Matthew 22: 34-46 The Heart of Scripture

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.143_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10195994

Matthew 22: 34-46

Parallel Mark 12:28-37; Luke 10:25-28, 20:41-44

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah?Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spiritcalls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Many of Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders throughout Matthew’s gospel rotate around the interpretation of the law and prophets and Jesus’ identity. This final challenge from a religious teacher followed by Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and sets the stage for Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees in the following chapter. Although Jesus’ declaration of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 being the central commandments of the law is not unique among Jewish readers of scripture, this passage forms a final lens which clarifies Jesus’ teaching and way of understanding scripture. This is one of the reasons I believe many readers misread the Sermon on the Mount, because they fail to read it through the lens of loving neighbor and instead understand it as an impossible burden of moralistic perfectionism. This way of reading scripture centered on loving God and neighbor allows us to read back through Matthew’s gospel and see how love and mercy become central to Jesus’ teaching and allows the disciple to hold the call to be complete in their living out of the law and the forgiveness of sinners together.

The translation of the questioner as a ‘lawyer’ (Greek nomikos) in our culture places us in the judicial sphere with a professional nuance that is not present at this time in history. Instead this is a person coming from a religious group with a particular way of reading scripture and this expert in the law is a scholar of the Torah (the first five books of the bible). (Sigal 2007, 21) The question, which in Matthew is asked as a test or temptation rather than Mark’s more positive portrayal, asks Jesus for clarification on how he reads scripture. In Luke’s gospel Jesus turns the question back to the questioner, but in Matthew and Mark it is Jesus who gives us this central way of understanding the law and the prophets. The addressing of Jesus as ‘teacher’ combined with Matthew’s statement that the question is ‘to test him’ and the lawyer’s association with the Pharisees prepare us to expect that the questioner will not respond to the answer in the openness of faith. Yet, like the previous conflict with the Sadducees, the answer will silence this questioning ‘lawyer.’

The question of how to interpret scripture rightly is an important one in any generation, and Matthew’s gospel has slowly been opening the law and the prophets to the attentive reader throughout. Central to Jesus’ ministry has been a merciful reading of scripture where Hoses 6:6, ”I desire mercy and not sacrifice” has been used multiple times (9:13, 12:7) to point to a different way of understanding scripture than Jesus’ opponents use. Now this double love commandment that, in Jesus view, form the foundation that all the law and prophets are built upon also highlights why this particular verse from Hosea can demonstrate Jesus’ merciful and prophetic way of reading scripture.

The Pharisees, as they are portrayed in Matthew, are operating from a different way of reading scripture, and although Jesus’ answer may not be something that they could dispute they still are not in harmony with Jesus’ way. Yet now Jesus turns to them and asks how they read scripture and how they understand the Christ (Messiah). Matthew has used the Son of David title for Jesus throughout, most recently in the entry to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21), but Matthew is not content to use this or any other title on its own to describe Jesus. Son of David may be a part of Jesus’ identity, but something greater than David is before these Pharisees. Psalm 110, for early followers of Christ, is frequently used to provide language to help explain who Jesus is[1]. Jesus reads these words as David speaking prophetically, which would not be an unusual way of thinking about the psalms, where the LORD the God of Israel speaks to ‘my lord’ and Jesus argues that one who David calls lord must be greater than David. These parables and conflicts in Matthew all occur in a day that begins with the chief priests and the elders questioning Jesus’ authority (21:23) and although Jesus’ has continually alluded to the answer, once more Jesus links the title of Christ/Messiah to one greater than the Son of David. Now that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the rest of the religious teachers are silenced for the moment, Jesus is about to proclaim judgement on both the religious leaders and the temple.


[1] For example, the book of Hebrew picks up on Psalm 110:6 in Hebrews 5-7 referring to Jesus as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

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