Today’s reading finds us at the end of the twenty-second chapter of Matthew. This is a chapter in which it seems anyone and everyone has a go at Jesus. Sadducees, Herodians, Scribes… This morning Pharisees… One after the other, they have all picked fights with Jesus. And one after the other, they have all failed.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are, more or less, taking a second shot. They’ve already lost round one… This time they want Jesus to tell them what the greatest commandment is. Mind you, there are 613 commands in the tradition… So, which of these is number one?
Of course, the Pharisees are not asking in good faith. They are not really curious. This is a test.
And before I talk about how Jesus responds, there is a bit of background that might help. At that time for serious students of scripture, like the Pharisees, there was a way of reading scripture at the time that seems strange in our world. According to that principle if, in Hebrew Scripture, identical phrases occur in different places, then somehow those passages are related. This means you can use one occurrence to illuminate the other. We don’t interpret the scripture this way, but it is still at work in our legal system.
I don’t want to labor the principle but look at the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees. Tell us, they say, which of those 613 commands is the most important? We dare you.
And Jesus answers: “You shall love the Lord your God…” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, the Pharisees were looking for one, not two laws… And Jesus answers in such a way as to tell them these two things are one – according to the principle of related phrases. The phrase “you shall love” is found in both. Jesus has used an interpretive technique of the Pharisees to bind these laws together.
Translators generally connect Jesus’ answer with words that tie the two – the second command is like the first. But I suspect that Jesus wasn’t saying these things are similar. I think he was saying they are the same.
That we are to love God is quoted directly from the ancient temple creed with roots in the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of all Jewish worship much as The Lord’s Prayer is part of all Christian worship: Shema Yisrael – Hear Israel, you are to love the Lord your God… In a sense, Jesus has given the correct answer as far as the Pharisees are concerned and he could stop now…
But Jesus keeps going… You shall love your neighbor as yourself… Jesus is sort of quoting from Leviticus now.
The Pharisees are impressed, maybe even intimidated. They think they are the scholars. Jesus is just some hayseed from Podunk. Yet Jesus is giving them a sophisticated answer – nobody can argue against the Shema Yisrael – it just can’t be done. But Jesus stretches the relationship. It is not just our relationship with God. It is our relationship with our brothers and sisters.
If we skip ahead in the life of Jesus to the events of Holy Week, specifically Maundy Thursday, we’ll hear Jesus give us new commandment – that we love one another as Jesus loves us. It is the centerpiece of Maundy Thursday – but it’s not really new… we’ve just heard it here in Mathew. It is the greatest command. Everything else, all the law, the prophets, all our lives, all our faith in God, hang from this command.
Of course, we could travel back a bit to the Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus telling us pretty much the same thing as well. In fact, this sums up Jesus’ entire message to us. Love is our entire identity and life in Jesus.
Jesus could have stopped at this point with the Pharisees… I suspect their heads were spinning… But Jesus doesn’t stop…
Jesus asks the Pharisees a strange question – what do you think of Messiah… whose son is he?
We hear Jesus asking about himself since Messiah is a name by which we know Jesus. That is not true for the Pharisees. They are still waiting for the Messiah. And they answer in a traditional and safe way – Messiah is the son of David. This is an obvious answer – but for them Messiah is somewhere in the future. They’re still waiting…
And Jesus confounds them with a quote from the 110th Psalm – the Lord said to my Lord, come sit at my right hand… How can it be that David calls his son the Lord? These are after all the Psalms of David… It is too confusing… The Pharisees cannot answer – I doubt anybody could… But they’ve learned their lesson – don’t mess with Jesus…
Is Jesus just messing with the Pharisees? Might there be a different purpose?
Scholars tell us that, in the worship of the very early church when this Gospel is being written, the 110th Psalm was among the greatest worship hits – sort of like a favorite hymn. It was a fixture for them in the way that the Song of Mary is a fixture for us in monastic worship. For Mathew’s audience, the impact would be quite big.
It is a happy ending on a difficult chapter. Jesus has been challenged and has contended with an army of adversaries. In triumph he launches into everybody’s favorite hymn. It’s a great moment – perhaps wasted on the Pharisees, but not on the faithful followers.
So often in the Gospels, the Pharisees and Sadducees seem to be there to give Jesus someone to argue with. This doesn’t do them justice.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were very different groups of people who were frequently at odds with each other. But they had a deep love and sincere devotion to God. And the way they knew and loved God was by knowing and loving the law – God’s law – those 613 commands. This was how to relate to God. But with the arrival of Jesus, Emanuel – God with us, there is a new way to know and love God – and to love neighbor and self… The rock of ages under their feet is suddenly shifting sand. They need compassion and some of the love that Jesus is talking about.
For me, part of the fun of reading scripture is locating myself in the story – do I identify with Sadducees? With Pharisees? With the crowd in the temple? With Jesus? It’s fun and safe to locate myself at Jesus’ side – surely, I would have been one of Jesus’ followers. I would have been right their cheering Jesus on as he took on the nasty Pharisees… Or would I.
Perhaps I would have been standing with the Pharisees… They were smart, well educated, articulate, powerful… Perhaps I would have admired that. Perhaps I might even have been a Pharisee. Their love and faithfulness are quite beautiful, even if they don’t always come off well in the Gospels.
But the lesson for our time, I think, is that the way we know and love God, as sincere and faithful as it may be, can be the thing that stands between us and God. We humans have a long history of constructing idols. That is what the Pharisees did – they let their love of the law become an idol that stood between them and the God they sought.
We still construct idols. Some are easy to spot – such as the idol of wealth that powers the “Gospel of Prosperity.” Sometimes we turn our sacred scripture into an idol when we use it to defend something ungodly – such as when faithful Christians in the US used scripture to defends slavery, or when it was used to defend Apartheid.
The question is not if we will create our own idols… the question is when. Because we will. And when we find our own idols, we must be ready to repent and amend – and trust in our infinitely forgiving God.