The Impossible Purity Tests

and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

Matthew 22:34-46

October 23, 2020, Words By: Joey Ager, Image By: Adam Thomas

Last week I walked along Tacoma Avenue, and found myself passing Simone’s yellow tent on the grass right next to the street. Now that the October rain is here, and leaves are being stripped from the maples, the grass is quickly turning into mud. I don’t see her around, but her shoes are drying on a plastic box. 

I am walking with my friend, who leads a church not far away. As we pick our way past the tents, she’s telling me about a conversation she had the day before with two long-time members of her congregation. They’ve decided to leave the church.

I ask her why. 

She describes to me an online Facebook debate between members of the church, a debate I recognize too well: politics, theology, the law. A war of words. 

My friend’s story speaks aloud the structures that lie behind our context — a bitter election looms, God is claimed by both sides; an uncontrolled pandemic entrenches isolation, pushing communication online to a literally binary space mediated by algorithms that polarize; fear is stoked, violence is not far away.

How can followers of Jesus find their place in this moment?

In Matthew 22, the religious authorities try to entrap Jesus in their own war of words, first on politics, then on theology, then on the law. 
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Their motivation is clear: to trap Jesus in an impossible purity test that he later calls a ‘heavy burden, hard to bear.’ Their questions – disingenuous, hypocritical, insecure, closed – are weapons of power that sustain what Riane Eisler and Walter Wink have called the ‘domination system’. How often our conversations — especially the political and religious ones — are captive to this system! For me, these conversations are exhausting.

How does Jesus respond to this impossible system of damned binaries? What might Jesus be teaching us in our context about a way of being that rejects violent religious-political binaries and embodies a way of peace? 

I see Jesus making three invitations to practice.

First, Jesus asks a fundamentally different type of question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” His question, which ultimately silences the authorities and opens the door to his engagement of the crowd, opens up mystery, provokes dissonance and reflection in his audience, makes explicit the implicit, and re-roots people in their own story. 

In the faith-rooted organizing tradition, we recognize this practice as ‘agitation’. This question is not a weapon, it is a challenging invitation. Jesus doesn’t represent the ‘other side’ of a closed debate, he exposes the hypocrisy of the whole frame of the conversation, and uncovers a more complete, free and complex way of being. 

Second, Jesus doesn’t evade the trap by apolitically spiritualizing reality or avoiding conflict. In the next chapter, he speaks directly to the crowd and acerbically condemns the keepers of the corrupt system. In the faith-rooted organizing tradition, we recognize that Jesus has a clear structural analysis as he points our attention to the systems that maintain corrupt power. 

Third, and most importantly, Jesus reframes the interaction with the authorities into terms that matter most: the interwoven practices of divine-love and neighbor-love. In place of the impossible ideological competition for power through purity, Jesus places our neighbor as the locus theologicus on which the law depends.

How do we orient ourselves at this moment of religious-political binary, debate and violence? We experiment with questions that open up mystery, agitate and expose what is unnamed. We experiment with understanding the structures that build, maintain and benefit from corrupt systems in our context. And we root our practice in relationship with our neighbors, especially those who suffer under ‘heavy burdens, hard to bear.’

About The Author

Joey Ager