The greatest commandment and David’s lord in Matthew 22

The lectionary reading for the so-called ‘Last Sunday after Trinity’ as we near the end of Year A is Matthew 22.34–46. Having had three symbolic actions from Jesus (entering the city, overturning the tables, withering the fig tree) and three parables (the two sons, the wicked tenants, the wedding banquet), we have now reached the third of three hostile questions to Jesus. The first came last week, asking about paying the poll tax; the second, about resurrection, is skipped over in the lectionary, but I explore it in thinking about whether we are sexed in heaven; and the third is a short version of the question about the greatest commandment.

The Sadducees and Pharisees were rival groups within Judaism, taking different positions on the scope of Scripture, the interpretation of the law, and belief in the resurrection. (The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, so they were sad, you see…?). As Matthew has delineated in more detail the groups that opposed Jesus in Jerusalem, since Jesus has refuted the challenge of the Sadducees, it is now the turn of the Pharisees. The term ‘lawyer’ only occurs here in Matthew, and agrees with the description of the questioner in Luke 10.25f, though the tone and occasion is different there, and the question of how to sum up the law was not an unusual one. In Mark’s closer parallel, the questioner is a ‘scribe’, a member of the professional class who worked with legal documents but also paid close attention to Scripture; during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Mark sees the scribes as his main opponents, where Matthew identifies them as Pharisees, and the two groups will have overlapped.

Luke’s inquisitor seems more neutral, even if he seeks to ‘justify’ himself (Luke 10.29). In Mark’s parallel with Matthew, there is a more positive exchange, in which Jesus tells the scribe he is ‘not far’ from the kingdom of God, characterising the kingdom as an almost physical space (Mark 12.34). But Matthew interprets the question as hostile; the motive is to ‘test’ or ‘tempt’ Jesus (peirazo), the term Matthew has previously used of the Pharisees (Matt 16.1, 19.3) as well as the devil (Matt 4.1) and Jesus has used of them in the previous episode (Matt 22.18).

Summarising Scripture is an age-old activity. Andrew Wilson, of NewFrontiers, offers a 12-verse summary of the whole of the Bible here, and I have recently been making use of a very good, short summary of The New Testament in Seven Sentences by Gary Burge. (In fact, Burge actually summarises the NT in seven words, each with a verse attached, which connect the message of the NT with the OT and the whole narrative of scripture: fulfilment; kingdom; cross; grace; covenant; Spirit; completion.) This kind of ‘big picture’ summarising is actually an important part of our ‘biblical literacy’, helping us to read well. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart identified two key skills in reading Scripture in How to Read the Bible for All its Worthto have an overview of the big picture, and to be able to focus on the particulars of any passage, and then in reading well to move between the one and the other.

So it is not surprising that we find, within Scripture itself, summaries of Scripture! In rabbinic discussion (Mak 24a) it was thought that there were summaries in Ps 15 (in 11 points), Is 33.15–16 (in six points), Micah 6.8 (in three), Is 56.1 (in two) and in Amos 5.4b and Hab 2.4b in one. The summary in Micah is well known in Christian reflection:

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8)

and Paul makes key use of the one in Habakkuk 2.4 ‘the righteous shall live by faith[fulness]’ in Rom 1.17 and Gal 3.11.

Rabbi Hillel (living just prior to the time of Jesus) was famously challenged by someone to recite the whole law whilst standing on one leg. He replied:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

This is close to its inverse that Jesus has already offered as a summary early in the gospel, in Matt 7.12:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

It is notable that Jesus offers the positive version, and interesting that, in offering this summary, he appears to side with Hillel (whose rival Shammai refused to answer the man), where in other issues (especially on marriage and divorce) his teaching is closer to the conservative Shammai than the liberal Hillel.

There are several things worth noting about Jesus’ summary.

