MATTHEW 21-22. THE CONTEXT
These chapters include one controversy after another. When Jesus cleansed the temple (21:12-17), the chief priests and elders responded by asking, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” (21:23). Jesus did not answer this question directly, but responded with three parables that exposed the religious leadership’s failure. The Pharisees then tried to entrap Jesus by asking if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (22:15-22). The Sadducees tried to entrap Jesus with a trick question about the resurrection (22:23-33). Now the Pharisees, hearing that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, decide to have one more go at him.
This story is also found in Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-28.
MATTHEW 22:34-36. WHICH IS THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT?
34But the Pharisees, when they heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, gathered themselves together (Greek: sunechthesan epi to auto). 35One of them, a lawyer (Greek: nomikos), asked him a question, testing (Greek: peirazon) him. 36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
“But the Pharisees, when they heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, gathered themselves together” (sunechthesan epi to auto) (v. 34). This is the exact wording of the Septuagint (Greek) version of Psalm 2:2—”and the rulers take counsel together (sunechthesan epi to auto), against Yahweh, and against his Anointed”—which gives the Pharisees’ gathering together a sinister tone. We can almost imagine them in a huddle; mapping out their next move against Jesus, the Lord’s anointed.
“One of them, a lawyer (nomikos), asked him a question, testing (peirazon) him” (v. 35). In Mark’s account, the question about the greatest commandment is asked by a scribe with a favorable opinion of Jesus, and Jesus declares him to be not far from the kingdom (Mark 12:28-34). Matthew, however, is writing after the fall of Jerusalem, which essentially eliminated the influence of the Sadducees and Zealots, leaving the Pharisees firmly in charge. The Pharisees are actively persecuting Christians, and Matthew has little good to say about them.
Instead of Mark’s friendly scribe (Greek: grammateon), Matthew has an unfriendly lawyer (Greek: nomikos) ask the question. Grammateon and nomikos are roughly equivalent words—both refer to teachers of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most scribes/lawyers are Pharisees and are committed to the “tradition of the elders”—human interpretations of God’s law. They are accorded great respect, and are often addressed as Rabbi (Myers, 917). Their commitment to the tradition of the elders brings them into conflict with Jesus (15:2), who says that they ignore God’s laws in favor of their traditions (15:6).
Matthew says that this lawyer’s intent is to test (peirazo) Jesus (v. 35). We saw this word peirazo in the temptation story (4:1-11), where it is translated tempt (4:1), tempter (4:3), and test (4:7). In this Gospel, only the devil and the Pharisees peirazo Jesus. The difference between an honest test and a temptation is that the tester hopes for the person being tested to succeed, but the tempter hopes for the person being tempted to fail. Here the lawyer clearly hopes for Jesus to fail.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (v. 36). The lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher,” which sounds like a term of respect, but is intended to disarm Jesus and onlookers with a respectful tone so that the lawyer can embarrass Jesus with questions that have treachery built into them.
“Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” is not an unusual question. Rabbis routinely ask such questions of each other and their disciples in an honest attempt to plumb the depths of the law. The problem is not the question but the spirit in which it is asked.
The Old Testament has 613 commandments, and there is no clear standard for judging which is greatest. Regardless of Jesus’ answer, the lawyer can respond with further questions designed to put Jesus on the defensive or to cause him to make a mistake.
In one sense, because God gave the commandments, all are of equal importance. However, rabbis speak of some commandments as “heavy” and others as “light,” and there is an ongoing debate regarding the relative importance of various commandments and how to summarize them for ordinary people.
There were other summaries of the law (see Psalm 15:2-5; Isaiah 33:15; Micah 6:8; Amos 5:4; Habakkuk 2:4) (Johnson, 523).
MATTHEW 22:37-40. THE FIRST—AND THE SECOND COMMANDMENTS
37Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and great commandment. 39A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 37). This is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (see also Deuteronomy 11:13). Jews call it the Shema. The Shema builds on the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), but adds the love requirement. In addition to requiring that we love God, the law further commands:
“These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart;
and you shall teach them diligently to your children,
and shall talk of them when you sit in your house,
and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down,
and when you rise up.
You shall bind them for a sign on your hand,
and they shall be for symbols between your eyes.
You shall write them on the door posts of your house,
and on your gates”
To fulfill these requirements, Jewish children memorize these verses, and Jewish people wear them in phylacteries on their foreheads, post them in mezuzahs on their doorposts, and repeat them every day of their lives as part of their daily worship. The words of the Shema, recited in daily worship, are truly graven on Jewish hearts. No faithful Jew can argue with the primacy of this commandment.
Note that the God whom we are to love is “your God”—adding a personal dimension to our religious duty. It is not some abstract higher power that we worship, but our God—a God to whom we belong and who belongs to us—a God who acted in the past to save us, and who continues to save us in the present—a God who created us in all our splendid complexity and who knows every hair of our heads (10:30).
