Matthew 22:34-46, The Condemnation and the Hope

[October 26, 2014] The first half of today’s Gospel reading should be familiar to us all. Jesus summarizes God’s demand of us in two commandments, a summary that was already familiar to the Jews: Love God and love your neighbor (which we will explore a little more). The haphazard reader, however, might miss the point that Jesus is making in the context of the situation he was in. The second half of the text seems unrelated to the first half. In it Jesus points out that the Messiah must be more than simply David’s son since David calls this son of his his “Lord.” (We need to explore this a little more too!) But it has in common with the first half that it is putting a head on what preceded. Here however it is encompassing what was at stake from the time that Jesus entered Jerusalem. The people hailed him, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who is coming in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens!” and the people’s purported leaders in Jerusalem at once questioned this assertion. So Jesus now asks them (the Pharisees among them), “What is your opinion about the Messiah” (not about me [Jesus] being the Messiah, but the idea behind this title)? Because, behind their assumption lies a false construction; the reality is surprising.

Let us see what we can do in the short time that we have here. Jesus came into the city as the “Son of David,” that is, the Messiah, accepting the title for the first time and defending its use. In two prophetic acts he announces—by signs—the coming judgment of the Temple and city. The members of the priestly aristocracy and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) at once question his authority for acting like this and he accuses them of being false shepherds and not only of being unfaithful to God but of being abusive and stealing from God. They then—“they” now including teaching authorities from among the schools of Pharisees and Sadducees—test him with three questions. The first was meant to either discredit his claim to be the Messiah or to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities. The second was to ridicule his “Pharisaic” alignment with respect to his belief in the resurrection (it was the Pharisees who believed the teaching in the Prophets and Psalms concerning the Messiah; the Davidic Covenant did not have the same authority for the Sadducees). The third question comes from the Pharisees again—“Which is the greatest commandment of the Torah?”

This is the beginning of today’s text. It is not immediately clear how this is a “test” (a word which in the Synoptic gospels always has a negative connotation). What answer did they expect Jesus to give? After all, the answer Jesus gives agrees with the teaching of some of their own, and is not contested. In Luke 10:25-28 it is a “lawyer” (a scholar of Halakah) who gives the answer first that Jesus gives here. Jesus combines Deuteronomy 6:5 (the Shema recited daily by every observant Jew) and Leviticus 19:18 (the latter is quoted by the 2nd century martyr Rabbi Akiba as the great principle of the law). What is going on here? What is the test?

After all, the question was one often discussed among the Jews. Jesus was not in any case dismissing the Halakah but only giving the “lens” by which it was to be interpreted: “On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too” (see Matthew 5:17-20). What sums up the heart of the Halakah (the way of life)? The oral law gave the Jews innumerable laws. Moses gave 613. David reduced them to eleven (Psalm 15:2-5), Isaiah to six (33:15), Micah to three (6:8), Amos to two (5:4), and Habakkuk to one (2:4). In Matthew 7:12 Jesus summarizes the Halakah with the “Golden Rule.” Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law, and all else is commentary,” a negative version of Jesus’ saying. Jesus also gives a summary of the weightier matters of the Law in Matthew 23:23. James 1:27 gives another summary. Jesus’ summary of the Halakah (the Law) into a first and second commandment would offend no one, only confirm his orthodoxy. After all, the Testament of Issachar 5:2 says, “Love the Lord and your neighbor, and show compassion for the poor and the weak.” So my question is, what were they expecting to say?

We are not told. Their “getting together” might be Matthew’s allusion to the plotting together against YHWH and his Messiah in Psalm 2:2 (though there it is the gentiles who conspire). The Pharisees’ antagonism is in any case assumed, implied by their attempt to put Jesus to the test. I think that these Jerusalem Pharisees only know of Jesus’ teaching indirectly and suspect he is unorthodox on the basis of his popularity with the “ignorant” crowds, the rumors of his associations with sinners, tax collectors and even prostitutes, and his constant conflicts with Pharisees of the strict school of Shammai. This is what I think is going on. And Jesus surprises them with a completely orthodox answer.

Only, his answer to them is so orthodox and so inarguable that it becomes an accusation. If this is the correct and undeniable answer, are they keeping it? In fact, they ask Jesus to give them only one commandment: “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Law means the Instruction, referring to the Five Books of Moses, in which is contained the Halakah (meaning, the [Way to] Walk). Jesus gives them “the greatest and the first commandment” on which all the others are based. The Shema is Moses own summary of “the commandments, the laws and the customs which YHWH your God has instructed me to teach you, for you to observe in the country which you are on your way to possess” (Deuteronomy 6:1; see verses 2-3). No Jew would disagree with this, for they recite the words of Moses “You must love YHWH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength” constantly, even putting them on the doorposts of their homes so they can recite them every time they enter or leave the portals.

Jesus changes the word “strength” to mind, though elsewhere he retains the word strength, adding mind. To the Jew one’s strength usually was understood to mean one’s property. Apparently the mind was important to Jesus.