First, although it is quite different from the other summaries noted above, there is no particular reason to think that it was necessarily unique or original to Jesus. Several other rabbinical summaries have the two-fold focus on God and neighbour, and in fact this matches the ‘two tablets’ of the Ten Commandments, in which the first half is clearly oriented to God, and the second half oriented to social relationships. The Jewish philosopher Philo even appears (in his exposition of special laws Spec Leg 2.63) to suggest that the two tablets of the Commandments had these two concerns as headings on them, so that those who kept the first five commandments were philotheoi (lovers of God) and those who kept the second five were philanthropoi (lovers of people). 

Secondly, unlike either the Golden Rule (in its positive or negative forms) or the summaries in the prophets, Jesus is here summarising the law from within the law. This actually diffuses the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees, the latter of whom considered Torah alone to be scripture. But it also means that there is no suggestion here that the law is in any way displaced by the teaching of Jesus. Of course, the Golden Rule is very close to the command to love, since though the term is mentioned, this is clearly the motivation for ‘doing unto others…’

As Philip Jenson has pointed out (How to Interpret Old Testament Law) the law material within the Pentateuch varies in its degree of detail and generalisation, so that some regulations are very context specific, whilst others are much more high level and general. A key issue in its interpretation, then, is to note these differences and the relations between the different kinds of laws that we find—which is much more profitable than the traditional but rather arbitrary approach of trying to discern between the sacrificial, ceremonial and moral laws (as set out in Article VII of the Articles of Religion) since these three issues are not neatly compartmentalised in the Pentateuch itself.

Jesus picks out two such summary statements, the first from Deut 6.4 and the second from Lev 19.18. The first of these forms the central confession of Judaism, generally thought in this period to be recited morning and evening by all observant Jews (though there is some debate about when this practice became regular). Jesus is not telling his listeners anything that they do not know, and so here his teaching is in continuity, rather than discontinuity, with accepted practice and priorities. He is calling his fellow Jews back to their biblical roots, not away in some discontinuous new direction.

Thirdly, Jesus is thus offering, from within the law, a hermeneutical principle for reading the law.

They summarise not only the law (which was the question asked) but also the prophets, since the whole scriptural revelation is understood to witness to the same divine will… This does not mean, as some modern ethicists have argued, that ‘all you need is love’, so that one can dispense with the ethical rules set out in the Torah. It is rather to say that those rules find their true role in working out the practical implications of the love for God and neighbour on which they are based (R T France, NICNT, p 847).

It is surely no accident that Jesus places ‘love of God’ first and ‘love of neighbour’ second; whilst we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see if we do not love our neighbour whom we can see (1 John 4.20), because of human sin and selfishness, which distorts both our perception and our action, we cannot truly love our neighbour unless we love God and attend to the pattern of life to which he calls us.

Matthew’s version of Deut 6.4 follows the Greek translation for the first two aspects, as does Mark (‘heart’ and ‘soul’) though his grammar varies slightly, using the Greek en (‘in’) rather than Mark’s ex (‘from’) which is a more literal translation of the Hebrew preposition b–. It is important to note, though, that in Deuteronomy and for Jesus, these terms have a rather different sense from our usual English language assumptions; there is a very good exploration of the meanings of these terms in the Bible Project videos on the Shema, on love, heart, and soul. Mark’s account of Jesus’ summary expands the final term in Deut 6.4, me’od, into two terms ‘mind’ and ‘strength’, and it appears as though Matthew has truncated the last in order to match the original three terms. But me’od is a difficult term to interpret, most usually being used as an adverb to mean ‘very’, and thus having the sense of loving God with all the abundance of things that you are and have. Within the rabbinical tradition, it is sometimes translated as strength, mind or even money—thus pointing to all the resources and power that we have. Again the Bible Project video on this term is excellent.

The final part of our reading sees this series of conflicts brought to a close for the time being. Having seen off the questions of his opponents, Jesus now asks the a question—as he did at the beginning, in Matt 21.24 about the ministry of John the Baptist, so that these two questions form a frame for the whole episode. Where Mark recounts this as a monologue, Matthew depicts it as an exchange, with questions and answers, in closer keeping with conventional rabbinical teaching practice of the time.