The Shema says to love God with heart, soul, and might, but Jesus says heart, soul and mind. The slight change from might to mind is a happy one for those of us whose abilities are more mental than physical. It is, indeed, as possible to love God with the mind as it is to love God with the heart—but Jesus calls us to do both—and with the soul as well. Both the Shema and Jesus simply ask us to love God without qualification—with all that we have and all that we are—with that which constitutes the core of our being. Our relationship with God is not a place for half-heartedness. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
Jesus has answered the lawyer’s question, and has not given the lawyer much of an opening for an attack. Jesus could stop now, because he is standing on safe ground, but he continues, “A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 39—see also Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14). This comes from Leviticus 19:18, a verse which is quoted three times in this Gospel (see also 5:43 and 19:19). When Jesus says that the second commandment is like the first, he means that they are related and have similar weight. Love of God naturally leads to love of neighbor, and love of neighbor is part of loving God. 1 John 4:20 makes the linkage explicit: “If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
Leviticus 19:9-18 spells out what is involved in loving one’s neighbor. The person who loves his or her neighbor:
• Will not reap the fields bare, but will leave some for the poor (vv. 9-10).
• Will not steal (v. 11).
• Will not deal falsely (v. 11).
• Will not lie (v. 11).
• Will not swear falsely by God’s name (v. 12).
• Will not defraud a neighbor (v. 13).
• Will not keep a laborer’s wages overnight (v. 13).
• Will not “revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (v. 14).
• Will not render an unjust judgment (v. 15).
• Will not be partial to the poor or defer to the great (v. 15).
• Will judge the neighbor with justice (v. 15).
• Will not engage in slander (v. 16).
• Will not profit by the blood of the neighbor (v. 16).
• Will not hate your neighbor (v. 17).
• Will not take vengeance or bear a grudge (v. 18).
Interestingly enough, it also says “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor” (v. 17), suggesting that love is tough where toughness is needed—confrontational so that wrongs might be righted and obstacles to relationships removed.
These verses make it clear that the love of which Leviticus and Jesus speak is different from the warm emotion that we think of as love. Biblical love is, instead, a way of acting in relationship to our neighbor—more action than feelings.
By calling us to love our neighbor, Jesus particularizes love. He does not call us to love the whole world, which we might prefer. It is easier to love the abstract rather than the particular By calling us to love our neighbor, Jesus particularizes love. He does not call us to love the whole world, which we might prefer. It is easier to love the abstract rather than the particular—to love Asians or Africans whom we have never met instead of the neighbor who mows his lawn while we are trying to sleep. It is easier to drop a dollar in the offering for flood relief in a distant land than to tend to a sick neighbor’s needs. Jesus offers no quarter at this point—the love to which he calls us has a face—the face is that of our neighbor—and the face is not necessarily pretty.
“You shall love (Greek: agapao) your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). Loving neighbor as self is like the Golden Rule: “Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (7:12). Jesus’ commandment to love neighbor as self assumes that we look out for our own interests and calls us to look out also for our neighbor’s interests.
Some have speculated that there is a third commandment here—to love ourselves. That resonates nicely with today’s pop psychology, but less comfortably with Jesus’ call in this Gospel for cross bearing and self-denial (10:38-39; 16:24-26).
Much depends on our definition of love. The word used in this verse is the Greek agapao (the verb form of the more familiar noun agape). Agapao can be used in various ways. As it is used here, it has to do with benevolent feelings—concern for the other person’s welfare. Agapao love is never satisfied to retreat into the hidden chambers of our hearts. The person who loves with agapao love will want to do something positive for the beloved—to find a way to help.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (v. 40). Torah law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is the most precious part of Hebrew scripture, and the prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) are next most important. They are precious, in part, because they spell out clearly the gift and demand of God’s love. When Jesus says that the law and prophets hang on these two commandments (to love God and neighbor), he is saying that these commandments summarize the greatest wisdom to be found in scripture. He is also saying that these commandments are a sure guide to God’s will—that, if we act in a loving way toward God by doing what God wants us to do—and if we act in a loving way toward our neighbor by doing that which benefits our neighbor—we can be sure that we will be in full compliance with God’s law—in no danger of violating any jot or tittle.
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (v. 40). A good image here is a door hanging from a pair of hinges. Door hinges restrict the motion of the door to the arc in which it is intended to swing. As long as both hinges remain secure and the frame remains square, the door will function reliably, moving where its creator intended and closing securely. However, if either hinge comes loose, the door becomes an obstruction and will soon tear loose from its frame altogether. The loss of either hinge, therefore, is tantamount to the loss of both hinges—and therefore of the door itself. So also, obedience to the two commandments—to love God and to love neighbor—work together to restrict our activity to the straight and narrow path that God has created us to walk. As long as we observe both commandments, we can be confident that we are on that Godly path. However, if we choose to ignore either love, we will soon find ourselves in a spiritual ditch.
