Matthew 22.34-46 | Pentecost 21 Year A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

The Gospel of the Lord

Now concerning the Gospel Lesson: Location, Location, Location.  This well-known real estate advertising banner has application to this morning’s Gospel lesson.  There are three distinct locations. So I have hired the wonderful Dr. Who and his English phone box time machine, the Tardis to take us to each one. For our first journey, he will take us back in time to Moab – modern day Jordan – on the eastern side of the Jordan river valley.

On our trip,  allow me to make some introductory remarks about interpretation. In the late 1970’s currents in Biblical Studies about Judaism that had been trickling since the early 1900’s suddenly gained volume flowing rapidly and bursting banks in some places. There was now space to develop the long sweep of  Israel’s literature and theology for its own message and meanings. This has been a game changer. My British education navigated the whitewater rapids of those currents, the outworking of this new perspective. Candidly, what I am about to say about Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism reflects some of the leading ideas.

Location #1  Setting coordinates from the Gospel’s quotation, the Tardis sets us down at the Moab location and into the primary writings in Israel’s library – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together these documents describe for us YHWH’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus), YHWH’s provision of a covenant relationship at Sinai (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) and YHWH’s  fatherly guidance in the Wilderness (Numbers) after Israel’s refusal to enter the Land.  Now 40 years after that refusal, the clans have gathered in Moab. Watching the Jordan flow past, expectantly preparing to enter the Land, they listen to Moses (Deuteronomy) retelling in prose and poetry, how they had uniquely experienced YHWH’s deliverance, the covenant ceremony at Sinai and the raw, visceral reality of Israel’s horrifying rejection of that deliverance and its covenant relationship. 

Some careful distinctions need to be made. Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes from the central feature of the Exodus-Wilderness experience- the Sinai Covenant. In Israel’s perspective the Sinai Covenant is not some unbreakable tyranny, something clamped down on the neck of a prostrate Israel. Rather the covenant intends to build up Israel’s imagination to live a holy life, not an isolated one, through instructions, stipulations, precepts and commands that frame their society.  

The Sinai covenant names Israel as a community that is called upon to “Listen and Obey, Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”. (Deut. 6.4-5).  The covenant calls Israel to exclusive allegiance, to a single relationship “I am the LORD your God. you shall have no other god in addition to me” (Ex. 20.3). No other path, no other value, no other authority can be substituted or require the same level of devotion to distract, deter or derail Israel from the unique relationship with the LORD who delivers. Clothed in the covenant’s ordinances, precepts, instructions and commands the stature of a person’s life is measured by “‘Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Lev 19.18). Close reading of Lev. 19 underscores the interpersonal dimensions of Israel’s conduct emphasising that individuals are to be holy as YHWH is holy. Note carefully the rich list of neighbors inhabiting ch. 19: widow, orphan, poor, immigrant, resident immigrant, hired servant, blind, deaf, etc. Covenant love, then, is having committed allegiance to the LORD, to holiness and to the well being of others.  In the covenant’s wider perspective, then, it’s not possible to imagine the One kind of love without the other. In short, the LORD has something to do with everything in Israel’s life. Or at least he should!

Now may I suggest to you the Sinai covenant’s intention concerns mission also.  It is a definitive salvo in YHWH’s program to redeem creation. Not as an aside but as a fact, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus the Messiah is the definitive salvo in YHWH’s plan to redeem creation and Israel. Back to the covenant, however. What do I mean by mission? Well, the Sinai covenant intends Israel to turn the Canaanite culture right side up, not affirm it  “you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 18.3b-4). And may I add quickly, any other culture Israel comes into contact with.  

A careful reading of the details of the covenant reveals it as an unblinking confrontation of cruel and ruthless indifference so clearly part of Canaanite society. In that ancient setting the covenant is a counter action against ideas that are known threats to life and limb. The Sinai covenant is a course of action and thinking for Israel to preserve its faith in an intolerant society, the groundwork for resistance to that culture’s progressive correctness in its streets, marketplaces, schools, temples. Without doubt Israelites are to be holy people embedded in an unholy society.

By remembering their own enslavement and by modeling the actions of their holy and gracious Deliverer, who was attentive to them in their time of need, Israel will extend covenant love toward everyone in their midst. The Exodus thus functions as a lens for understanding the requirements for societal flourishing in a broken world, generating concern by the covenant people for the needy or marginalized. The experience of the Exodus and the stipulations of the covenant ground Israel’s cultural/religious/political structures to properly function, protecting, providing for, and nourishing everyone.

