In today’s gospel reading we conclude the ‘question and answer’ confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leaders recorded in Matthew. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who were usually in disagreement with each other, have joined together to trap and discredit Jesus. Jesus and the Jewish leaders share a common heritage and embrace the sacred texts, such as the Torah. It’s in interpreting that heritage and sacred texts that conflicts arise.
During Jesus’ time, there were over 600 commandments of Jewish Law. Rabbis had long engaged in classifying the commandments, sometimes according to weight, i.e., “heavy or light.” The basic problem was that the Law had become an end in itself, rather than a bridge to God. The Pharisees, who generally regarded all laws as equally important and binding, probably hoped Jesus would isolate one law and thus provide them with the opportunity to discredit him for ignoring other laws.
In today’s gospel we read of a confrontation between Jesus and a Pharisee, who was a scribe or lawyer. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The trap is set.
A request to provide a concise summary of what loyalty to God means was not unusual within Judaism and Jesus doesn’t refuse the request. He quotes two passages from the Torah. From Deuteronomy, he cites the classic Jewish affirmation of loyalty to God: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (6:5-6). Then Jesus quotes a second passage, this one from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18).
Rather than answering with a single commandment, Jesus responds with two. Jesus implies that these two commandments are not just similar to one another, but of equal importance. The commandments to love God and to love our neighbor are inseparable – together they comprise the essence of the Torah and the prophets. All else is commentary.
For Jesus, the ultimate criterion by which all our actions are judged is love. Jesus is saying we can’t be in right relationship with God without being in right relationship with our neighbor. In short, you can’t love God unless you love your neighbor.
This twofold great commandment is very familiar to us. But behind the familiarity is its radical meaning as a summary of Jesus’ message. To love God above all else means giving to God what belongs to God: our heart, soul, mind and strength. These belong to God – not to Caesar. If God is Lord, then the lords of this world – Caesar and his incarnations throughout history are not. And to love one’s neighbor as one’s self means to refuse to accept the divisions of people by the cultures and societies in which we live.
Up to this point, Jesus’ interrogators have set the topics. Now Jesus takes the initiative. He challenges the scribal teaching by asking, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?” Then, citing the tradition that David wrote the Psalms, he quotes Psalm 110:1: “David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
By the first century, this Psalm was understood as a messianic psalm, so the second use of the word “Lord” was understood to refer to the Messiah. “David himself calls him the (Messiah) Lord; so how can he be his son?”
What does the expression “son of David” mean here? Some of Jesus’ contemporaries expected that the Messiah would be a king like David, a warrior who presided over Israel in the time of its greatest power and glory. The message here is that the Messiah will not be a king like David. Rather, the Messiah will be the kind of king symbolized by Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of his final week, one who would demonstrate the all-encompassing love of God upon the cross.
After this episode that culminates with the “son of David” puzzler, Jesus will only address the crowds and the disciples, not the Pharisees, Sadducees and other Jewish leaders. They are unable to understand him or accept his answers to their questions.
On the evening of his last meal with his disciples, a meal that he would transform into a Eucharistic banquet that would endear him to his followers forever, Jesus would remove his outer garments and proceed to wash his disciples’ feet, demonstrating for them a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
As for Jesus’ disciples, it wasn’t by their crowd-pleasing worship or knowledge of the Bible, philosophical insight or wisdom, piety or moral righteousness that they would be known to the world. Not by their eloquent preaching or beautiful buildings and extensive budgets would they be known as followers of Jesus. It would be by their love.
Resources: Fred Craddock, et al., 1987; Marcus Borg & John D. Crossan, The Last Week, 2006; David Lose, 2014; William Barclay, 1975.