Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

The necessity of neighborly love found affirmation from others in their own time and beyond

neon sign: With All Your Heart
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October 29, 2023

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Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees ask a question about the commandments, Jesus gives an answer that enjoyed broad agreement among the biblical interpreters of his day. A legal expert asks him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). While most English translations render the Greek nomos as “Law,” Matthew’s use of the term refers to the Torah (the Five Books of Moses or “Pentateuch”)—a Hebrew word whose most fundamental meaning is not “law” but “teaching” or “instruction.”

Out of all the verses in the Bible’s first five books, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question with Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your life and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). According to Jesus, this is “the great and principal commandment” (22:38). He goes on to cite Leviticus 19:18, saying, “Another is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (22:39).

Jesus’ response would have found resounding affirmation from his Jewish contemporaries. In synagogues to this day, Deuteronomy 6:5 is recited as part of the Shema—the daily prayer that begins with the preceding verse: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ citation of both verses constitutes the “most important” commandment of all (Mark 12:29-30). Matthew’s Jesus calls this portion of Scripture the “great” (mēgas) and “principal” (prōtos) commandment (Matthew 22:38).

Jewish sages who lived in Jesus’ era described these biblical verses in very similar ways. For instance, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (circa 4th century CE) Rabbi Akiva—who was born around fifty years after Jesus—says that the Levitical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the “great principle of the Torah.”1 A famous story preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (circa 600 CE) states that the renowned first-century sage Hillel once paraphrased Leviticus 19:18 for a non-Jew, saying, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is all the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go study.”2 In Matthew, Jesus couples the same verse with Deuteronomy 6:5 and asserts, “On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).

After offering an uncontroversial and uncontested answer to the Pharisees’ query, Jesus asks them a question of his own: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (22:42a). The inquiry probes the Pharisees’ expectations about the “anointed one” (christos) they believed would arrive based on their reading of their Scriptures. They respond to Jesus by saying that the Messiah will be “the son of David” (22:42b)—a conviction that comes from certain promises that God makes at various times in the history of Israel.

In Jeremiah, for example, the Lord promises a future in which the Jewish people will “serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (Jeremiah 30:9). Similarly, God declares through Ezekiel that after the exiles return from Babylon “they shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob … They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever” (Ezekiel 37:25). When these prophetic texts refer to “David” they mean a future king in David’s hereditary line. Thus, the Pharisees are right to say that the Messiah will be a “son of David.”

The Gospel’s very first sentence affirms the Pharisaic assertion about the Messiah’s Davidic origins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Thus, Matthew’s Jesus does not disagree with the Pharisees’ basic assumption.

Still, he also cites Psalm 110:1 to suggest that the Messiah is also more than David’s son. Speaking of this messianic figure, Jesus asks, “How is it then that David in the Spirit calls him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:43-45).

According to Jesus (and subsequent Jewish and Christian tradition), David was the author of Psalm 110, which means that David himself says that the Lord God told “my lord”—interpreted as the Messiah—to sit at the right hand of the Most High. Yet, if the Messiah is to be a descendant of David, one would not anticipate David describing him as “my lord”—the father would not be expected to cede such authority to his offspring. Thus, Jesus’ argument goes, the Christ is both a hereditary son of David and greater than David.

This notion that the Messiah would be superior to his ancestors is also reflected in later Jewish tradition. According to one medieval midrash (Jewish biblical commentary), “the Messiah will be higher than Abraham … more lifted up than Moses … and more exalted than the ministering angels.”3 Matthew’s view that Jesus’ messianic status makes him more authoritative than David and “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42) fits comfortably within the continuum of Judaic conceptions about the awaited anointed one.

Based on many of the exchanges between Jesus and his interlocutors in Matthew, readers might assume that Christ’s views were consistently at odds with those of his contemporaries. One only needs to read just beyond our pericope to hear Matthew’s Jesus unload a litany of woes against the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 23:1-36). However, it is also true that Jesus was dedicated to the same Scriptures as his discussion partners, and in first-century Jewish discourse (as in Judaism today) interpretive disagreement was not tantamount to total theological incompatibility. Jesus and the biographer we know as Matthew were nourished by the rich root of Jewish thought and theology, and their convictions about the commandments, messianic expectation, and the necessity of neighborly love found affirmation from others in their own time and beyond.


  1. Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b. For online access to this rabbinic text, see
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a. For online access to this rabbinic text, see
  3. Yalkut Shimoni 2:338
Red protest sign with heart and word "love" in it
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Dear Working Preacher:
Ordinary 30A

Read past Dear Working Preacher columns from 2011-present on the texts for Ordinary 30A (Proper 25A). [Most DWP columns for this Sunday focused on texts for Reformation Sunday.]