The Greatest Commandment – Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46

October 26, 2014

When our son was living with us while attending college, I would often come home to find him unwinding from a hard day of study, sprawled in front of the television. Almost always, I would find him shouting out responses to the game show, Jeopardy! He was pretty good at remembering the bits of trivia that were represented by various categories on the game board, and he was extremely good at remembering to always phrase his responses in the form of a question.

It’s easy to play Jeopardy! from the comfort of your own couch, where you can feel brilliant every time you get one right. The stakes aren’t very high if you miss one, and if you get too frustrated, you can always turn off the TV. Jeopardy!’s format puts questions in the form of answers, and answers must take the form of questions. It’s obviously a winning formula for a game show, because Alex Trebek just started his thrifty-first season as game host.

That whole question-and-answer thing was something Jesus was pretty good at, too. Over the past several weeks, we’ve been following the conversation between Jesus and various religious groups, and these conversations all seem to revolve around questions posed as answers, and answers that sound like questions. But today, we come to the end of the conversation. In today’s passage, Jesus gets the last word, and yes, it takes the form of a question.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by 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?”
No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. – Matthew 22;34-46

So let’s review:
In chapter 21, the Temple rulers challenge Jesus’ authority to teach in its courts and throw out the money-changers. Jesus meets that challenge by telling the parable of the two sons, insulting the religious leaders with the news that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the scribes and temple rulers.

Jesus then tells the parable of the wicked tenants, further accusing the chief priests and Pharisees of rejecting God’s anointed one. It makes them mad, but they are afraid of the people, so they don’t arrest Instead, they conspire to trap him.

Jesus responds to their anger with the parable of the wedding banquet in chapter 22, a particularly difficult story that ends with a wedding guest being thrown into outer darkness, simply for wearing the wrong tie to the party. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus tells his opponents. In other words, since you have rejected God’s chosen Messiah, others will be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God in your place, but even these must commit fully to faith in Christ to be included.

Then, last week, we heard the conversation between Jesus and a new batch of antagonists, that awkward alliance between the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. They try to trap Jesus into revealing himself as either a traitor to God or a traitor to Rome, certain that whichever way he answers their riddle about paying taxes, he will say something worth getting arrested. Of course, they run the risk of causing a riot by setting Jesus up this way, but Jesus slips through their trap by turning their political question into a spiritual one, and he confounds his accusers once again.

We skip over the story of the Sadducees trying to trap him with questions about the resurrection to get to today’s passage, but it’s worth noting that he silences the Sadducees and sends them away with the notion that “God is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

So far, Jesus has interacted with Temple rulers, Pharisees, disciples of Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. In every instance, Jesus astonishes his listeners with a wisdom they have not heard before. And the stakes get higher and higher.

Now, the Pharisees are back for one last attempt to trick Jesus into saying something that will justify arresting him. Naturally, it’s a lawyer who comes up with the ultimate question. This is actually a no-brainer. Everyone knows the Shema. It’s fastened to their foreheads and on their doorposts. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”[1] It’s a good answer, straight from scripture, and the Pharisees nod in agreement.

But Jesus adds something to it, another commandment from Leviticus. Okay, this is a little unexpected, but still well within everyone’s understanding of what God wants from us. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is certainly a good commandment to follow the first. The explanation Jesus gives for naming both of these commandments makes sense: the first five of the Ten Commandments are all about loving God, and the last five certainly show how to love our neighbors. While putting these two ideas next to one another may have been a new thing for some of those listening, it is well within the bounds of acceptable Jewish belief, and the scholars in the group would have heard other rabbis teach something similar. So far, Jesus has passed the test, and he has said nothing controversial or heretical.

Through all of these tests and challenges, Jesus keeps pointing back to the supremacy of God, and who can argue with that? But the real question isn’t about the Law or doctrine, or who is in and who is out. The real question, the one that is deeper than any the religious leaders have asked so far, is about the identity of the Christ. And so, Jesus puts that question to his opponents. It isn’t a trick question, as theirs have been. He isn’t being sly. He really wants to know what they think. But instead of asking “What do you expect the Messiah to do?” or “When do you think the Messiah will come?” Jesus asks, “Whose son is he?” The Pharisees answer automatically from the tradition of the prophets[2] It’s a sound, scripturally based answer, again the one everyone expects. The Messiah will be the Son of David.