Our love of God must be total. The heart is the center of our thoughts, of our feelings, of our energy and will. It is the place from which everything about us radiates. The soul is the entire field of our consciousness, including our subconscious: our thoughts, feelings, our whole life and living. The mind (dianoia), its outlook and attitude, its reasoning process and the way it reasons, this too must be given wholly to the task of loving God. And surely it is no task; it is a privilege: our automatic (natural) response to the greatness (awesomeness) of God, to the beauty of God’s holiness, to God’s love of us. We are created for this, and to deviate from it is what ought to be an unnatural strain.

In fact, we often misunderstand God: what happens to us under the heavy hand of God’s judgment (which falls on all of us collectively regardless of our individual deserts) makes us question God, and we often perceive God as a bully based on our own internal projections of authority. So loving God sometimes seems like an onerous task, an obligation that we must try at. This is because we cannot see clearly because our minds are clouded by our sin and alienation, by our predetermination to insulate ourselves from the reality of God, by our fear.

The Pharisees and Sadducees and the chief priests and elders had another problem. They turned the “love of God” into a career. Their lives revolved around the Temple and its rites and teaching religion and religious law to people. They assumed that because this was their preoccupation that they in fact loved God. I hope some of them did. But it was clear that for others their love of God was simply a performance, certainly for themselves but also for others. While their activity may have involved the whole of their heart, soul and mind (and strength), it did not necessarily equate—in reality—to loving God. It was service, yes, and objectively it was for God, but was it love? This was Jesus’ first (implied) question.

Jesus went on to say, “The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.” He did not settle with only “the greatest and first commandment.” He had to add the second. Why? Because the second becomes a criterion of the first. The two go hand in hand, although the first obviously leads. When Jesus says it “resembles” (homoios) it, the word can mean resemble in the sense of being like it and having a similar or the same nature or structure, but it can also mean equal in importance or strength. In the first sense, the second commandment follows from the first. If we love God it naturally follows that we love those who are the image of God. In the second sense, the second commandment cannot be divorced from the first. We cannot love God if we do not love our neighbor. Love of our neighbor tests our love of God.

Ironically, if our love of neighbor tests our love of God, Jesus is now giving the test to those who would test him. They assume that they love God, but do they love their neighbor? The very grounds on which they suspect Jesus’ orthodoxy—his behavior with respect to the “lost sheep”—not only substantiate his orthodoxy but calls into question their own. So Jesus’ throwing in the “like” commandment when asked about the “greatest” commandment turns his answer into an accusation. Since they seriously violate the second commandment with respect to the people of God, this proves that they violate the first commandment.

And that has been Jesus’ point that he has been making to them from the moment he first set foot in the city. They are in trouble with God. Yes, he is the Messiah, and has a right to the throne of David, but he comes now not to lay claim to that right but to accuse them and bring them under God’s judgment, or rather to prophetically make it clear to them that they are under God’s condemnation and heading for disaster and need to repent—to heed the message that the prophets and John the Baptist delivered to them and that he himself has been delivering to them.

Neither the Sadducean establishment, the priestly aristocracy (the chief priests), and the high priest’s friends on the Sanhedrin, nor the Pharisaic hard noses, have loved the sheep over which God has given them responsibility (or stewardship). Jesus has accused them of theft, stealing from God. In the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard he described this as keeping people from God and even attempting to keep the vineyard (the people of Israel) for themselves. How were they keeping people from God? By despising the devotion of the poor, by shunning the sick and handicapped, by despising the sinful (the non-observant) and the “lost” (the likes of the tax collectors and prostitutes), by despising women and children, by treating all of these like outsiders, and even by despising the outsider gentile. In other words by despising the people on the margins and keeping them on the margins, by imagining that they were not “worthy” of God as if the so-called righteous were. (I hope I made this clear in my last several posts.)

This final question then, the last of the three, brings them all to a head. Indeed, it brings to a head the accusation that Jesus has made to them since the confrontation began in 21:23. It goes back really to 21:12-13 when Jesus combined quotes from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, “According to scripture, my house will be called a house of prayer [for all peoples]; but you are turning it into a bandits’ den.”

We need to move on to the second half of today’s reading. The Pharisees gather again, but rather than their asking Jesus a question, Jesus asks them one, just one. “What is your opinion about the Christ? Whose son is he?” How do you conceive of the Messiah? Whose son is he? They naturally respond, “David’s.” Jesus was called the “Son of David” when he entered the city in Matthew 21:9 and in 21:15. Nor was it the first time. Just before that, when he was leaving Jericho before coming to Jerusalem, two blind men (we think of Bartimaeus in Mark’s gospel) call him “Son of David.” It is a messianic title. The people had three conceptions of the Messiah, sometimes thought of as three different figures: there was a prophet (Elijah’s coming again), a priest (one like Moses, perhaps of the house of Aaron), and a king (in the line of David). The idea that the Messiah would be a descendant of David is based on such passages as Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23; Zechariah 3:8; 13:1 and others. Jesus does not disagree with their answer (nor does Matthew). The problem is that it is limited, and due to that limitation, bound to be misunderstood.