‘Son of David’ is a key term within Matthew’s gospel, being a key term in the opening genealogy (Matt 1.1), the designation of Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph in line with this (Matt 1.20), the form of address of Jesus by others (in Matt 9.27, 12.23, 15.22 and 20.30), and being Matthew’s distinctive summary of the greeting by pilgrims of Jesus as he enters Jerusalem in Matt 21.9. But, with its potentially political overtones and therefore possibility of misunderstanding, this is the last time in the gospel that Jesus uses the term.

Ps 110 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. Critical scholarship is sceptical about its original intention as a messianic psalm, reading it rather as a courtier speaking in exaggerated terms about the current king. But if it is in fact written by David (rather than merely being in Davidic style), then David can hardly be referring to himself.

Jesus alludes to Ps 110.1 again in his trial at Matt 26.64, there linking it with the Son of Man coming to the ancient of days in Dan 7.13 and being seated at his right hand, thus combining two quite different images (son of David, son of man) and reading both in messianic terms. Both are therefore used to point to Jesus’ ascension to the Father.

What lies ahead of him now is not a triumphant reign over God’s people but rejection by them, not a royal throne but a humiliating execution. It is only after that mission is accomplished that he can look forward to sitting at the right hand of his Father in a heavenly, not an earthly, kingship… (R T France, NICNT, p 849).

(The picture at top is an extract from ‘The Pharisees question Jesus’ by James Tissot, part of his series on the life of Jesus.)

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22 thoughts on “The greatest commandment and David’s lord in Matthew 22”

  1. A pedant writes:

    The Hebrew preposition b- I don’t ever think means ‘from’. BDB lists four main uses:
    I – ‘in’ denoting position
    II – denoting proximity, sometimes with verbs denoting hostility
    III – denoting accompaniment, possibly instrumental
    IV – denoting with some verbs the direct object

    The preposition which means ‘from’ is min, very often reduced to the prefix m-.

  2. I think Jesus hermeneutic is a very strong argument to allow same sex relationships, because it leaves no room for there to be arbitrary laws within the true interpretation of scripture – everything law must be to love God or love your neighbor.

    Therefore it’s not possible to say that same sex relationships are banned because God arbitrarily hates them. The only options are that they are tangibly worse for people than remaining single or that they are not and were never universally prohibited

    • Well, that is an odd conclusion, and does precisely what Jesus’ teaches pushes against: using summaries to dismiss particulars.

      A careful reading says just the opposite: the boundaries around sex and marriage are in fact an expression of God’s love. Given that God has made us bodily male and female, and that sex is that reunion of the male and female separated in the creation, and points forward to the reunion of God with his people, we are failing to love people if we do not teach these boundaries—as Jesus does often in his own teaching.

      Disregarding God’s best for us and others is (in the understanding of Augustine) a failure of love.

      • Ian

        Doesn’t such a view suggest that God sets arbitrary rules? That gay people must have extra unnecessary suffering in this life just because?

        • Seriously? How did you even manage to drag this thread onto man on man fornication, yet again? (It’s every thread more or less)
          Don’t you think about anything else?
          God made is extremely clear that same sex fornication is wrong and that he will punish those who engage in it, eternally. No amount of whining about that will get him to change his mind.
          The world, the flesh and the devil now think sodomy is great and this has emboldened you to demand that the body of Christ changes to embrace, accept, promote and bless sodomy too.
          You’ve done well so far infiltrating church leadership positions over the recent decades and giving your pals positions of power of the holy sheep, as much as you have.
          But now Satan wants to perform blessings of what God says he hates in the churches. An ‘up yours’ to God who created man and woman in his own image to be joined as one flesh for life.
          Please stop pretending that you want to die to flesh and walk in the spirit following Christ along the narrow path.
          I’m not buying it.
          You’re obsessed with this.
          You are on this earth for such a very short time.
          Be born again. be filled with The Holy Spirit.
          Submit to God and sow to your spirit and not your flesh.
          If you don’t want to do this then get a different hobby because this is what real Christianity requires.
          Not obsessing and demanding about sexual or romantic relationship, either straight or gay.
          We all want things in life. Follow Christ for real and you need to be willing to give these wants up.
          Stop with the fleshy demands to destroy Christ’s holy body.
          Judgement day is fast approaching.
          Be a holy virgin and not a whore.

