What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? The question arises because of today’s dialog between Jesus and some of the Pharisees about the relative importance of the Commandments. Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment and then follows his response with a question about the lordship of the Messiah, the anticipated “Son of David.”
Jesus very rarely claimed this title for himself and when he did it was generally in the sort of oblique way we see in today’s exchange. He doesn’t come right out and say “I am the Lord,” but he hints at it. Usually, however, it is applied to him by others. In daily usage among First Century Jews, addressing someone as “Lord,” was probably meant as an honorific synonymous with “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Master,” and so forth, the way we might use “Doctor,” “Professor,” or address a judge as “Your Honor.”
After Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension, however, the fledgling Christian church began to rethink what this word meant as applied to Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” became the church’s first creedal statement. Just before the reading of the Gospel, we sang a popular worship chorus incorporating this affirmation: “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is taken almost directly from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which the apostle quotes what many believe to have been part of the earliest Christian liturgies:
God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In the everyday Aramaic of the earliest Christians and in the Hebrew in which they were used to worshiping, “Jesus Christ is Lord” would have been something like “Yeshua Mashiah Adonai.”
In the original Greek of Paul’s letter, “that Jesus Christ is Lord” is “hoti kyrio Iesou Xristo.” In the Jewish religion of the day, the Hebrew Adonai and the Greek Kyrios were applied only to God. Those early Christians were making a profoundly theological, religious statement: Jesus is God.
That should come as no surprise to anyone. However, the meaning of that earliest, simplest Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord,” had and has a dimension that extends beyond the four walls of our places of worship. In the First Century Roman empire the word “lord” (kyrios) applied to one man only: the emperor. “Caesar is Lord!” was the rallying cry of the empire! It was the emperor’s claim to ultimate allegiance. As Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “The emperor was the kyrios, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire.”
To say “Jesus is Lord” is and was to make a profoundly political statement! It is and was a radical and revolutionary claim. Christians were martyred because they said it, because in saying “Jesus is Lord” they were making the bold counterclaim that “Caesar is not Lord.” This is why, before Constantine converted, the emperors of Rome tried to eliminate Christianity. They viewed it as a direct threat to their authority. They were right. It was and it still is!
Constantine converted and tried to domesticate the church, tried to co-opt the politics of Jesus. And ever since, kings, queens and emperors, presidents and prime ministers, politicians of all sorts have been trying to claim Jesus as their own. But Jesus won’t be claimed in that way. The Kingdom of God is too big to fit into any political party! No political party, no political platform has ever dropped out of Heaven and none has ever been endorsed by God. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to refuse to give ultimate allegiance to any secular political ideal. Whatever your secular politics may be, whatever your party affiliation may be, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to claim your right and your authority to question it, to evaluate party platforms and candidates in the light of scripture, to reform one’s politics to conform to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, if it cannot be so conformed, to abandon it. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to adopt the politics of Jesus, not the politics or platform or leadership of any particular party or nation.
It is instructive that Jesus in our gospel reading today links this question of lordship with his answer the lawyer Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment. The politics of Jesus is cruciform, for he describes the Law as essentially cruciform. Like the cross of Calvary, the Torah as summarized by Jesus has a vertical component, which is the first commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And it has a horizontal component, the second commandment like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Around the time of Jesus, many of the extra-biblical texts summarizing and explaining the Torah, and relied upon by modern Judaism, were being created. Among the many writings produced by the Pharisees was a Mishnaic text known today as the Pirkei Avot, which means “the Sayings of the Fathers” or perhaps “the Ethics of the Ancestors.” This is what the first teaching of the Pirkei Avot says regarding the Torah:
[Moses] received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to [Joshua], and [Joshua] to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly [i.e., the Sanhedrin]. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah.
In Jerusalem, there were two schools of Pharisaic thought, both of which are reflected to a greater or lesser extent in the Pirkei Avot. One followed the teaching of Rabbi Shammai; the other the philosophy of Rabbi Hillel.
The Beit Shammai taught a strict adherence not only the 613 laws or mitzvot that are found in the Jewish Scriptures, but to hundreds of lesser rules known as the halakhah; these are strictures made up by the rabbis, arguably based on the Torah but not actually found in it. These halakhah are the “fence” the Pirkei Avot calls to be built around Torah; those most familiar to gentiles are the ones concerning foods, what we think of as the so-called kosher rules. However, the halakhah addressed many other areas of life.
