Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46
This is not the meek and gentle Jesus we thought we knew.
In contradiction to our “felt board” picture of Jesus as an innocuous nice guy, this section of Matthew portrays him as passionate to the point of physical demonstration (21:12), stubbornly enigmatic in insisting on his authority to teach and act in radical ways (21:23-27), and subversive in his use of story as an ideological weapon against his opponents (21:28-22:14).
Then the conflict escalates further with a series of of direct verbal duels between Jesus and various religious authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus passes their three test questions with flying colors (22:15-22, concerning taxes; 22:23-33, concerning resurrection; and 22:33-40, concerning the law), before posing a question of his own that stumps his adversaries, leaving them speechless (22:41-45). This gospel lection includes the last two duels: the question about the law posed by a “lawyer” (professional theologian) on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-40), and Jesus’ question concerning the identity of the Messiah (verses 41-46).
A word of caution is warranted here. We are not dealing in these accounts with transparent and straightforward historical reports, but with poetic testimony to the identity of Jesus. Such testimony is grounded in the oral and written stories that constitute the community’s memory of Jesus, but it is also forged in the crucible of an intramural conflict within Judaism at the end of the first century. In the case of both the Jesus of history, and the Jesus remembered in Matthew’s telling, the argument is not between “Christians and Jews,” but between co-religionists. For this reason, Gentile interpreters appropriating these stories in the wake of centuries of anti-Semitism must exercise care.
It’s all too easy to remake Jesus in our own image, picking and choosing from the biblical testimony in order to depict him as a friendly, harmless mainline parson with boundary issues — the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” that too many progressive pastors have become.1 But if we take Matthew’s testimony seriously, we confront the possibility that our Lord discovered that sometimes in this life there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing about, things that call for those who are able to be both loving and formidable in the cause of righteousness.
The preacher would need to discern her context carefully and faithfully to judge the matter rightly, but it may well be that in some of our churches the time has come to explore the possibility that the Jesus we call Lord is not who we thought he was. What if WWJD? is a much more complicated question than we once assumed?
According to Matthew’s testimony, none of the things Jesus is caught doing in this context — from physically trashing the display booths of the moneychangers (21:12), to trash-talking the biblical literacy of colleagues (22:29), to dropping the mic at the end of a scintillating piece of rhetorical and exegetical gamesmanship (verse 46) — none of it violates the law of love.
For it is right in the midst of all this conflict that Jesus patiently explains that the most important thing of all is to love God with your whole self (verse 37), and the other most important thing that grows out of and goes along with that first thing is to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself (verse 39). The only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the Jesus depicted in these stories sees no contradiction between his formidable actions and the love he preaches. This may cause us to reconsider what Christian love actually looks like in daily life.
Too often in the church, “love” is used as an excuse to take the path of least resistance instead of the path of excellence. When telling the truth would be uncomfortable, we practice equivocation and call it “love.” How frequently “love” is code for smiling at biblical illiteracy and winking at theological incompetence!
Our definition of “love” is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with “all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Eventually, love gets him killed.
Of course, we are none of us Jesus. For us, charity always demands humility. But there is much to learn by seeing the love of Jesus in action. The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmaneuver the manipulative, and correct the clueless. Jesus was no pushover and the story of his ultimate decision to relinquish power for the sake of his Father’s mysterious will is all the more fascinating against the backdrop of these accounts of his prowess in the face of his enemies. Jesus is a lot more complicated than we sometimes pretend, and the love he taught demands that we expand our whole selves for God and neighbor — striving for excellence in all we think, say, and do.
1 The phrase is attributed to the acerbic wit of Stanley Hauerwas. See Willimon, William, “Damn Preacher” in The Christian Century, Feb. 10, 2004, 18.