          • Jeanine

            I am talking about it because it was mentioned in the article.

            I am not in church leadership. Actually I was encouraged to stop attending my church because I was attracted to the same sex.

            I disagree that God has made it clear that gay people must remain single and I have explained one of the reasons why I read the matter differently to you in my post.

            It would be nice (for once!) to be able to have a substantive discussion on these issues without receiving abuse!

        • Yes, happily. Scripture tells us that God created humanity to be a psychosomatic, body-soul unity. His intention is that our exterior life and our interior life should be integrated. The creation narratives depict humanity as having bodily difference and sexual attraction as aligned: both man and woman are draw together by attraction to the other—other in bodily form and other in patterns of attraction. Same-sex attraction has at its heart a basic contradiction: the self is defined by the interior life (the pattern of sexual attraction) but the other is defined by bodily form (the male body). Gay men are not attracted to other gay people but to other men, whether or not they are also gay. Desire is at odds with bodily form. This paradox I think lies at the heart of issues around mental health, higher amongst the gay community even in countries where there is no stigma.

          There is then the loss of a fundamental ‘otherness’ in relationship (see the testimony of eg Rosaria Butterfield on this). This leads to a loss of moderation of the different characteristics of men and women, not least in the interest in sex. This explains why male gay relationships, taken as a whole, continue to be highly sexualised, and the dominance of gay men in the media contributes to the sexualisation of our cultural narratives. (Check out the stats on the astronomical spread of STDs amongst men who have sex with men, eg in the States.) It also means that the relationship lacks the kind of fundamental negotiation between differences that all male-female marriages have to negotiate, which is a central part of the union.

          Less so amongst men, but very much so amongst (younger) women, patterns of same-sex attraction are highly unstable. This undermines the basic Christian understanding of marriage as a permanent and lasting union.

          The acceptance of gay sexual relationships is also rooted in a detachment of sex from procreation. Thus every culture which accepts SSM only does so when it has made this move—and this in turn creates a catastrophic fall in fertility. See Louise Perry on this here:

          And the loss of ‘otherness’ in sexual relationships leads to the loss of marriage as a sign pointing to the Great Marriage of God with his people, a union of otherness.

          I hope these summary points help you to understand the issues as I see them.

          • Ian

            Sorry, but you haven’t answered my question at all – I don’t think I phrased it very well.

            You have listed some reasons why you think straight relationships are superior to gay relationships, but I was really asking why Gods best for gay people is to remain single.

            I don’t agree there are any countries where being gay doesn’t carry stigma and discrimination. For most people relationships improve mental health, not decrease it. STDs are equally high amongst African American men as they are amongst gay American men so should Christians also avoid relationships with African Americans. If you are in a monogamous relationship and neither of you have an STD then you cannot get the STD.

            Surely if there are people for whom their orientation is unstable then its as problematic to marry someone of the opposite sex as to marry someone of the same sex? I think you do have to take your marriage vows seriously even if that means a loss of attraction. I got married when I was 39 and my husband was 47 and so far neither of us has experienced suddenly becoming straight

          • I don’t see a dominance of gay men in the media, even if relatively speaking there appear to be more than in other trades. The vast majority of tv presenters, actors or other ‘celebrities ‘ appear to be straight but many of those now accept gay relationships.

    • I think you’re right that there is no place for “arbitrary laws” within Christianity and evangelicals have been guilty of a live-and-let-live attitude that suggests that opposition to same-sex acts is an unfortunate duty and obedience* rather than treating the instruction as a wonderful insight from our loving Father and telling a Beautiful Story.