Unfortunately, when the people proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of David it conjured up in people’s minds, including the opponents of Jesus, a certain set of assumptions. David overcame all the enemies of Israel and established the kingdom among the nations, making way for the splendor that Israel knew under Solomon. People assumed that the Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel, subdue all the gentiles, gather all Israel to the land under his kingship, and Jerusalem itself would become the center of the world, to which all nations would render tribute. That would be a certain reading of the prophets. However, it misses the spiritual import of these ideas, their typological significance. For it still perceives the kingdom in earthly political terms, and of religion in a tribal sense. According to this conception, Jesus’s immediate fulfillment of his role as Messiah was going to be a big disappointment.

So Jesus says, “Then how is it that David, moved by the Spirit, calls him Lord, where he says: ‘YHWH declared to my Lord, “Take your seat at my right hand, till I have made your enemies your footstool?”’ David calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” On what grounds can a father, who is already king, call his son “Lord,” that is, my Sovereign?

Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, the most often quoted psalm in the New Testament. Of course he assumes that it was written by King David and he concurs with the common interpretation that it is about the Messiah. Interestingly, in this psalm, if it is about the Messiah, the Messiah is both a king and a priest (a priest of the order of Melchizedek). In the first verse YHWH declares to adōnāy, “my Lord,” the words that Jesus quotes. The words of YHWH could refer to David as the subject (A psalm “of” David could be about David), but Jesus understands the “my” in adōnāy, which refers to the psalmist, to mean David, and the words spoken to him to refer to someone in the future, a descendant of David.

The problem is that this descendant of David is going to take a seat at the right hand of YHWH himself, and will reign there “til I have made your enemies your footstool.” In the psalm the location from which this king will rule is Zion (verse 2), but this may refer to after the “until” of verse 1: “Take your seat at my right hand, till I have made your enemies your footstool.” Then “from Zion you will rule your foes all around you,” referring to the age of the kingdom.  Meanwhile, at YHWH’s right hand, he is “a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek,” made a priest upon his ascension to YHWH’s right hand.

In the New Testament, the “Take your seat at my right hand” refers to the ascension of Jesus to heaven where he now sits at God’s right hand and fulfills his role as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek. When he comes in glory is when the kingdom comes. It is then that all his enemies will be defeated: every principality, every ruling force and power, and everything else will be brought into subjection to him and headed up in him. The kingdom will continue until all is accomplished, when he will then hand it over to God the Father, and “then the Son himself will be subjected to the One who has subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

This is quite a different order of things than the worldly things that the people were imagining. Jesus sees the Messiah as sitting at the right hand of God, something far beyond the imaginations of the people before him. When Jesus asked about the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” he may very well have had in his mind the revelation that Peter pronounced, that the Messiah is the Son of the living God,” not in the sense that the king is a son of God but in a much more cosmic and apocalyptic sense (like the Son of Man in Daniel 7), and even in a metaphysical sense (as in Paul and John).

Jesus lays this out before them for them to consider, but another question lurks behind this. Not only is Jesus insinuating that he, as the Son of David, is more than a descendant of David, but he is also the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, and maybe even more than that. But the real unspoken question is, when does the Messiah take this position? “Take your seat at my right hand,” yes, but when?

It was not going to be by a “political” event. Jesus knew that within days, after being arrested and abused, he was going to be handed over by the chief priests and elders to the Romans and that they were going to execute him. He knew that this was going to happen after the Passover Seder, on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. He accepted Mary’s anointing him with oil knowing this. He knew that his poured out blood would be the “blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” (Matthew 26:28), that thereby he would fulfill the meaning of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt and passage over the water as the true Passover Lamb, and that he would make atonement (reconciliation) for the people, that his death would be a sin offering (Isaiah 53:10). He knew, in other words, that this had to take place before he would be glorified in resurrection and received up to the right hand of his Father.

He was not in the city now to “rule” over anyone but rather to accomplish redemption. It would only be then that YHWH would invite him, nay, command him to sit at his right hand.

Jesus’ question, I think, was meant to prepare them for the unexpected. To let them know that they did not understand things well enough, that there were surprises in store for them and that they should be open to something that would happen that would be utterly new, although it was under their noses from the beginning of creation (in their Scriptures) and they did not have the eyes to see it.

“If David calls him Lord, how then can he be his son?” The one you see before you may seem like only a descendant of David, and not—by your standards—a very impressive one at that. But in the days to come something is going to happen that will astound you. The words of David will be fulfilled when he said, “YHWH declared to my Lord, ‘Take your seat at my right hand.’” Pay attention, because it is about to happen. You will see the Son of Man, who will come in glory, be utterly humiliated for the sake of God’s people to win their redemption. He will gather—he will gather—and this is how—those whom you have cast aside, all the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and even gentiles, and you might well be the ones who will be cast aside on that day, unless you humble yourselves before God.

Leave a Reply