out the divine life of His Holy Spirit on the guests, those who believe in Him and have united themselves to Him in faith and in love through repentance, confession of faith and holy Baptism. In other words, He clothes them with a wedding garment by their union with Him in the waters of their Holy Baptism.)

We can be sure that the Pharisees knew very well these words of Zephaniah, as well as these words of the prophet Zechariah: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling;”[2] and the words of the prophet Habakkuk: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”[3] These OT passages are referring to the Last Day, when all flesh will be silenced by the Judgment of God.

The great irony that I said is clearly visible here lies in this: the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees takes place in the temple; it began when the Pharisees came to Jesus in the temple to question His authority.[4] Jesus silences the Pharisees in the temple from the very Scriptures they knew so well. Their being silenced by Jesus is itself the proof they kept demanding of Him to prove He was the Messiah, the Son of God, foretold by the prophets. The irony gets even more ironic. The answer to the question by which Jesus silenced the Pharisees was given in the very fact that they could not answer Him a word. That is to say, their being silenced proved that Jesus is the Christ whom David calls, “My Lord.” In other words, they were looking at the answer to the question, and they couldn’t see it, in the same way that they studied the Scriptures with such zeal but couldn’t see what the Scriptures were revealing to them. Jesus, the Christ is the Son of God in His Divinity – that’s why David calls Him, Lord: and, Son of David in His humanity – that’s why He is David’s son. The Psalmist writes: "Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth!"[5] In His exchange with the Pharisees, we see Jesus as the exalted Lord who has roused Himself from His holy dwelling. He is in His holy temple, not just teaching but silencing all debates over the Law by silencing the leaders of Israel in proof that the Last and Terrible Day of the Lord when the Lord will come from His holy temple to judge the nations has begun.

So, what edifying lesson can we draw from this lesson that with the coming of Jesus, the Last Day has dawned? As Christians, we believe that we now live in the Last Day. A sign therefore that we are Christian in our hearts and not just with our lips is that we believe this enough to feel in our soul a certain sacred fear that the Second Coming and dread Judgment Day of the Lord is imminent. We don’t know if it is imminent in time; but we know it is imminent to each of us personally in the imminence of our own death. In this fear, we learn to lay aside every excuse; we learn to silence ourselves, and in that inner stillness, we adopt an inner vigilance. In that vigilance, we take up the work of faith; this is the practice of obedience to the commandments of Christ. We take up this obedience as our cross out of the fear of God and His dread Second Coming; but in that obedience born of the fear of God, we come to see as we do the commandments of Christ that these commandments of God are light and life. They illumine our inner being with the birth of a certain joy, and this joy produces a certain yearning for God and for the things of the Spirit. We are experiencing in this the mystery by which the commandments of God uncover the image of God in us. A certain ease with ourselves and with others begins to sprout somewhere in the soil of our psyche, for we are beginning to become ourselves: images of God. And so, what began as the fear of God evolves into the beginning of a certain love of God. This gives us reason to believe that by and by this seedling of divine love will become one day a love for God and our neighbor that fills all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. We are discovering that we learn to love God and our neighbor as ourselves simply by keeping the commandments of Christ. For they uncover the image of God in us, and restore us to our natural selves, when we find that it is the most natural thing for us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves; for we were made in the image of God who is love.

You can see that this love for God born from obedience to the commandments of God is not of the world. It is of God. This love that obedience gives birth to, in fact, may be the wedding garment of last Sunday’s Gospel parable; and we cannot clothe ourselves in this garment of love and so fulfill the Law without uniting ourselves to Christ on the cross in love, which we express by being obedient to His commandments. In obedience to Christ, as St Paul writes this morning, we live no more according to the darkness of this earthly life, for His commandments are a light on the earth; and in them, the light of Christ shines out of darkness. This light of God is the treasure of divine love that we have received in these earthen vessels of our body, our soul and our mind in the sacramental mysteries of the Church. To guard this treasure, the Christian is not casual about the Faith. He does not live or accommodate himself to the values of the world. He lives for Christ in the fear of God, in faith and in love for Christ through obedience to the commandments of Christ. We grow and increase in the life of the Spirit to the degree that we live in this world for Christ in obedience to Christ.

May Christ when He comes again find us silent, i.e. vigilant, obedient and faithful to His commandments so that He will find us ready to receive Him and to enter with Him into His heavenly Kingdom. Amen.

[1] Zeph 1:7. The word for “silent” is a different word in the Greek, but it carries a similar idea.

[2] Zech 2:13

[3]  Hab 2:20

[4] Cf. Matt 21:23

[5] Psalm 46:10