Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

October 26, 2008

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Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.

The two stories of Matthew 22:34-46 conclude an entire narrative section focused on the Jerusalem leadership in confrontation with Jesus. The confrontations begin with the Jewish chief priests and elders questioning Jesus’ authority (21:23-27). After questions brought to Jesus by Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees, a lawyer from the sect of the Pharisees asks a final question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (22:36).

Jesus’ answer fits well with his teaching on the Law or Torah across Matthew. Jesus has already demonstrated that right interpretation of the Torah must view all God’s commands through the lens of the weightier matters of the Torah consisting of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). Jesus has cited Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7), emphasizing mercy as central to reading and obeying the Torah. And he has highlighted love of neighbor as the pinnacle command of the Torah (5:43-48). So as readers of Matthew, we are not surprised by Jesus’ citation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 as the greatest of commands upon which “all the law and the prophets” hang (22:37-40).

In addition, Jesus’ answer would not have been surprising to the Pharisees. Various Jewish writings of this general time period speak of a central Torah passage summing up the other commandments. Rabbi Akiva is recorded as saying that Leviticus 19:18 was the greatest principle of the Torah (b. Nedarim 9.4). It is plausible that the Pharisees were banking on Jesus mishandling or even denigrating the Torah in some way by his answer. We have evidence from Matthew that Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath laws (12:1-14). Though Matthew’s Jesus emphasizes that he and his disciples are innocent of these accusations (12:7, 12), it is likely that the Pharisees, who were reputed to take great care with the Torah, would be suspicious of Jesus’ teaching on it. Jesus’ answer here would have given his opponents no cause to criticize his Torah interpretation.

This may seem a simple point, but it is one well worth considering as we preach Jesus to our congregations. It is not uncommon in contemporary American portrayals of Jesus to hear an emphasis on Jesus as one who “breaks the rules.” Yet Matthew goes to lengths to show Jesus as one who not only rightly interprets the Torah but as one who commands adherence to even its finest points (cf. 5:17-20)! Jesus’ greatest critique of the Pharisees is not their desire to keep the Torah in its smallest detail but their tendency to fall short on obedience to central values of the Torah (again, cf. 23:23).

The message of 22:34-40 emphasizes that the Torah is rightly understood when it is read through the central lens of love for God and love for neighbor (with even enemies considered neighbors; 5:43-44). While this truth is not difficult to understand or to preach, embodying love for God and love for others is the greatest of challenges. The sheer breadth of these two commands makes obedience to them a lifelong effort. In preaching this passage, the all-inclusive reach of these two commandments might be best coupled with some very practical exhortations and examples of love. One could look, for example, to Matthew 25:31-46 to hear what love for God and neighbor looks like in practical terms: showing care and hospitality to “the least of these.”

After answering well each question brought by his opponents in Matthew 21-22, Jesus now turns the tables. He has his own question for the Pharisees, and his question–a riddle really–will silence his opponents (22:46). Jesus raises the Christological question, asking the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is (22:42). They give an expected answer: the son of David (a favorite Matthean title: e.g., 1:1; 12:23; 21:9).

Yet, while the answer given by the Pharisees is accurate in Matthew’s perspective, it is not adequate. Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:44) and asks the Pharisees how it is that David could call his own son “Lord” in a text that clearly elevates this “Lord” to a place of vindication before his enemies. Jesus concludes with the riddle: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (22:45). Although no one in the story was able to answer Jesus (22:46), the reader of Matthew knows the key to the riddle. Matthew has defined the Messiah in Jesus, who is both a son of David by ancestry (1:1-17) and Lord, a name assigned to Jesus throughout Matthew’s gospel (e.g., 7:22; 8:2, 25; 17:4; 20:30-31; 25:44). At least in some contexts in Matthew, the attribution of “Lord” to Jesus alludes to his identity as the embodiment of Yahweh (e.g., 3:3; cf. 1:23). The reader of Matthew knows that the riddle has a both/and answer. Jesus as Messiah is both David’s son and David’s Lord, since he is the Messiah and will be vindicated before and placed over his enemies at his resurrection (cf. 28:18).

The Pharisees give a monolithic answer to Jesus’ messianic question. Yet Matthew’s Christology is anything but monolithic. He draws on a Davidic portrait of the Messiah, as well as other Jewish themes and expectations, to provide a multifaceted picture of the Messiah defined in Jesus (e.g., Jesus as Lord; Jesus as wisdom in Matthew 11; etc.). Contemporary preaching on this text might do well to address our tendency toward a monolithic Christology that emphasizes only Jesus as God incarnate. While half of Jesus’ riddle points in this direction, the other half firmly roots his role as Messiah in Jewish categories that we often miss in our reading of the Gospels. Do we help our congregations wrestle with the full humanity of Jesus? Do we portray Jesus as a truly Jewish Messiah, come to enact redemption for his people, Israel? One challenge of this passage may be to explore the rich and complex Christology that Matthew communicates. For as Matthew shows in Matthew 21-22, in the end the most important question to be asked is the question of who Jesus is.