The promise God made to David, and the prophetic writings about the identity of the one who will come to save Israel, all recognize that Messiah must come from David’s line. The Christ will have royal blood, but it will be good old-fashioned red-blooded human blood. The thought has never occurred to anyone that the one who comes to save Israel is anything other than a flesh-and-blood warrior who will conquer Israel’s oppressors.

The assumption that Messiah would be a “Son of David” included the understanding that this future “anointed one” would be a human king to rule over Israel when peace would finally come throughout the world. First century Jews, regardless of their political views, agreed that all kings of Israel were messiahs, because they were all “anointed.” But THE Messiah would be whichever king happened to be on the throne when world-wide peace was finally achieved. This Messiah would not be a miracle worker or a prophet. He would simply get to be the final king of Israel, descended directly from King David.

“How is it, then that David calls him “Lord?” Jesus wants to know. He quotes Psalm 110, which later became quite popular as a “messianic” psalm. But at this point in history, no one thinks of it that way. No one has considered that David might have been referring to his own descendant as “Lord.” Jesus forces them to see Psalm 110 in a new light. And that light reveals that even King David would bow down to this descendant, indicating that THE Messiah would be more than merely human. The Messiah would come from God.

In three short movements, Jesus has taken the most basic, common understanding of Jewish faith – loving God alone – and expanded it to include loving others, and then taken the most fundamental Jewish belief about Israel’s anticipated Savior and turned it on its head.

The Messiah comes from God, and is divine. The Messiah is both the Son of David and the Son of God. Putting these two ideas together was a good deal more radical than putting together the verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to summarize the Ten Commandments. Loving God and neighbor are indeed the first and second most important commandments, but establishing Jesus’ identity as Messiah is the ultimate point of the entire conversation we’ve been exploring for the past several weeks. Anyone who believes that Jesus is, in fact, The Messiah, must believe that he is both human and divine. No wonder the Pharisees are left speechless. To consider that the savior they have hoped for might actually come from God is more than they can handle. From this point forward, they aren’t asking any more questions.

“Jesus is Lord” is perhaps the earliest confession of the Christian church. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And in 1 Corinthians 12:3, we read, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

Saying aloud that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous and radical thing to do in first century Palestine. Naming Jesus as Lord identified that very human carpenter’s kid as God. It could get you in trouble with the synagogue for blasphemy, or crucified by the Romans for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord. One didn’t say it lightly. If you admitted out loud that “Jesus is Lord” you had to be willing to take the consequences, and that could mean punishment by death. If you were going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” you had to really mean it.

But claiming Jesus as Lord is the only hope we have. We aren’t very good at keeping that commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Too often, our hearts are distracted by our own desires. Our souls become shallow and closed off to anything that might cause us discomfort, or force us to change. And our strength is often spent in ways that do not honor God. We want to love God, but we don’t know how. We have forgotten that “the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment.”[3] And we aren’t very good at commitment.

Which makes it hard for us to do very well when it comes to loving our neighbor. Especially when our neighbor is someone we don’t like, or someone who is very different from us. We forget that the kind of love God has in mind isn’t a fond emotion, but the hard work of caring more about another’s needs than our own.

No matter how hard we try, or how much we want to, we can’t seem to keep God’s greatest commandment, or the second that is like it. And if we cannot keep God’s law, our only hope is depending on God’s grace. Our only salvation is to call Jesus Lord, to recognize him as the one who became flesh for our sakes, who died that we might live, who rose again that we might have eternal life.

But if we are going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” we have to really mean it. We can’t just give it lip service; it has to show up in the way we live. Our very lives depend on it.

So Jesus looks at us, as he once looked at Peter, and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The Pharisees and Sadducees are done asking Jesus questions and putting him to the test. Over the next few weeks, as we near the end of this church year, Jesus will be putting us to the test. Here are a few of the questions he will be asking from the 25th chapter of Matthew:

Will we keep our light burning (ten bridesmaids, Mt 25:1-13)? Will we invest our talents (25:14-30)? Will we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned (25:31-46)? In short, will we love our neighbor in loving God and will we love God in loving our neighbor? Will we mean it when we say, “Jesus is Lord?”

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[2] Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5

[3] Douglas Hare, quoted by Alyce McKenzie

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