What’s on Your Coat Hanger?

October 26, 2014   1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8   Matthew 22: 36-40

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Samuel L. Jackson must be coming down in the world, because for a while now he’s been doing T.V. ads for a credit card company.  You’ve probably seen them.  He stands there in his three piece suit with a rather smug look on his face.  After explaining the benefits and blessings bestowed by this particular company, he then leans into the camera and asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  He really nails you with his condescending glare.  Sometimes he asks his intrusive question twice.  “I’ll ask you again.  What’s in your wallet?”  It makes me want to run and see which second-rate credit cards I may have lurking in my purse.  He’s actually very good at making you feel uncomfortable.  I know for a fact that I have some cards in there that I hardly ever use.  The three that I reach for most often are my debit card, my library card, and my Giant Eagle card.  I think those three are all I really need, in spite of what Samuel L. Jackson says.

     Did you know that in Jesus’ day the teachers of the Law had worked out that there were 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament?  248 of these were positive, Thou shalt, kinds of laws.  That corresponds to the number of bones in the human body, by the way.  And 365 of them were negative, Thou shalt not, kinds of laws.  Obviously, that corresponds to the number of days in a year.  These observations were important to 1st century religious scholars.  It seems like they had a lot of time on their hands, because they would often engage in discussions about which of these 613 laws were most important.  That seems like a “What’s in your wallet?” kind of question to me.  Some felt that there was a kind of hierarchy of laws, and that some definitely belonged in your wallet, while other scholars felt that it was a sin to imply that any one law was more crucial than another.  This was the background for yet another confrontation that Jesus had with the Pharisees.

     Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel describes this ‘gotcha’ situation in which the Pharisees were again trying to trip up Jesus.  It would have been so easy for him to be drawn into a theoretical debate about the relative merits of all of those 613 laws.  It could have been as endless as it was esoteric.  Splitting hairs was what the Pharisees did best.  Their lives consisted of a non-stop perusal of their spiritual wallets which were jam-packed with, well, obviously 613laws.  What’s in your wallet, Mr. Pharisee?  Well, give me a month and a half and I’ll tell you.

     Jesus wasn’t about to be lured into that kind of religious life that was obsessed about Thou shalt nots and Thou shalts.  It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we do and what we refrain from doing.  But our relationship with God cannot be reduced to that, or even measured by that.  Life is too short to spend it lost in the weeds of legal debate.  Jesus was actually living his relationship with his Father, not theorizing about it, or quantifying it, or worrying about it.  And because he was living it, he had no qualms about summarizing for his interrogators the essence of that lived-out relationship.  I rather think that Jesus had a glare that could easily rival that of Samuel L. Jackson.  And I imagine that he intentionally stared down those Pharisees when he gave his answer to their question about the greatest of the laws.  “ ‘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.”  Then, as a bonus, Jesus offered this further observation:  “And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

     They may not have had wallets in the first century, but apparently they had coat hangers, because Jesus was very clear that all of the law, and he also threw in the prophets for good measure, all of that was hanging on just two laws (or coat hangers).  In fact, it almost seems like there is really only one coat hanger that supports all of the law and the prophets, because Jesus seems to be implying that there is a necessary relationship between these two laws.  It’s one of those situations in which you can’t have one without the other.  They are two sides of the same coat hanger, as it were.  When Jesus says, “And the second is like it,” that is what he means, not that they are similar, but that they are joined at the hip.

     So, now it’s time for me to glare at you and say, “What’s on your coat hanger?”  Are you living as if there is really just one coat hanger, one double-sided law that supports and sustains the whole of your life?  Or are you weighed down by hundreds and hundreds of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ like the Pharisees?  Are you still worrying about laws you may have broken years ago?  Is guilt the main garment that you wear day in and day out?  And is your coat hanger bending under the weight of all that, buried under the countless layers of laws, so that you can’t even see the guiding principle of your relationship with God that orders everything else?

     Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  It seems to me – and it looks like Jesus felt this way too – it seems like if you can get your coat hanger right, then everything else will fall into place and you can get down to the joyful business of living your life in relationship with God and with your neighbor.  You can, with some freedom, focus on living, rather than perpetually talking about how you (or someone else!) should or shouldn’t live.  Love becomes the guiding principle rather than law which is often a restrictive and demanding task master, especially if you are constantly trying to bear up under 613 of them, like the Pharisees.  But talking about coat hangers or wallets is still keeping our discussion in the theoretical realm.  How does this look in actual practice?

     Jesus himself is our prime example of what this looks like.  In all things Jesus lived to give honor and glory to God the Father.  He purposefully ‘lived’ the close, open, trusting relationship that he had with God, his love for the Father.  And that meant that he also had a deep love for all people, because everyone was his neighbor.  Doug Hare, a former New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Seminary, makes this important point in his commentary on Matthew.  He writes, “In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment.” 

     When you think about it, it’s rather odd to make it a law that we must love God and our neighbor, if love is thought of as a feeling.  But if love is a commitment, a decision, an acted out relationship, then it is a viable commandment that should guide and direct everything else in our lives.  And we can see that it was the coat hanger from which everything else in Jesus’ life hung.  The double love commandment directed his prayer life, his healing ministry, his intimate relationships with sinners and other untouchables, his parables, and all of the disputes he had with the religious authorities over the Sabbath and other laws that Jesus broke because love demanded it.  And, of course, this is also what led him inevitably to the cross where his total commitment to God and to all of us was lived out in his final act of self-giving.

     From the very beginning, the church has tried to see its whole life as hanging from this same two-sided coat hanger of love (or commitment) to God and neighbor.  This guided the church’s ministry, its evangelism, its fellowship, its worship.  Our reading from 1 Thessalonians gives us a snapshot of what that actually looked like in practice.  It’s significant, I think, that this isn’t a happy-clappy account of carefree church growth, warm religious feelings, and constant success.  When you hang your life on this double commandment you may find yourself hanging from a cross.  Paul writes about how much they had suffered, how they had been “shamefully mistreated” at Philippi, and he implies that their motives were sometimes questioned.  Nevertheless, he writes, “we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” 

     They were living out their commitment to God and their calling from God.  This demanded something from them, and they were willing to put their lives on the line for it.  This is what loving God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind means.  And notice how, for Paul and his fellow Christians, this led immediately to a description of their love for the Thessalonians.  “We were gentle among you,” Paul writes, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”  Imagine the very best child care provider.  And now imagine how she treats her own children.  Paul isn’t talking about nice feelings.  He is talking about a deep commitment, a living and a costly relationship.  Finally, he writes, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” 

     Now that is Paul talking.  That is a converted Pharisee.  That is someone who has come to see that all of the 613 laws contained in the books of Moses and all of the teachings of the prophets hang from one two-sided coat hanger.  That is someone who saw the double commandment to love God and neighbor lived out in Jesus Christ.  That is a Christian, someone who has decided to follow Jesus, as we have.  And this is what that looks like.  So, I’ll ask you again, “What’s on your coat hanger?”