34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them (a scholar of the law) tested him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
From the 26th through the 28th Sundays, we considered three tightly connected Matthean parables: the two sons 21:28-32; the tenants in the vineyard 21:33-46; and the wedding banquet 22:1-14. They are parables about doing (or not doing) what God (father/landowner/king) wanted (or submitting one’s self to their authority): sons working in the vineyard, tenants giving the owner the fruit, and invitees accepting the king’s invitation to his son’s wedding feast and wearing the proper garb.
On the 29th Sunday, we moved into a section of Matthew’s gospel that comprises a series of controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities of Jerusalem.
- “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (asked by Pharisees and Herodians: v.17);
- “In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (asked by Sadducees; v. 27);
- “which commandment in the law is the greatest” (asked by a lawyer; v.34)
It is the third controversy which is the context of our gospel this week. Where the lectionary draws the boundaries of a reading and where scholars mark the boundaries can be different. For purposes of studying Scripture, the boundaries of our gospel narrative is usually taken to continue and includes vv.41-46, where at the end of the questioning by the leaders of Jerusalem
Jesus asks them a question:
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, 42 saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” 43 He said to them, “How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying: 44 ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet”’? 45 If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41–46)
There are really two parts in play: the end of the controversy questions put to Jesus and the beginning of them being put on final notice that something greater than King David and Prophets is here before them.
Something new? The gospel this week condenses the teaching of Jesus into its most simple form. And it is not a new topic in this Gospel. Jesus has already taught the centrality of love in the life of the disciples and that love for “neighbor” includes the “enemy” (Sermon on the Mount; 5:21–48, esp. 23–48). It is also not a radical topic for Judaism. Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day offered the same response adding that the rest of the scriptures are but commentary on these two things. In Deut 6:4–5, the command to love God is part of the Shema, which begins with the confession of the oneness of God, the closest thing to a universal creed in Judaism. In the Gospel of Mark, this same account is told as a friendly scribe making a sincere inquiry in which Jesus commends the scribe for his answer, declaring that the scribe is not far from the kingdom of God (Mk 12:28–34).
Here in Matthew’s account, why would this become a controversy?
Since Matthew 21 Jesus has been involved in controversy with the leading people of Jerusalem (Sadducees, Pharisees, scholars, scribes, Herodians, etc.) about the issue of authority: “When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?’” (Mt 21:23). The three parables (Man who had two sons, the vintner and tenants, and the great wedding banquet of the King’s son) have been followed by three controversies (taxes to Caesar, resurrection, and now the question of the greatest commandment).
This shift from a scholastic inquiry to a controversy over authority is important for Matthew’s community (in the last part of the 1st century) which is finding its way in the world after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (70 AD). With the center of praxis of Jewish life lost, there was a regrounding in the practice of faith that was beginning to take shape in the form of rabbi-led Judaism (as opposed to the priest-led practice when the Temple was still present). It is believed that the Pharisees, scribes and scholars of the law formed the tone and sense of post-70 AD Judaism. The tide of this movement will ultimately lead to an expulsion from synagogue of all Jews who held Jesus to be the Messiah. This will be the final break in ranks between Judaism and early Christianity.
In this final controversy, it is perhaps why a professional theologian from their ranks becomes their spokesman (the only occurrence of “lawyer” (nomikos) in Matthew). His question is no longer sincere or collegial, as in Mark, but is to “test” Jesus (peirazō, as in 4:1, 3; 16:1; 19:3; 22:18; only the devil and the Pharisees are the subject of this verb in Matthew). The address, “teacher,” is insincere and stands in contrast to the believers’ address, “Lord.” Jesus has just defended the Pharisees’ point of view, as he does throughout this section (cf. 23:1–2), yet their response is to test him as did Satan. In Matthew’s understanding, this is more than a religious debate; once again, the two kingdoms confront each other.
Eugene Boring (424) notes: “The nature of the test is not clear. The clue may be given by Matthew’s addition “in the Law.” The rabbis had counted 613 commands (248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of parts of the body; 365 negative commands, corresponding to the days of the year). Although rabbinical teachers could also indulge in giving summaries of the Law, there was also the view that all commandments were equal, with any ranking of them being mere human presumption in evaluating the divine law, all of which was equally binding. The lawyer may be attempting to draw Jesus into this debate and get him to make some statement that could be interpreted as disparaging toward (some part of) the Law, such as declaring the “moral law” more important than the “ceremonial law.” This is a charge to which the Markan version of this story is very amenable, since not only Jesus but also the scribe subscribes to it.”
Unlike Mark, Matthew focuses on the polemical aspect of the scene, he does not develop the theological issues that interest the contemporary interpreter (cf. Luke, who relocates the passage, 10:25–28): (1) the meaning of “love,” (2) the meaning of “neighbor,” and (3) the meaning of Jesus’ responding with two commands.
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)