PRAYER: Oh God our creator, you formed us in your image, but all too often we lean into an image that is not yours. Teach us, remind us, implore us to find real life in and through your love.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Over the last couple of decades, reality TV has become more and more popular. The show Survivor was one of the first that really took off in popularity. Survivor would put regular people together in some harsh circumstances and week after week, and they would have to go through a series of challenges, form alliances with some and try to undermine others. Each week, a member of the show would be voted off, until only one remains and that person would win a million dollars. The irony with this entire genre which is called reality TV is that the circumstances that these people are put into is anything but reality.
In 2002, a new reality show started that seems to be the most popular of them all – it’s still running: The Bachelor. This is a show that puts one man in a house with 20 or 25 different women. The point of the show is that he’s supposed to narrow this group of women down week after week until there’s only one remaining, and that woman is supposed to be – and believe me, I am rolling my eyes as I say this – his soulmate. And since that show has been so successful, there have been other iterations of that model, the Bachelorette, which is the same model but with one woman eliminating from a selection of men, and now The Golden Bachelor which is comprised of all contestants over the age of 60.
Now, I’m very proud of the fact that – in the years since all of these shows have been on – I’ve never watched a single episode, and with God’s help, I never will.
Again – that they call this “Reality” is pretty ironic because there’s absolutely nothing on these shows that even remotely resembles reality. The idea is that a person will find true love after eliminating people week after week. I’m frankly amazed at the popularity of these shows based on such a ridiculous premise.
For me, one of the things that frustrates me most about them is how incredibly traumatic they seem to be for the people as they go through this process. The design of that goes all the way back to the very first Reality TV: Candid Camera. Remember that one? On Candid Camera, there would be hidden cameras that recorded peoples’ reactions to seemingly bizarre unreal circumstances. Each instance would last a couple of minutes and then end with those famous words, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” All in good fun after making a random person feel like a fool.
But even if we don’t watch those idiotic “reality” shows, there’s plenty of difficult reality shows of a very different nature for us to lament. War is raging in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and in many other places around the world. Innocent people are being killed or displaced from their homes. People are being murdered by unchecked gun violence because our leaders don’t have the spine to do anything about it. Innocent people are being used as pawns in political nonsense games. Basic human dignity is being whittled away by greed and ego. For so many people, that’s a reality that – try as they might – they can’t make go away by changing the channel.
For the last five weeks, we have been reading about Jesus being confronted by temple leaders, Pharisees, and even some political leaders challenging him, and one by one, Jesus responds to their challenges. They formed alliances with each other to try to trap him so that they could ultimately eliminate him. In today’s reading, we reach the end – the final episode of this weird reality show – and they ask Jesus what’s the greatest commandment.
Now to be fair, this question, in and of itself, was not unusual. It was common for the temple leaders to engage in this kind of debate. Questions about which of the 600+ commandments in the Torah was the greatest was typical. There was always debate welcomed within the walls of the temple; it was part of the culture. But in this case, it was obvious that they were not looking to engage in debate so much as they were looking to trip him up. They were looking to vote him off the island, and they were fishing for ammunition with which to do it.
I think that reality TV is emblematic of how our world views just about everything. It presents the world through a lens of manipulation as it puts people through a veritable meat grinder. Love is nothing more than a commodity that can be bought and sold, and bargained for. We’re a culture in which we have to win by knocking everyone around us down, be the last person standing. Like the Bachelor TV show, we find love through putting people through the ringer to see how much they can endure, as if that will prove their love.
What’s the greatest commandment? However you answer that question tells someone about how you understand God. If, for example, Jesus pointed to Leviticus 19:17 and said that the greatest commandment is to “Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you do not become responsible for his sin”, then he would be teaching us about a God who is suspicious of all of us, and we must be the same. We must trust no one. If on the other hand, Jesus said that the greatest commandment came from Numbers 18:5, then we would have to have a conversation about having someone here in this building 24 hours a day 7 days a week so that we never ever leave this sanctuary unguarded.
