21 PENTECOST - PROPER XXV - A - 17 MATTHEW 22.34-46
“When the Pharisees heard that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees…”
Just last week the Pharisees and Herodians had come together in an attempt to trap Jesus in his response to their question whether to pay the Roman tax or not.
In the verses that immediately followed the Sadducees approached him with their own challenge concerning the resurrection, an idea they did not believe in. It was just another attempt to have Jesus say something they could bring against him at a later date.
Now the Pharisees are back for a second time. This time they move their question out of the political realm to the world of religion. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The Pharisees wanted to engage Jesus in a debate about which of the commandments of the law were great and which ones were of lesser consequence.
They had combed through the scriptures identifying 613 commandments and taught them to the people, causing many to realize they could never live up to the demands of God. Thus debating this very question was not an uncommon practice among the rabbis of Jesus’ day. Nor is it today.
I can recall on my last visit to Jerusalem to having wandered off into one of the many libraries that are adjacent to the Wailing Wall. There I witnessed rabbis and theological students doing this very thing in a highly spirited manner. The commandments were not simply among the things the Jews were supposed to do. They formed part of the prayer that every devout Jew prayed everyday, in a tradition that continues unbroken to the present day.
Matthew is not the only gospel writer to record the Sadducees’ challenge of Jesus. A similar encounter occurs in Mark and Luke. In Mark, the question is asked in a friendly manner, and Jesus commends the questioner. In Luke, the parable of the Good Samaritan follows as an example of putting love of God and neighbor into action.
The question could be rephrased as “what kind of commandment is great in the law?” The answer is “a commandment of love.” In this the second is “like unto the first.” The great point is that love is not primarily a matter of emotion but of self-devotion.
Many would have agreed substantially with the answer Jesus gave. What was new was not the content of Jesus’ teaching on the subject but his redefinition of what the love of God was, how it manifested itself, and who a man’s neighbor is. In his answer to the Pharisee’s question Jesus welds together two fundamental commands, which had long been held apart. They are to Jesus pivotal points of the new religion.
To love God with all one’s heart, soul and mind was a prayer Jews recited twice a day. (Deut. 6.5) This, Jesus said, is the greatest commandment and the second is like unto it. Both of these commandments in their original meaning rest upon the special relation of God to Israel. Jesus’ response was meant to expand their horizon in terms of whom their neighbor was. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke was an expression of that expanded horizon.
While Israel was a people dwelling alone, and not reckoned among the nations their “neighborhood” was limited. However, when they took their place among the nations, and recognized that their God was “the God of the whole earth,” their sympathies should have expanded.
But their hatred of others, especially the Romans, and their pride in being God’s chosen people prevented them from fulfilling either of the two commandments Jesus is holding up to them as the answer to their question. The parable of the Good Samaritan was not enough for them to see the meaning behind Jesus’ having linked the two together. Thus, He fulfilled both on the cross.
Only in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, with the message of new life, do these commandments begin to become clear. Only when they are not seen as orders to be obeyed in our own strength, but as invitations and promises to a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind can love become a reality.
Unless the human heart is renewed by God’s love, we cannot produce words and deeds which reflect our love of God and our neighbor. When the heart is renewed, our outward actions will conform to the proper standard. Did the people actually keep all those commandments? Do we?
If we try and live our whole lives following Jesus and living by God’s grace and love, we all know there are still bits and pieces of darkness and impurity that lurk in its depths. It takes a lot of work and a lot of prayer to dig them out and replace them with the love, which we all agree should really be there. Thus we pray that God would increase in us the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love, so that we may obtain His promises by loving what He commands.
In the Christian life, two things need to be remembered: Though the love of God and the love of man are intimately connected, as Jesus has shown, we should think of them respectfully as well as together. Devotion to God, however real, in no way relieves us of the duty of serving our neighbor, and service to our neighbor, however devoted, in no way relieves us of the duty of loving God.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus answered. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The love of God comes first, since our debt to Him is far greater of the two. Moreover to love God, if we understand anything of His character, brings the love of neighbor into play.
Chapter XXII is a chapter of questions. The Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees all seek to trap Jesus by their questions spanning both the religious and the political realm. Yet it is Jesus who ends the chapter with a question to the Pharisees, a question they were unable to answer: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
His commentary could be viewed as a protest against the all too earthly Jewish idea of Messiah. In using the opening lines from Psalm 110 Jesus is offering no solution to the dilemma he proposed. Instead, he leaves them to ponder for themselves the true answer behind his question, as he does each of us. AMEN+