Meditation on Matthew 22: 34-46 – Bates College Chapel – 10/26/08

exteriorphoto.gifMatthew 22:34-46

“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about  the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him,  “The son of David.”  He said to them, “How is it then that David,  in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

This passage seems appropriate for the time of the year when students and professors are preoccupied with questions and answers – midterm examination time. Students imagine professors devising trick questions, and wonder how they can ever do all they need to do to pass the exam, or possibly learn everything they need to know to pass the course.

In today’s passage, Jesus is asked questions, answers questions, and stumps the great minds of his day with a question of his own.

The passage needs its context:

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph to the cheers, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The crowds believe him to be the expected Messiah, about to establish the Jewish state – the Kingdom of God, and to free the Israelites from years of bondage to foreign occupation.  Jesus heads to the temple where, contrary to expectations, he does not proclaim himself King. Nor does He instruct his disciples to seize power. Instead Jesus drives out both the merchants working for the Sadducees and the political “revolutionaries”, as N. T. Wright translates the Greek term for “brigands.”

As my son might ask, “What’s up with that?”

If that were not enough, Jesus then brings into the temple the very people who have been legally forbidden from the time of King David himself from entering the temple grounds  – the blind and lame – and then he heals them!

And then Jesus promptly leaves town without even an attempt to restore the Davidian kingdom.

The next day Jesus returns to Jerusalem. This time the city officials – chief priests and elders – are waiting for him. They ask for his credentials. By what authority does he do what he has been doing?

Jesus quotes Old Testament scripture, but rather than directly applying the scripture to his day and time, Jesus tells parables – stories which his followers understand but which the officials challenging him do not understand. Jesus explains that the times are too dangerous for any other kind of discussion. But the authorities, sensing they are the butt of some kind of joke or other, “went and plotted how to tangle him in his words.”

First, the Sadducees try to catch him.

Who are the Sadducees?

The Sadducees, including the high priest Caiaphas, are the wealthy, priestly people of Jerusalem. The ancient historian Josephus describes them as unfriendly, unpopular, and cruelly judgmental. The Sadducees were also the scholars, the professors of the day, insisting on their interpretation of the Torah.

But the Sadducees leave Jesus outfoxed.

Then come the Pharisees.

Who are the Pharisees?

The Pharisees resided primarily in Jerusalem and were highly respected by the people for their learning. They were the distinguished professors of their day. They had considerable influence over local scribes, who would preach only according to the Pharisees’ interpretations .The Pharisees were zealous about maintaining their special, pious status both before God and in their community.

The Pharisees, not wanting to fail like the Sadducees, hire a lawyer to “test” Jesus.

(What they really wanted him to do was humiliate and demean Jesus.)

This lawyer must have been a real “winner”, too. His question, his one and only question, couldn’t have been simpler. The answer to his question is taught to every Jew from birth; it was the Shema, the passage from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which pious Jews still recite twice a day.

As NT Wright puts it, Jesus gave an answer they couldn’t question and then posed a question they couldn’t answer.

Having answered the lawyer’s simple question, Jesus poses one of his own, based on Psalm 110. Most first century Jews believed Psalm 110 to be messianic in nature. And if, as the psalm claims, the Messiah, the son of David, is to be greater than His father David, who besides God himself, Jesus wants to know, can claim that characteristic?

How can the Messiah be both David’s son and David’s Lord? No Jewish father would ever refer to his son as his “Lord.”

The implied answer to Jesus’ question is that the Messiah will be both from the lineage of King David and the Son of God Himself.

Everyone knew that Jesus’ lineage descended on both sides of his family from King David. What Jesus was suggesting with his question is that He is not just another popular teacher, but that He is the one referred to in the Hebrew scripture as the “Son of God.”

St. Augustine explains that Christ is revealed as both King David’s son and King David’s Lord: King David’s Lord eternally, King David’s son in human time.

Jesus’ rhetorical question proclaims that Jesus is Lord both now and forever, both in the Present Evil Age and in the Age to Come. Both ages now overlap at this particular moment in time, and in His unique person.

Jesus’ question also forces his audience to conclude that the long awaited Kingdom of God – the Age to Come – is standing in front of them at this very moment! The Kingdom of God turns out not to be a political reality. The Kingdom of God has arrived as a person.

Needless to say, the scripture continues – “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him anymore questions.”

So, unable to discredit Jesus in the roadside classroom, the authorities head to the courthouse to get an arrest warrant for Jesus based on false charges.

A normal expositional sermon should now turn from explicating the selected scripture in its cultural context, to applying the scripture to our day and time in Lewiston, Maine.

However, as in Jesus’ times, a direct, straight-talking application would be too dangerous.

But, unlike Jesus, I am not a skilled parable maker.

So how can we apply this passage to us at this time?

Let’s begin with some questions:

The Pharisees. Who are the Pharisees in your life?

Are they succeeding in demeaning, humiliating, and even destroying your spirit?

If they are, how is the Holy Spirit prompting you to respond?

As Christians, we know that the Holy Spirit is Jesus ongoing Helper in our lives.

We also know that Jesus was not merely a great moral teacher.

We know that the Truth is not a set of facts,beliefs, proofs, theories, or opinions. We know that the Truth is a person and His name is Jesus Christ. We know that the truth cannot be learned or held, but  the Truth can only be followed.

If Jesus were simply a teacher, what kind of a teacher asks you to do what no one can do? What kind of teacher asks you to know what only God can know, to do what only God can do?

And that is exactly what Jesus does.

He knew His Sermon on the Mount would be impossible for anyone to follow.

If Jesus is just a teacher, His exams are impossible to pass.  We cannot  possibly know all we need to know to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor can we ever do anything to get into His Kingdom.

And if Jesus is simply a teacher, He does not grade on a curve.

And He offers no Extra Credit.

Jesus wants us to learn, to experience, to discover and to admit that we are all failures, unable to pass the great tests of Life.

Jesus tells us that our only hope is to acknowledge this truth: To acknowledge that the Pharisees in our lives have succeeded in breaking our spirit.

When we see that we are totally defeated and demeaned, when we experience this crushing defeat, when we discover our total humiliation, when we despair of ever being anything, when all of our self-esteem is gone, then and only then does Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to replace of our broken human spirit.

Jesus offers Himself as our surrogate or proxy.

And no teacher, however great, does that.

Jesus offers to take life’s tests for us. Jesus offers to take up the challenges our Pharisees’ pose for us, to take on our humiliations and despairs. Jesus asks if we would let his grades stand where ours should be.

What teacher has ever done that?

And what does Jesus expect from us in return?

All He asks is that we continue to depend on Him for the rest of our lives.

No teacher, however great, does that.

Jesus asks us to step aside, To lean on Him, to let Him take our hand and lead us through this Present Evil Age and into the promises and joys of Kingdom of God that is available to us now already, in part, but still to come in it fullness.

When we do, we see Him holding out His hands to us, asking us to take them and to follow Him into the Kingdom of God, whispering,

“Blessed are you, the poor in Spirit, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven!”

And no teacher, however great, has ever said that.

Comments are disabled for this post