But no. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 which says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And then he quoted Leviticus 19:18: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Upon these two laws rest the reality of all of God’s commandments. Love God. Love Neighbor.
In our Reality TV obsessed culture, these two commandments just don’t make sense because in that worldview, everything is seen as an endurance test, everyone going about trying to preserve themselves to be the last person standing and to heck with everyone else. Through the lens of shows like The Bachelor, love is achieved by the process of elimination.
Jesus’ version of Reality TV would be a love that doesn’t eliminate people; it welcomes them in. The reality TV show starring Jesus would not include artificially manufactured scenarios that traumatize people; there are enough real-life traumatic scenarios that people go through. So reality TV with Jesus would include us sitting with people who are already going through their own very real traumatic events and consoling and lifting up, making the circle wider, welcoming people in. The reality TV with Jesus is one that includes rather than excludes.
The ideology of Reality TV is so pervasive and corrupting. And while I certainly can understand the need for some cheap entertainment from time to time, too many well-intentioned folks get sucked into believing that this is the model for how our lives should be… because it’s so pervasive. When we treat others like we see displayed on reality TV, we become callous to the suffering of others; we begin to see our relationships as cheap entertainment, disposable and manipulative.
The central theme of Jesus’ reality is that there is no love of God except through love of neighbor. Loving others is how we demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit that we receive from God. But notice that Jesus even demonstrates that love in how he responds to all of these challenges that he’s faced from the chief priests, Pharisees, temple leaders, and even political leaders. He rebukes their challenges, but engages them in love. He demonstrates love of others by rejecting those reality TV ideologies of injustice and manipulation. Love rejoices in the truth and in the lifting of others, not in seeing other people suffer needlessly.
We have to ask ourselves if love – as we have come to know it through Jesus Christ – is something that sets us apart from the rest of the world as a shield, something that blocks us from our relationship with the world; or is it something that connects us to one another as an instrument of healing and hope. An instrument of peace. An instrument of life.
The Pharisees cannot answer Jesus’ questions because they have turned the commandments of God into their own litmus test determining who is going to be voted off the proverbial island. Jesus rejected those ideologies, and he stood his ground against them.
Rev. Lance Pape writes, “If we take Matthew’s testimony seriously, we confront the possibility that (Jesus) discovered that sometimes in this life there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing about, things that call for those who are able to be both loving and formidable in the cause of righteousness.”
For Matthew, Jesus is the one supreme interpreter of the law, and he is declaring that the love of God and the love of neighbor are the keys to understanding all the laws and the prophets. This is true because these two laws do not lessen the humanity of others because by their very nature, they are viewing all of God’s children as beloved. We worship God in how we carry out these two laws with all our heart and with all our soul, and with all our strength. Love’s claim is without restriction. No one is voted off.
Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. These are not passive commands. Love of God and Love of neighbor is not about taking the path of least resistance. They are calls for us to stand against all those things that serve to harm others. That includes those victims of war. It includes those victims of unchecked gun violence. It includes those cast aside because of human indifference. In reality TV, people are cast aside – voted off the island with such casual disregard and that’s not the reality that Jesus calls us to.
We are living in an incredibly difficult time. Death and destruction and inhumanity is played out for us 24/7 on our TV screens and in our newspapers and on the internet and it’s a miracle if we haven’t already become numb to it. It isn’t normal. And it isn’t how we love God.
We’re not going to break the world of its obsession with the reality TV mindset. But we don’t have to become slaves to it ourselves. We can love God and neighbor by stepping up and proclaiming God’s love in our lives. We can love God and neighbor by rejecting hatred and by providing a love that includes and never excludes. We can love God and neighbor by being the church that Christ calls us to be, the body of Christ, his hands and feet. We can love God and neighbor by assuring that the ministry of this church offers a reality based in God’s love, offering hope, offering love, offering a transformed life in Jesus Christ.
There is only one true reality. God remains the ultimate point of reference for human life and no one is ever voted off.
To God be the glory.