Reflection for Sunday – November 5, 2023

Readings: Malachi 1: 14b-2:2b, 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2: 7b-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12 
Preacher: Margot Van Etten

A huge Question underlies today’s readings. Actually, it underlies every event in human history and is asked of every person, constantly. Including each of us.

            Who or what is first in your heart?

For the priests of Israel in Malachi’s day, the answer was political power and the King’s favor, and so they led their people astray. For many of the Pharisees it had slipped—from the idea of Israel becoming so holy, through following the minutiae of the law, that the Messiah would be bound to come —to propping up one’s self-image (and prestige) by being seen to obey the law perfectly.  In both groups, the (false) self-image had replaced God at their heart’s center.

For Paul, ever since that stunning moment on the road, the answer was Christ. In this letter to the Thessalonians he describes a mission shaped by that answer: a ministry of love, of accompaniment, of service freely given, without demanding anything from them. And that drew them to the love of Christ.

And Jesus himself is the Question and the Answer. He pronounced it in last week’s Gospel: We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as we love ourselves. All the Law, all the prophets, all the Scriptures depend on this—and so do our lives, and the life of the world.

We are to humble ourselves, pour ourselves out in love and service – says the One whose self-emptying humility and loving service staggers the imagination when we stop to think about it. In every way Jesus himself is and does what he calls us to do and become.

But how can we do this? Only by love. And that is where the question becomes so central. And it is not a one-and-done: Our answer can be weak and wavering, it can grow or diminish. But when by God’s grace we grow in that love, it affects everything in our lives—and our world. 

Jesus speaks of religious leaders whose love for God has been superseded by love of self—or, rather, of self-image. A self-image of piety constructed by conflating the Law with God, leading to colossal failures of compassion and true self-understanding. That constructed self-image is reinforced by public acclaim, by “ordinary” people ceding space to them in any public place and making way for them in the streets. In another story, Jesus holds up the devastating image of a Pharisee stroking his artificial self in the Temple, listing all the things he supposes make him holy, and far better than the miserable tax collector beating his breast nearby. But Jesus reveals what is really happening: the poor Pharisee is praying to himself.

How do we know when we are truly placing God (rather than our idea of God or, like the hapless Pharisee, our false constructed self) at the center?

The answer is love.

Because God is love. At the heart of everything is this eternally self-outpouring community of love that is God’s very nature. And humankind is made in the image of God. Therefore, our true nature is Love. And it is by our ability to truly love, by our compassion and care, that we know we have rightly answered the Question “who or what is at the center of our lives?”

Recently a woman I know—let’s call her Claire—described her reaction to the news that the mass shooter in Maine had been found dead. Now like all of us she had been horrified by the news of the shooting and the stories of the victims. But she said to me “the strangest thing happened. My immediate reaction to hearing that he was dead, before I even had a chance to think, was immense sadness for the shooter as well.”  (This was before news broke that he was mentally ill.)

Has she arrived at the point where her whole being is centered on God at every moment? She would say not. But my guess is that she is well on the path. And I believe that the way to do this is by asking for it in prayer. And so my prayer for myself and all of us is that the Lord will fill us so full of His love that it overflows into the lives of everyone we meet.

In a way, maybe it’s like a little echo of the trinity in our hearts—God, neighbor, self. We cannot love one without the other two.  

Margot VanEtten
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