Finals Week -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A (Matthew 22)
Matthew22:34-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
If you’ve been to college, or even experienced high school, you likely know the meaning of the words “Final’s Week.” That’s the dreaded week that papers are due and major tests are given. If you’re lucky your professor won’t give a comprehensive test, but only one that covers the material presented since the last test. Looking back to the tests I gave as a professor, I didn’t put greater wait on the final that the other tests. I did, however, require students to take and pass the final in order to pass the class.
As Matthew’s story nears its end the tension has risen. Jesus is now teaching in Jerusalem, and his opponents are close at hand. In other words, it’s “Final’s Week” and lots of tests are being given. Interestingly enough, while his political and religious opponents are putting him to the test, Jesus turns the tables on them and gives them tests as well. You might say this has become a “test of wills.” As the stories pile up, it seems that Jesus is coming out better in his tests than his opponents in theirs.
The passage for the week begins with an acknowledgment that the Sadducees had failed in their attempt to flunk Jesus. Now it was the Pharisees' turn. They send a lawyer to Jesus, and the lawyer asks him to name the greatest commandment. Which commandment is the most important? You would think that the lawyer would come up with a more difficult question because every Jew knew the answer, and so as a good Jew Jesus would have to know the answer. The answer is found in the Shema, which declares that there is only one God (a declaration omitted in Matthew) and that one should love God with one’s heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus was fast with his answer – though in Matthew might is replaced by mind, following the Septuagint.
Then he adds a second commandment – one that had not traditionally been linked to the Shema – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This second commandment draws from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus declares that upon these two laws, which he raises to near equal status, are the basis for everything else found in the Law (Torah) and the Prophets. In other words, this is the essential message of Judaism as Jesus understood it: You should love God with your entire being, and your neighbor as yourself. There is both the vertical and the horizontal axis upon which faith is founded. Thus, Jesus heard the question and answered appropriately, passing his final.
Digging deeper it is appropriate to ponder the relationship between the two commands. It seems clear that the two commands organize the Ten Words or Commandments. The first table focuses on the relationship with God and the second table the relationship within the community. Whatever we read in the Ten simply expand what we read in the Two. You might even call them commentary. But then this wasn’t really a new insight. Jesus was simply showing he understood the Torah! If he understands the message, what about you and me?
I have long seen the two commandments as being two dimensions of the Gospel message. As noted above there is the vertical -- the relationship one has with God – and the horizontal – the relationship one has first with the church and then with the larger world. Both dimensions are needed – the vertical and the horizontal. They provide balance. Focusing on only the vertical makes us “so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Focusing on the horizontal, our relationships with one another, cuts us off from the power source that allows us to go deeper into the relationship and expand outward into the community. To fully be a follower of Jesus we need both.
Having answered their question, Jesus has a question of his own for his inquisitors. This question is a tough one. It requires significant theological reflection to answer.
Remember how Jesus had been hailed as Son of David as he entered the city (Palm Sunday)? Not everyone was pleased. In fact, that event led his opponents to up their opposition, lest Jesus bring the wrath of their Roman overlords down on them. It was clear that Jesus was a threat to the status quo. To hail him as Son of David or Messiah had political implications. The people were calling for him to take over the country – to reinstate the Davidic kingdom that had come to an end with the exile centuries before. But is this how Jesus understood his mission?
In posing question, Jesus asks the questioners to define the true identity of the Messiah? In other words, whose son is he really? Is there a one to one connection between the Messiah, the one whose coming many awaited, and David? What Jesus was doing was asking them to consider what kind of person the Messiah would be? If the Son of David, would he be a warrior king who would drive out the Romans and set up an earthy kingdom? It’s clear that many hoped that Jesus was that one, but his message didn’t fit that scenario. In posing his question, Jesus sets the stage by quoting from the Psalmist and noting that the Psalmist, who is presumed to be David, calls the Messiah Lord. If, therefore, the Messiah is Lord of David, how can he be David’s son (Psalm110:1)? It’s just not logical. It’s not the way things are done. So maybe the Messiah is David’s son, but someone else’s?
It is important to remember that Matthew starts the Gospel with the statement that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. Is Matthew contradicting himself, but having Jesus set aside the relationship to David? Or is he expanding the notion of Messiah by looking further back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1)? How would the mission change if Jesus understands himself to be the son of Abraham? As the son of David, the nature of his messianic realm is that of an earthly kingdom composed of Jews, but as the son of Abraham he is the bearer of blessings to the nations – that is, he brings hope not just to Jews but to Gentiles as well (Genesis 12:1-3)? In posing his question Jesus is expanding their understanding of the Messiah, by demilitarizing it. Many messianic pretenders took up arms against Rome. They would all fail – and in the end – Jerusalem itself would be destroyed as a result. But Jesus’ realm transcends these attempts to simply restore an earthly kingdom. That doesn’t depoliticize it; it simply changes the nature of politics. It’s not about gaining political power over one’s enemies, but rather learning to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
So there is for us a final test question. It has to do with our own sense of vision of God’s realm. How narrow or how expansive do we envision it to be? Is it simply about gaining power? Or is it about bringing the blessings of God – that is reconciliation – to all? It is important to keep in mind that Jesus achieves his mission, not by staging a military coup but by going to the cross and in doing so conquers the very powers of death that are arrayed against us all.
Wooden Love Sign, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57756 [retrieved October 6, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastababa/2398441001/.