Location #2 With this wider covenant perspective, lets’ pile back into the Tardis and zoom ahead to set down in Jerusalem’s Second Temple where Jesus has just ridden in for a bumpy landing – an unpermitted palm parade, a mostly peaceful protest against money changers and a change to the city’s landscape’s design (ch. 21.1-22).  Only a few days away from being arrested, Matthew winds up Jesus’ ministry over a single day recording challenges disputing his messianic handiwork from Temple officials-Sadducees, Scribes, Chief Priests, popular leaders-Elders, Pharisees and their disciples (ch. 21.12- 23.39) and the always unpopular Herodians (22.15). Matthew brings the day’s challenges to an end with  four questions: three by the various leaders – one about taxes to be paid (22.15-22); one about widows, remarriage and the resurrection (23.23-33), one about Torah’s premier teaching (23.34-40) – our Gospel lesson and then in a turnabout Jesus questions them about the Messiah’s identity (23.41-45) which discussion leaves the leaders speechless (23.46) – again our Gospel lesson.

We have learned in the last 40 years to reshape our understanding of Jewish leadership in the Second Temple period. It’s been all too routine to make Jewish leaders black-hat guys in an ancient hiss-and-boo soap opera.  What we now know is that they were—in the opinion of most people back then— the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Weaknesses and faults exposed in the Gospels specifically relate to their interpretations attempting to over-regulate the generalized and specific details in Torah’s varied contexts. They have come to regard their regulation as of the same cloth as the Torah itself. But Jesus in the Gospels regards these “regulations” for what they are – the teachings of men. Jesus’ scorching critique of the Pharisees in the next chapter (ch. 23) is about their imposition of regulated behavior to indicate faithful obedience.

The four questions collected by Matthew represent theological controversies across the various groups. Three questions are set forth as attempts to force Jesus to take a position for or against established answers. This would enable the leaders to identify Jesus as a follower of someone whose position on this or that question he supported. This would mean that his authority was derived from that school of thought.  The question of our Gospel lesson is not an unfair question.  This was a common question among the various charter schools. Some argued for equality across the Covenant’s stipulations; others argued for gradations. 

It is for these reasons Jesus’ answer is so important. Simply on the face of the question and answer, Jesus and the Pharisees agree that there is a kind of priority in the Covenant’s precepts. For him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority.  His answer draws all these leaders into recognizing and realigning themselves with the Covenant’s intentions. The Covenantal reference is Jesus’ attempt at bringing unity to the trenches, flattening differences among the leadership groups. It doesn’t deny meaningful differences but the quote is an indication there is a commonness across any divide. We stand together. Regrettably they do not. 

It’s subtle but notice when they ask him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” “Teacher”–respectful, at a minimalist level, though clearly inadequate by Matthew’s theological standards. We know already the idea that Jesus is more than a teacher is gaining traction – he’s being evaluated as the messiah. 

The texture of Matthew”s theology appears as Jesus shifts from defense to offense directing a question to the Pharisees concerning cherished nationalistic hopes – the emergence of the Davidic messiah. Jesus wants to see who they’ll side with. These leaders know their theology; they understand what he has asked them.  Technically the Pharisees were not wrong to say the Messiah is “David’s son”. Matthew has called Jesus “David’s son” in the opening verse of the Gospel.  The Pharisees were “right” in the wrong way.  They call the Messiah “David’s son” because that was the theological orthodoxy.  Messiah is the definitive salvo in the LORD’s plan to redeem Israel and creation. But the implications of Jesus’ interrogation startle them. There is a moment of silence as it begins to sink in—  one of those bottomless, grace filled opportunities for profound reassessment.  Standing in their midst is the messiah – Jesus. The rejection of him is on the same scale as Israel’s ancient rejection.  Jesus is the Messiah even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect. Jesus did not make many obvious claims to being the Messiah.  But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.

Location #3 One last time into the phone box as Dr. Who blasts forward through time’s corridors stopping at our Prayer Book’s eucharistic liturgy where we read again the words of our Gospel lesson. 

May I suggest to you by its placement following the Collect for Purity, the words of our Gospel lesson, called the “Summary of the Law”, intertwine the standards for self examination in preparation for communion. Certainly together they assert confession of sin, repentance, moral/ethical behavior are benchmarks for graceful participation in the community of faith. Certainly together they unite us in an act of humility admitting that we are not as we would wish. Certainly together they show us what we need to proclaim, where we need to act, ordering our values and priorities to remain loyal, faithful. 

The “Summary”, then, is as life shaping for us as for Israel, Jesus, Temple officials and Pharisees. The definition of covenant love Moses and Jesus are working with involves commitment, holiness, faithful, obedient behavior.  Love for the LORD and neighbor is demanding and risky. For Israel, for us, being holy, moral, ethical is learned when we develop the capacity to put ourselves into the neighbor’s place and that is a skill only learned by engaging with the neighbor face to face, side by side. This love is a lot more complicated because it’s interdependent not separated. It requires us to expand our whole selves – striving for holiness in all we think, do, say. The Summary “hangs” us together in fellowship, in common ground, in shared mission.  For us “love” is demonstrating to the society around us what matters, what is important and what makes our lives compelling so that others are drawn into that community. In the end, Covenant love is something you don’t want to be caught without.

Now my beloved the words of St. Paul to Galatian churches “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. For the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

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