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

  1. Hi Ian, Please delete this comment if it’s too off topic… I should refrain from commenting here but here goes nothing…
    I’m reading Ps 110 together with Ps45 and Matt 26v64. The bride in Ps45 seems to refer to the bride of Christ. Could the scroll in the hand of the ancient of days in Rev4 be the Father holding out the symbolic bride for Christ to take? If so, the seals are the achievements won by the church as they conquer (access to tree; crown, bread, sceptre, pillar, white clothing & access the throne. 110v2 Zion= the bride. I’m convinced the bride is the scroll because in Rev 7v15 NIV (1984 version) it says he will spread his tent over them. A euphemism referring to the nuptials being concluded me thinks.

    Is it too far fetched for Jesus quoting Ps110v1 to be referring to both his Father and the Spirit with him as the object?


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