Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2017
Matthew 22:34-46 Commentary
Back to the beginning.
That might be a good way to understand this passage in Matthew 22. Because in a couple of ways, these verses hark back to how Matthew began Jesus’ story in this Gospel.
First there is the genealogy in Matthew 1. In that “family tree” of Jesus Matthew inserts something into the otherwise regular pattern of “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so . . .” Matthew inserts what some have called “a holy irregularity” when at the very end of the genealogy he does not list Joseph as “the father of Jesus” but instead tells us that Joseph was “Mary’s husband.”
Tucked inside that little genealogical irregularity is an explosive theological truth: Matthew is telling us that although Jesus has a distinct lineage in the line of David, he was and is finally more than his ancestry could produce. Jesus may have been the grandson and the great-grandson and the great-great-great . . . –grandson of all those people but in the end he surpassed them all, too. He was more than David’s son. He was the Son of God, he was Yahweh in flesh, he was the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings.
Matthew told us this right off the bat. And now as the public ministry of Jesus comes in for its bumpy landing on the road to Golgotha, Jesus himself circles back to this. He asks the Pharisees a question as to the lineage of the Messiah. They claim the Messiah is David’s son, to which Jesus then replies that if he was only David’s son, then why would David himself have shown him the deference of calling him his very Lord?
We are told that no one could give a word of reply, but the reason for this silence was not because they did not know the answer. They just did not much like the answer. The answer is that the true Messiah is more than his ancestry could produce because the true Messiah was God himself. And as commentator Dale Bruner points out, if that is true, then that means that the answers Jesus had just given to the clever questions of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was no less than the Word of God himself and their opposition to that Word—and to the Word made flesh, while we’re at it—pointed to the fact that these folks were on the wrong side of history.
Jesus did not make many very overt claims to being divine or to being the Messiah. But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.
Second, commentator Dale Bruner thinks that Matthew 22 contributes to a kind of frame around the ministry of Jesus as Matthew has presented it. Jesus’ ministry began when he faced three temptations from Satan in the wilderness. Now, as Jesus is only a day or two away from being arrested and killed, the ministry concludes with three other tests that come in the form of three questions.
They bookend Jesus’ public ministry.
The Pharisees first ask about paying taxes to Caesar, hoping to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman IRS in case Jesus comes out and says something treasonous. They strike out with that question, and so next the Sadducees come up with a clever question about marriage in heaven. Jesus neatly sidesteps also this trap. So then it’s the Pharisees’ turn again and so they ask him about the Law of God. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”
It’s an innocent-looking question but really it is a stealth attempt to make Jesus look like a theological liberal. If Jesus picked out any of the Bible’s commandments and elevated it to the status of #1, that would imply that he was treating everything else as second-class. If you are the father of five children and one of them asks you who your favorite kid is, a wise father says, “I love you all the same.” No good parent wants any child to feel like he or she plays second fiddle to the other siblings.
So also here: if they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite commandment, he’ll be guilty of downplaying other commandments. But since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical.
By way of analogy: Imagine your congregation’s reaction if some Sunday you informed them that although you really enjoy Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of John just doesn’t do much for you! When it comes to God’s Word, we’re not supposed to play favorites. God’s Word is God’s Word. Period!
Jesus knows what is going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, a theological version of the “I love you all the same” answer a wise parent might give to the question of which child is the parent’s favorite. But instead Jesus begins to quote a Bible verse, and at first the Pharisees maybe thought they had him. They didn’t. Because Jesus says that love of God is the greatest of all commandments.
After all, if you don’t love God, you won’t be much inclined to keep any commandment. If, however, you do love God, then the rest follows naturally. And just to make the point, Jesus throws in the second commandment about neighbor- love. Between these two loves, Jesus manages to catch every single commandment you could ever name. Every commandment in the book has something to do with either God or neighbor.
But Jesus’ reply was actually more clever than even that. Because in Jewish circles the single most famous verse is the so-called Shema from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day. In other words, there was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one.
So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child. It reminds you of the time Karl Barth is said to have been asked what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. But instead of giving some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That answer was charming and disarming. Barth said, “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year old can sing about.” In Jesus’ case, he was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating to everyone there that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew that answer already. This was not a difficult question. It was like asking Albert Einstein, “Do you know what 2+2 is?” This was basic, elementary.
And in this case Jesus makes it clear that just asking that question makes the ones posing the question look like the ignorant and foolish ones.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that some textual scholars of the Psalms have many doubts whether the various psalms attributed to David were really written by King David, including Psalm 110 that Jesus here quotes. Theologically, however, it’s probably not vital whether or not David wrote Psalm 110. In the tradition it was attributed to him and that was more than enough warrant for Jesus to make his point about the way in which the Messiah—a Son of David—was nonetheless superior to David (and/or to any other figure in the line of David or any other human leader in Israel ever).
An additional textual point: the original Hebrew of Psalm 110 does have “Yahweh” first and then adonai second in the line “The Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (adonai . . .). This would have been obscured in the Hebrew reading of Psalm 110 (devout Hebrews would not have spoken the word “Yahweh” but would have inserted the vocalization of adonai) but it is obscured a bit in the Greek as well where the text of Matthew 22 uses kyrios both times. But it is important to remember that this is the Great I Am of Israel elevating the Messiah to a place superior to David or anyone else on earth.
Matthew’s version of this encounter with the Pharisees shows Jesus subtly changing the original version of the Shema. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 asks us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Jesus alters it to heart, soul, and mind, and surely the Pharisees and everyone else there noticed the change. As Neal Plantinga once observed, if some night at bedtime your child prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my brain to keep,” well, you’d notice!
It’s difficult to say why Jesus made this substitution. It may well tie in with a key theme of Matthew’s Gospel: namely, that knowledge is important. We have to UNDERSTAND that Jesus is the Messiah and even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect, he is the One. This is also why, all through Matthew, the disciples come off as more with it than they generally do in, say, Mark’s Gospel. Whereas Mark is content to leave the disciples in a befuddled state any number of times, Matthew’s versions of those same stories often throw in “Then the disciples understood that Jesus meant . . . .” So throwing in “mind” to the traditional Shema formula fits Matthew’s larger purpose.
But specifically here in Matthew 22, Jesus’ mention of “mind” was also was a none-too-subtle rebuke of the Pharisees. They were good at using their minds to do legalistic hair-splitting of all kinds. They had just now focused their mental faculties on coming up with clever questions with which to trip Jesus up. Maybe this was Jesus’ way of telling them that being tricky was not the reason God had given them brains in the first place! We are supposed to honor God in how we think and reason just as surely in how well we live in terms of other areas of morality. God, in short, has something to do with everything. Or at least God should.
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