      * With Bishops turning a blind eye to same-sex relations of their clergy even when the relationship goes beyond what even the gay right activists consider unacceptable.

      • Kyle

        Beauty is arbitrary.

        You might think it’s beautiful to require gay people to be single their whole lives, but a lot of people would disagree with you. I think the “beautiful story” argument falls down because it doesn’t have a tangible reason.

        The proof of the pudding is in the eating – and I think it’s really hard to argue that, in general, marriage is worse for gay people than singleness. Indeed Conservatives in the CofE have had ten years to demonstrate gay lifestyles superior to marriage and have not done so. At best, in a few conservative churches, there is now some support for intentional lifelong single living, but I don’t think anyone is kidding themselves that these are, in general, superior modes of living to marriage.

        Ian’s arguments above are about making theology simpler or against promiscuity or pitting heterosexuality against homosexuality. What is the argument against marriage for gay people that isn’t essentially saying “we wish you were straight”?

          • Pc1

            I’m not arguing gay people should be allowed to have sex willy nilly. I’m arguing that gay people should be allowed to marry.

            I think one of the worst aspects of the status quo in the church is that,in practice, it has become more and more liberal on pre marital sex (for straight,bi, gay) while still intolerant of public relationships for gay people.

            A friend of mine was told to leave the band in his church because he had begun dating a man. Yet it was widely known that several of the straight members of the band were sexually active.

            The CofE is destroying its reputation by caring more about how things look than morality.

  3. Piotr,
    I’m not abusing you. I was clearly writing to all who read this to whom the cap fitteth.
    It’s not endless discussion that’s needed it’s submission unto The Lord.
    God did not intend for men to ever, at all, lie down with other men- even if it’s repeatedly with the same man and over an extended period whilst experiencing romantic feelings.
    I don’t know you or anything about you. Make sure that Jesus doesn’t say the same to you on the last day.

    J e a n n i e

    • Jeanine

      You attacked my faith and called me a “whore”, just because I disagree with you on one aspect of Christain theology. If I had done that back to you I suspect Ian would have banned me from his page.

      • Oh my goodness we are sensitive little flower, aren’t we. I was addressing the agents of Satan who are trying to destroy the holy body of Christ. I started by addressing you (and others) for the first paragraph, but my post, as I clearly said in my last post, was addressed widely to all who fit the description. Just as in a recent thread I spoke of God being so big that he holds the whole universe in the palm of his hand, he also has intimate chats with some who follow him. I haven’t mentioned your faith, have I?
        Do you have faith? I’m happy to talk about your faith.
        I did not ‘call you a whore’. I called on all to be a holy virgin not a whore.
        You do realise I’m meaning this in spiritual terms, not just in physical ones?
        If the cap fits for you or for all though, feel free to wear it.
        I do know that the goats and tares in the C of E have put a lot of effort in to subdue the holy men of God by insisting on ‘disagreeing well’ and other such piffle.
        The bible doesn’t ask us to ‘disagree well’ but to mark those who are dodgy and want to pervert God’s grace.
        You don’t get to minimize the matters of fornication and sodomy and relationships that God forbids, trying to normalise the declaring of them as a mere disagreement on ‘one aspect of Christian theology’.
        Holding fast to sound doctrine is the default of the holy Body of Christ and if you disagree with any of it it is you who needs to repent and stop sinning.
        I don’t give a rats what grown men do in the privacy of their bedrooms.
        Gay best friends over the decades would testify to that.
        But my own dispassionate view is not what this is about.
        You start satanically twisting God’s rules for life and you get one here who will stand up for the truth against the wolves and goats.
        I will walk around you more carefully from now but you will not silence me from standing up for Jesus against the world, the flesh and the devil.
        Once again, I’m not suggesting that you recieve money for sexual favours. It was not an accusation- nor was it directed at you alone, but was a call for all to live pure and holy as Christ is pure and holy.


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