For the last several Sundays we’ve been making our way through the 22nd chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew in our Sunday readings. We conclude that chapter today and, once again, it makes more sense if we put it into the context of the entire chapter. Matthew 22 begins with the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the king deciding to go out into the streets and invite the riff-raff – good and bad people alike – to attend his son’s wedding reception since the original guests were too busy with their worldly pursuits to accept his invitation.
That story is about what Dean Alan Jones calls “God’s astonishingly bad taste!” I mean God doesn’t really seem to be very discriminating about those called to the Banquet. God loves everybody. Absolutely everybody! Astonishingly bad taste, really! This description of God in Jesus’ parable so angers the Pharisees (who were always so concerned about “who was in” and “who was out,” who was clean and who was unclean) that verse 15 says that they “plotted to entrap him in what he said.”
And that led to last Sunday’s wonderful Lesson about “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s!” Jesus turns the trick question about taxes right back on the Pharisees and gets himself out of a potential “Catch 22.” One of my friends recently said about this parable that Jesus had learned a very important lesson in life that I commend to you — just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it!
That brilliant tactic shuts the Pharisees up for a while. Verse 22 says, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Yes, I suppose they did – no doubt blushing with embarrassment at how he had outfoxed them! So, next in Matthew 22 the Pharisees’ archrivals the Sadducees take over. This was the group that really didn’t believe in the possibility of resurrection from the dead or in eternal life at all. So they try to trip Jesus up with a pretty far-fetched story of a hypothetical situation where a woman was married and then widowed seven times, and then she died. (No wonder, we might say – after seven husbands!)
But their silly question was, whose wife will she be in heaven since she’d been married seven times? Jesus’ answer here was dripping with sarcasm when he says, “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” In other words, he’s suggesting that one of the reasons the Sadducees didn’t really even believe in resurrection was because they had such a limited view of it!
If you try to picture heaven as just a celestial version of life here on earth, you’ll always be confused. Eternal life is about a whole new plane of existence, a complete transformation of our earthly existence. Arrangements like jobs and families and neighborhoods won’t have any meaning in heaven because everyone will be in communion, in “love and charity” with God and everyone else. It will be one community of love and acceptance for us all!
Well, that silences the Sadducee party for a while and the Pharisees take over again in today’s Gospel. This is sort of a “good cop, bad cop” sort of interrogation! “If you’re so smart,” they seem to say, “then tell us which commandment in the law is the greatest.” Now it’s important to note that they probably weren’t just talking about which of the “Ten” Commandments was most important. The rabbis and scholars by Jesus’ day had identified some 613 “mitsvot”, or commandments, scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible which people were supposed to obey. No wonder many people had given up even trying to practice their religion or even to please God!
But Jesus’ brilliant mind instantly culls through those 613 rules and lifts out two of them – one from the Ten Commandments about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and one from the book of Leviticus (19:18) about loving neighbor. Rabbi Hillel (a contemporary of Jesus) had responded in somewhat the same way when he was asked the question. He said, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it!”
By now, Jesus is getting a little irritated about being hassled like this and badgered with questions, not because anybody was particularly interested in the answers, but precisely in order to trip him up. So he decides to have a little fun with his inquisitors! He turns to an obscure Psalm (110) which begins like this, “The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” The traditional interpretation was that the first LORD refers to God and the second “Lord” refers to the Messiah. (In other words, the Lord God said to my Lord the Messiah, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.)
But if, as the tradition had it, David was the author of this Psalm, and the Messiah was to be a descendent of David, how could he call his descendent his “Lord?” In Jewish law, the offspring could not be regarded as greater than the ancestor, so David could not possibly be calling one of his descendents, “Lord!”
Now it is absolutely clear to me that Jesus is just playing with his adversaries here. He actually is a descendent of David, according to the genealogy in the first chapter of this very Gospel according to Matthew! And yet David was indeed calling him, the hoped-for Messiah, “Lord.” What Jesus is saying is, “Don’t try to trip me up by your facile quoting of Scripture out of context and with evil intention.” I can quote Scripture with the best of you – and it doesn’t mean a thing!
So…what does “mean a thing?” In fact, what does “mean everything?” According to Jesus, it is the “first and great commandment” and the “second which is like unto it.” Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Leave the rest of it to others. Leave the church fights and the theological disputations and the “proof texts” and the holier-than- thou attitudes to others. As for you – fall in love with God and love other people.
On those two Commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
The rest is commentary!