Jesus said to the twelve disciples, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:24-39
A recurring teaching device in the scriptures is hyperbole. Hyperbole, as you know, is exaggeration, even to the point of evoking a response of sheer and utter disbelief and maybe even revulsion.
The story of faith begins with a hyperbolic tale. Remember the story of God’s testing Abraham’s faith in that extreme request made of him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whom he and Sarah had conceived, against all odds, at a very, very old age. The intent of the story is not to have us struggle with the bazaar cruelty of a God who would require such an unimaginable thing. That’s not the point. Rather the intent of the story is to showcase the depth of Abraham’s faith.
In this morning’s gospel Jesus uses this same literary device, hyperbole, in concert with the image of the love triangle to share an important message and imperative with his disciples – with you and with me.
You know what love triangles are. They are often the subject matter of movie plots. Sometimes they are the circumstances in which a crime is committed. You see pictures and headlines of love triangles on the tabloids in the supermarket check out lines.
They are also an ordinary part of our lives. It isn’t a question as to whether or not we are in a love triangle. We are probably in several love triangles simultaneously.
In the classic love triangle, there are three people. One is stuck between two love interests. The two love interests, knowingly or unknowingly, are competing with each other and vying for the time, attention, energy, and love of the third person.
In today’s gospel Jesus presents us with a couple of love triangles. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
In the first triangle there is Jesus, us, and our mother or father. In the second triangle there is Jesus, us, and our children. But these are by no means the only love triangles in our lives. Love triangles can involve anyone or anything.
Do I love an unquestioning patriotic response to flag and national anthem more than the personhood of Colin Kapernick, who had the courage to take the knee in protest against systemic racism and thereby risk his career as a professional athlete?
Do I love the statues of the slave owner, the anti-Semite and the scourge of indigenous peoples, perched on pedestals on Academy Green Park more than the descendants of those they murderously violated and their legitimate and just sensitivities?
Do I love my white privilege more than the millions of people of color who remain fettered by its economic stranglehold?
If I dare remember that the Lord is always the third party in each such relationships, then the holy resolution of the conflict becomes transparently clear. Of course, patriotism, monuments and my unquestioned white benefit must cede to the requirements of compassion and justice.
When it comes to love triangles the important question is less about commitment and loyalty and always more about, priorities.
Every love triangle confronts us with two questions. The first question – What is your most important relationship? The second question – Whom or what do you love the most?
After hearing Jesus’ words it’s not hard to figure out the correct answer, as far as He is concerned. The right answer is the Lord. But what is our lived answer?
I would like to think that my lived answer is Jesus. I would like to say with confidence that Jesus is my most important relationship, that He is the one I love most.
Love triangles are places of struggle and conflict. Regardless of what I would like to think or say, what does the evidence of my life show?
What about the ring on my hand and the vows I made to my spouse? Do I choose Jesus over my spouse? How can I do that? As hard as it may be, that’s what Jesus said I must do.
Then there is my son and his wife and my grandchildren whom I love very much. Do I choose Jesus over my family? How can I do that? As hard as it may be, that’s what Jesus said I must do.
If you were to look at my checkbook you would say, “He’s got a thing going with Adams Fair Acre Farms. That’s where he spends so much of his money.”
If you knew the thoughts that fill my head and some of the choices I’ve made, you might conclude that I love myself more than anyone else.
You know what I’m talking about. We’re probably not that different. Our lived answer reveals many different love interests.
If, however, Jesus asks us to love him more than our own parents and children, our own flesh and blood, then He also does so with everything else about our lives.
The question Jesus put to Peter on the shore of Lake Tiberias after His resurrection comes to mind. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these”? I believe the word “these” refers to anything and everyone. When Peter protests, “Yes, Lord”, Jesus continues, “Then feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” In other words, “Be about the business of doing those acts of love that demonstrate the most care and compassion for the most vulnerable among you.”
There can be only one primary relationship in our lives and Jesus says it is to be Him. His demand for primacy is not limited to our mother and father or our son and daughter. It’s a primacy over everyone and everything in our life. He could have easily continued the list.
- Whoever loves friend more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves work more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves power, reputation, or wealth more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves country and flag more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves church, denomination, beliefs and practices more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves self more than me is not worthy of me.
- Whoever loves anyone or anything more than me is not worthy of me.
Whatever or whoever else to which we might be inclined pledge our allegiance, fealty, and loyalty, it must never be at the cost of our love and commitment to the One who lays first clam to our affection, devotion and commitment. If we place discriminatory laws and the protection of unjust systems of oppression before our commitment to justice, we are giving the wrong answer to the question that Jesus puts to us as He did to Peter. We have a divine mandate to protect and defend the lambs and the sheep. We have a divine mandate to give priority to compassion for human beings even before conformity to so called law and order. In the divine economy compassion and loving action borne of compassion and a thirst for justice is always the first law.
So, what are the love triangles in your life? What is your most important relationship? Whom or what do you love the most?
Today’s gospel holds before us and confronts us with the many love triangles in which we all live and struggle. It invites and even demands we make a choice.
Does that mean we must reject our parents, our children, our spouses, and all other love interests? No, not at all. That’s not what Jesus is saying or asking. Jesus is not demanding exclusivity, but he is demanding priority. Jesus simply will not be just another one of our many love interests.
Jesus’ refusal to be just another love interest, his demand for priority, is not for His benefit, but rather both for our own good but also for the good of our many love interests.
We can only ever have one primary relationship. That one relationship gives us our identity.
It gives our lives meaning and direction.
It becomes the lens through which we see the world, each other, and ourselves.
It is the foundation on which we build our lives.
It guides the choices we make, the words we speak, and the ways in which we act and relate.
It sets a trajectory for our lives and determines how we love anything and every\one that we love.
Why then would we want our primary relationship to be something or someone other than the Lord – something or someone other than God made flesh and thereby absolutely accessible to us.
So how do we reconcile the right answer, Jesus, with the lived answer of our lives? How do we pick Jesus over our child, our spouse, our mom and dad? How do we look into their faces and say, “I love Jesus more?”
I know a woman who figured that out and I will never forget what she said. One day she told her husband, “When you love God most, you love me best.”
There is great wisdom in what she said. It breaks the triangle. No one is left out, excluded, or rejected. God, not our selves, becomes the source and origin of our love. This is the love by which we take up our cross and follow Jesus, the same love with which Jesus loves us.
I want to love my spouse best. I want to love my son best. I want to love my grandkids best. I want to love you best. I want to love my country best. I think we all want to love as best we can. We do that only when we choose Jesus first. For we love each other best when we love God first and most.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 21, 2020