A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost: October 29, 2017: Matthew 22:34-46

Matthew 22:34-46
22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,

22:35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

22:36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

22:37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

22:38 This is the greatest and first commandment.

22:39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:

22:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”

22:43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

22:44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?

22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

22:46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

A Question or Two:

  • What makes the world work?
  • Is your answer the same as the one Jesus gave?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is time to stop punishing the Pharisees for testing Jesus.  If he is to be the messiah, he should be tested.  When I go to see my physician, I want her to have been tested.  I want the same thing when I call an electrician.

Why would you want less for the messiah?

And this test question is the friendliest possible question.  If anything, it is too simple.  But is radically simple.  If Torah is the logic that holds the universe together, the lawyer (read that: Torah expert) is asking about the internal logic of the Torah.  He is asking Jesus to identify the most basic principle at the heart of everything.  This is an important question.

Jesus gives an important answer, and a very good one: “Love the God whose Name is Mercy, love the God who made heaven and earth, love God with your ethical decisions, Love God with your life, love God in all your efforts to make sense of a crazy world.”

He does not stop there, and that matters.  Religious fanatics often assert that they love God.  In fact, they are often sure that they love God more than you do, more than anyone else CAN.  People who love God like that are sometimes ready to burn the world down for the love of God.  Jesus does not stop with loving God.  “Love your neighbor,” says Jesus, which will make it impossible to burn the world down.

Matthew’s storyteller does not tell us how the Pharisees reacted, but history does.  Jesus’ answer is the same one given by rabbis of his own era.  Matthew’s audience will have known this, and we ought to interpret the storyteller’s silence as acknowledging this.  The Torah expert asks a good question.  Jesus gives a good answer.  Everyone in this scene agrees.

Now Jesus asks a question.  This, also, is a simple question.  The Pharisees give a good answer.  “The Messiah is the son of David,” they say, making it clear that they, like Jesus, expect the Messiah to correct the wrongs done in the world back to the time of the Babylonian conquest.  Every promise of God hangs on the mission of the Messiah.  Both the Pharisees and Jesus expect a great deal from God and Divine Promises.

Now Jesus asks another question.  This one is a complicated question: “How can Messiah be both son and lord of David?”  The interpretive principles and practices that make Jesus’ reading of Scripture acceptable are worth reflection.  For the best discussion, see Donald Juel’s Messianic Exegesis.  What catches my eye right now is how large a claim the storyteller has Jesus making.  For Jesus’ argument to work, it is not enough for “lord” to begin with a capital letter (“Lord”).  Jesus’s claim depends on “lord” being spelled with ALL capital letters (LORD).  Messiah, Jesus is claiming that Messiah deserves the “Name that is above all names,” to bring Paul and the Christ hymn into the game (Philippians 2:6-11).  That means that Jesus has just identified Messiah with the Mercy Attribute, the name of God that is used whenever God acts to save, choose, forgive, and bless.

The storyteller informs us that this was the end of people questioning Jesus.  It is not surprising that, in a gospel story, Jesus wins the questioning contest.

But it is worth noting that the Pharisees, just because they cannot answer, do not disagree about the nature and work of the Messiah.  The question that remains for the Pharisees is whether Jesus enacts the saving, choosing, forgiving, and blessing work that has always been central to God’s mission in the Creation.  They will watch Jesus to see.

And our neighbors will watch us to see the same thing: does our mission to be the “body of Messiah” extend God’s kindness?  Or do we devote our energy to burning the world down?

It is a serious question.

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