The idea behind the halakhic fence is that it guards the believer from accidentally violating the Commandments. With the Torah at the center, the fence — the halakhah — seek to define the boundaries of Jewish life and to preserve the core values and ethics of Judaism, but in seeking that preservation they can and do create barriers between individuals and between communities, obstacles to Jewish participation in the wider world, and challenges to the Jewish community’s relationships with its neighbors.
An example of the different approaches of the Beit Shammai and the Beit Hillel can be found in their rules about how to talk to a bride on her wedding day. Beit Hillel taught that one should compliment every bride’s appearance by saying, “A fair and attractive bride.” Beit Shammai, however, responded by asking, “What if the bride is homely, or lame, or blind? Does one say with regard to her: ‘A fair and attractive bride?’” Their answer was, “No. Find something else about her to praise, such as her character, or her family background.” Don’t compliment a bride’s beauty because by doing so you might tell even a little white lie; this is a fence around the Commandment against bearing false witness.
Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Shammaites manipulated themselves into a majority position the Sanhedrin and passed a series of decrees – the halakhah k’beit Shammai – that built the fence around the Law higher and higher. “Jewish tradition records that [they] held control of the Sanhedrin throughout Jesus’ life and during the founding decades of the Christian Church.” When the gospels portray Jesus in conflict with Pharisees, it is most likely these socially and religiously strict Shammaites and their high fence around the Torah that he is contending with.
In terms of Jesus’ cruciform summary of the Law, that high fence restricted the reach of the horizontal component of the Law, the second commandment. One of the collects for mission in our service of Daily Morning prayer begins with these words:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace….
This was Jesus’ approach to the Commandments; he sought to bring everyone within their embrace. The Shammaite Pharisees, in contrast, built that high fence. They forbade Jews from buying cheese or wine or bread from gentiles; they forbade wedding guests from complimenting the bride; they ran the risk of conflict with the Romans by refusing to pay the imperial taxes. Their approach was restrictive. Focus on the fence, they said, for fear of violating the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, took an expansive approach. He said to focus on the central Commandments: “Love God; love your neighbor; and the fence – all those other laws and rules, all the mitzvot and the halakhah – they will take care of themselves.”
Like the first Christians, when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are making a political statement; we are committing ourselves to the expansive, embracing politics of Jesus, and rejecting anything like the restrictive, rule-bound, relationship-damaging, barrier-erecting politics of the Shammaite Pharisees. Remember that when you vote.
Jesus was asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” When we vote, as we will in just a couple of weeks (if we haven’t done so already), we will have to ask ourselves, “Which candidates’ treatment of people has been and is likely to be more in tune with that second commandment? Which proposed laws, tax levies, or propositions are most likely to conform to it?” In our secular system no candidate and no law is allowed to promote the first commandment, but I believe that the politics of Jesus, which I make my politics as a Christian when I say “Jesus is Lord,” demand that I ask how my ballot choices will live up to the second.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told us that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and he pronounced woe upon those who fail to do such things. I believe that in doing so, he was fleshing out his politics, describing what it means to focus on that second commandment. When I vote, I must ask myself which candidates’ positions, and which proposed programs and policies, come closest to accomplishing those things?
I can’t, I won’t, and I wouldn’t tell anyone who to vote for or how to vote on any ballot initiative. (I will outside of this pulpit, if you ask, tell you what my ballot choices are, but you must ask these questions of yourself and make your own choices.) But, as a priest, it’s my job to tell you what I think it means to say “Jesus is Lord.” I am duty bound to remind you that our earliest Christian forbears were making a profoundly political, dangerous, and revolutionary claim when they said it, and when they wrote it into our Scriptures. They knew that. We are doing nothing less when we make the same proclamation and we should know that.
They were willing to die for saying “Jesus is Lord.” What are willing to do?
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2023, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Mount Vernon, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher.
The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; and St. Matthew 22:34-46. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
The illustration is from the internet, authorship and copyright unknown.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Philippians 2:9-11 (NRSV)
 N.T. Wright, Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans, N.T. Wright Online, originally published in A Royal Priesthood: The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically, ed. C. Bartholemew (Paternoster, Carlisle:2002), pp. 173–193, accessed 28 October 2023
 Matthew 22:37 (NRSV)
 Matthew 22:39 (NRSV)
 See A Fence Around The Torah: Safety And Unsafety In Jewish Life, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Dec. 5, 2021 thru Feb. 13, 2022, accessed 28 October 2023
 Adam Kirsch, Can a Blind Bride Be Attractive? If Not, How Do You Pay Her a Compliment?, Tablet, February 24, 2015, accessed 28 October 2023
 Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 101
 Matthew 22:36-39 (NRSV)
 See Matthew 25:32-46; Luke 6:20-26.