Note that twice in this Gospel, Jesus provides a rule that summarizes the requirements of the Old Testament. In both, he emphasizes loving action toward the other person:
• He says that the Golden Rule “is the law and the prophets” (7:12).
• And he says, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments”(loving God and neighbor) (22:40).
Love of God and love of neighbor are quite different. Love of God is manifested by acts of obedience and worship that grow out of reverence for God. Love of neighbor is manifested by acts of kindness that grow out of concern for the neighbor’s need (Hagner).
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said, “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill” (5:17). Jesus fulfills the law, not by emphasizing jots and tittles, but by moving our understanding of the law into a new dimension beyond rote observance—to a place where we must bring our whole hearts and souls and minds—our whole selves—to the task of loving.
MATTHEW 22:41-46. JESUS ASKED THEM A QUESTION
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “Of David.”
43He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying,
44‘The Lord said to my Lord,
sit on my right hand,
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?’
45“If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
46No one was able to answer him a word, neither did any man dare ask him any more questions from that day forth.
The lawyer, acting as a representative of a group of Pharisees, asked Jesus a question to test him (v. 35). Now Jesus takes the offensive and asks the Pharisees a pair of related questions—“What do you think of the Christ?” and “Whose son is he?” (v. 42). The Pharisees answer, “Of David.”
Son of David is a common title for the Messiah, and Matthew uses it several times in this Gospel (1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9, 15—see also Isaiah 11:1 and Jeremiah 23:5). David, of course, was Israel’s greatest king—the one under whose reign Israel became a great nation. The Jews looked forward to the day that the Son of David would come again to liberate Israel from Roman domination and re-establish it as a great nation.
But Jesus has not come to meet traditional expectations—to fill David’s shoes as an earthly king and a warrior. Yes, he is the son of David, but, more to the point, he is the Son of God—a fact that God announced both at Jesus’ baptism (3:17) and transfiguration (17:5).
“How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord?” (v. 43). The phrase, “David in the Spirit,” is beautiful. It means first that Jesus ascribes Davidic authorship to Psalm 110, an ascription to which his listeners, including the Pharisees, would agree (although some scholars today would disagree). It further means that this psalm is not simply the product of David’s literary ability, but was inspirited by the Spirit of God, a fact with which Jesus’ listeners would also agree. The fact that David wrote this psalm under the influence of divine inspiration gives the psalm very high authority. Jesus’ critics dare not take exception to a psalm written by David and God.
“The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?” (v. 44). The quotation is from Psalm 110:1. The New Testament quotes this Psalm on several occasions (Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
The Greek version (the Septuagint or LXX) of the Psalm says simply, “the kyrios (Lord) said to my kyrios (Lord),” which leaves the identity of the two Lords uncertain.
However, the earlier and more authoritative Hebrew version reads: “Yahweh says to my Lord”—making it clear that Yahweh is the first Lord mentioned. When Jesus quoted this Psalm to his questioner, he would have used the Hebrew version—or an Aramaic version, closely related to the Hebrew. He would not have used the Greek version.
“If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (v. 45). The first of the two Lords in Psalm 110:1 is Yahweh. Then who is the second Lord in this verse? It cannot be a second god, because the Old Testament makes it clear that God is one and that there are no other gods. It cannot be David’s son, because no Israelite would refer to his son as Lord. The only possibility, then, is that the second Lord of Psalm 110:1 is the Messiah of God—who is not David’s son but David’s Lord. Therefore, the Pharisees—these highly trained religious experts who tried to embarrass Jesus—are wrong when they answer that the Messiah is David’s son.
To us, this seems highly technical and unimportant, but the identity of the Messiah and the Messiah’s relationship to David are very important to these Pharisees. They spend endless hours studying and debating points like this. They are scholars, and this is their field. They, the experts, asked a question of Jesus, a layperson, hoping to embarrass him (v. 36). Now Jesus returns the favor—asks them a question to which they should know the answer—and embarrasses them by demonstrating that their answer is incorrect (vv. 43-45). The unschooled amateur thus bests the trained professionals, who can do nothing but go home with their tails between their legs. That is the point of verses 41-46.
“No one was able to answer him a word, neither did any man dare ask him any more questions from that day forth” (v. 46). From now on, Jesus will speak with the crowds and his disciples (23:1). He will address the scribes and Pharisees only to denounce them publicly as hypocrites (see chapter 23).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1957)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33b (Dallas: Word, 1995)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (NY: American Book Company, 1889)
Copyright 2009, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan