34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Translation: But when the pharisees heard that he muzzled the Sadducees, they were gathered together upon the same. And one of them, a lawyer, asked, trying him, "Teacher, what (is the) great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You will love the Lord your God in all your heart, and in all your life, and in all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. A second (is) like unto it: You will love your neighbor as yourself. In these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
While the pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, "What do you think concerning the Christ? Whose son is he?" They say to him, "(The son) of David." He says to them, "How then (does) David in spirit call him 'Lord' saying: 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right until I place your enemies under your feet'? If, then, David calls him 'Lord,' how is he his son?" And noone was being able to answer to him a word, nor did anyone dare, from that day, to ask him any more (questions).
Background and situation: It is the week of the passion. These final two incidents culminate a string of controversy stories that go back to 21:23 when Jesus entered the Temple. In the course of these various episodes, Jesus takes on the full panoply of his opposition--pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, elders, lawyers, and Herodians. To summarize since 21:23:
(1) Jesus disputes with the "chief priest and elders" regarding John the Baptist (21:23-27). (2) Then follows the parable of the two sons (21:28-32), and (3) the parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-44), then (4) the "chief priests and pharisees" recognize that he was telling those parables against them (21:45). (5) The parable of the king's son's wedding follows (22:1-14). (6) The pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus on taxes (22: 15-22). (7) Then the Sadducees make an appearance and question him concerning resurrection (22: 23-33).
Matthew 22: 34-40 parallels with Mark 12: 28-34 and Luke 10: 25-28. The differences in the three accounts may suggest both a Markan and a Q version of the story. (Matthew and Luke use the word "lawyer" while Mark does not. Mark includes the introduction of the shema, while Matthew and Luke do not.)
Matthew 22: 41-46 parallels with Mark 12: 35-37 and Luke 20: 40-41. In this case, Matthew tends to follow Mark.
The greatest commandment: The Sadducees had struck out against Jesus--he had "muzzled" them. In response, the pharisees "were gathered together." Sunaxthesan is a form of sunago, as is synagoge, the word for "synagogue." In this case, the synagoge--the "gathering together"--is nefarious because its' purpose is conspiracy against Jesus.
The pharisees choose a "lawyer"--nomikos--to go up against Jesus. Scribes as well as lawyers were considered experts on the law. Either one would be less like what we would consider to be lawyers, and more what we would call theology or Bible teachers. The pharisees bring out their "ace professor."
The lawyer addresses Jesus as "teacher"--respectful, at a minimalist level, though clearly inadequate by Matthew's theological standards. He asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. Which of the 613 laws in the law of Moses is the most important? No matter which one Jesus picks, the lawyer will no doubt ask why he didn't pick one of the other ones.
This is reminiscent of the Jewish mother who picks two shirts for her son--a blue one and a red one--and asks which one he likes the best. He says he likes both of them equally. She asks him to put one of them on. He puts on the blue one, walks into the living room, and his mother says, "So you don't like the red one?"
In theory, all 613 commandments were to be observed and were considered to be of equal importance. Some divided the 613 into 365 "you shall nots", one for each day of the year, and 268 "you shalls", one for each bone of the body. Thus, as Robert Smith notes, the law applies "to all our times and all our movements."
So which one, Jesus? Which law is the greatest? Jesus answers with Deuteronomy 6:5, a portion of the shema: "You will love the Lord your God in all your heart, and in all your life, and in all your mind."
Jesus also did something no one today would dare try: He changed this ancient statement of faith. He changed dunameos (strength, power) to dianoia (mind, thought)--not love God with all one's strength, as Deuteronomy has it, but love God with all one's mind.
The pharisees had asked Jesus what he thought in 22:17. Since then, Jesus' opponents have mustered what they thought were their best theological and political arguments, and Jesus has demolished them. In the process, he has returned such intellectual fire that he has "amazed" the pharisees, "astounded" the crowd, and "muzzled" the Sadducees. Jesus has been putting on a clinic of how to love God with your mind.
Jesus adds a quote from Leviticus 19--"...you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love for God and love for neighbor are inextricably joined--or, as Jesus puts it: "In these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets". (Incidentally, one notes also that Jesus has, on one other occasion, identified something as encompassing "the law and the prophets"--that something is the Golden Rule: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (7:12).)
What unites all the law? What is the fundamental principle underlying all of God's work? What inspires the prophets? What illuminates everything? Agapao. Jesus moves from law as mere legislation to the motivation behind the law which goes to the very nature and heart of God's work and intention. He subverts the role of law as rules and regulations, and moves it into the realm of God's care and compassion active in the world.
Matthew, we remember, twice quotes Hosea 6:6--"I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (9:13, 12:7). It is not the legal act, nor the religious ritual, that God desires, but rather mercy and love. Jesus often set aside legal technicalities in favor of compassion. Jesus was quite free about breaking the rules in the service of loving God and neighbor.
Loving God is about loving people. Loving God is not about pious invocations concerning the law. As a Catholic priest friend in Bellevue, Iowa once put it, "I've known a lot of people who love God, and I've known a lot of people who love God's law. And, you know, the funny thing is that they are rarely the same people."
Going on the offensive: Matthew tells us (again) that the pharisees were "gathered together." Into this conspiratorial gathering, Jesus tosses his own "what do you think?" question: "What do you think concerning the Christ? Whose son is he?"
The pharisees respond with "son of David," which was first century common knowledge, conventional wisdom, and religious orthodoxy. (See Isaiah 9:7, 11: 1-10, Jeremiah 23: 5, Ezekiel 34: 23, Zechariah 3: 8, 13:1.)
The expectation was that "David's son" would be like David, the great king who united the people, tossed out their enemies, and instituted a great Golden Age. Orthodox Jewish thought at the time of Jesus said that David's son would be even greater than David--even more victory, even greater prosperity, even larger territory, even bigger boundaries.
OK then, Jesus says, "What do you do with Psalm 110:1?": "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right until I place your enemies under your feet?" David was assumed to be the author of all the Psalms. Therefore, David is referring to "the Lord" (God) who speaks to "my Lord" (the Messiah). If David calls this Messiah his "Lord," how can David be his father? (David wrote this "in spirit," says Jesus, indicating that David had a mystical vision which saw into the future to the Messiah.)
No one was able to respond to this question, not even "a word." Since 21: 23, Jesus' opponents have pestered him with one question after another, some involving whole leaps of hypothetical, all of which, loving God with his mind, Jesus has deflected and turned on his opponents. Yet, the one time Jesus asks them what they think, they have no answer.
Note that, technically speaking, these pharisees were not wrong to say that the Messiah is "son of David." (Matthew himself called Jesus "son of David" in the opening verse of the gospel.) These pharisees were "right" in the wrong way. They call the Messiah "son of David" because that was the theological orthodoxy of the time.
The problem with orthodoxy is that it substitutes itself for thought. Why bother to think about anything when you already know the "answers"? This is why George Orwell once said that "orthodoxy is unconsciousness." If the pharisees had been less "unconscious," If they had worshipped God with their minds, if they'd had a spark of imagination or insight, they might have recognized a somewhat different Messiah, i.e. the one standing right in front of them.
Image: Jesus teaching woodcut, unknown artist