29 October 2017

Matthew 22:34-46

“One of them [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked him a question to test hm. ‘Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?’” (vv. 35-36)

Psalm: Psalm 1


New Testament society tended to be combative. When people disagreed they did so energetically and often publicly, and to defeat an opponent in public debate was a significant achievement.

Here, we meet Jesus throwing himself into verbal combat. Earlier in the chapter (Matthew 22:15-22), the Pharisees had "plotted to entrap him" (v. 15) with the well-known question about paying taxes, where both 'yes' and 'no' would have landed Jesus in trouble with different groups. Then the Sadducees had their turn with a complex question about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33), and once again Jesus turns their attack back on them. Finally, the Pharisees try again, with a question designed to "test" (v. 35) Jesus (the word is the same one used in the Lord's Prayer: 'do not put us to the test').

The Jewish historian Josephus describes Pharisees and Sadducees as two of the main first-century Jewish sects. The Pharisees sought to adapt the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) to make it more accessible to urban dwellers of their day. The Sadducees were conservative traditionalists, who refused to accept beliefs (such as the resurrection) which were not found in the Hebrew Bible. Their disagreements, with each other (see Acts 23:6-10) and with anyone whose views differed from theirs, could be passionate.

The Pharisees' question recorded here fits into a wider contemporary Jewish debate about whether it is possible to summarise the five books of the Law. Talmud, a massive collection of Jewish learning, tells the story of a Gentile who approached Rabbi Hillel asking how he could learn Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it."

Jesus' answer draws on the Old Testament. First, he cites Deuteronomy 6:5, the familiar words of the Shema, which Jews still pray every morning and evening. Then, he adds Leviticus 19:18, which carried a particular sting for these Pharisees, for the words Jesus quotes follow the teaching "you shall not bear a grudge against any of your people".

Finally, Jesus takes the opportunity to challenge the Pharisees' thinking about Messiah, citing Psalm 110 (in verse 44). His unchallenged victory secures his position as teacher and debater, the one who can really make his hearers think about their priorities.

To Ponder

  • What would you most like to ask Jesus?
  • How does Jesus' reply to the Pharisees (verses 37-40) challenge you to change your lifestyle?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Manchester Circuit. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.