20 Pentecost • October 18, 2020
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 • Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 • 1 Thessalonians 21:1-8 • Matthew 22:34-46
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Matthew tells us about two distinct events in today’s Gospel
Lesson. The first is a test commonly asked of teachers in Jesus’
time. “Teacher,” they asked, “which commandment in the law is
the greatest?” This was a test for the rabbi’s knowledge of the
scripture, and there were a number of valid answers that rabbis
over the years had given.
The first half of Jesus’ answer is a quotation from the book of
Deuteronomy, chapter six, verses four through nine. The passage
begins with what is now known as the Shema, a prayer that is part
of every Jewish service: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the
Lord alone.” Then follows the passage that Jesus quotes: “You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your might.” These two verses were, and are,
known by every Jew, then as now, and are central to the faith,
theirs and ours.
What follows in Deuteronomy are instructions to keep this
command central: “Keep these words that God is commanding
you in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about
them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie
down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix
them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the
doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
You probably have seen a little box affixed to the door frame of
the houses of Jewish people. This is called a mezuzah, and it
contains a scrap of paper on which this and a similar verse are
written. It is a visual reminder of this first and great
commandment. The house Jesus grew up in, and the houses he
visited certainly had such mezuzahs on their door posts. So it is no
surprise that Jesus replies to the question of which is the greatest
commandment with this quotation.
The second commandment is from the book of Leviticus, the
second half of chapter 19, verse 18: “… you shall love your
neighbor as yourself.” The full verse reads, “ You shall not take
vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you
shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So although the full verse
has to do with unforgiveness—holding a grudge and taking
vengeance—Jesus plucked the second half out of the verse and
made it a general principle.
Notice that the commandment refers to matters of the heart.
Grudges and unwillingness to forgive come from the heart, the
same place where love resides. Jesus is not alone is citing one or
both these passages from the Torah, the five books of origins and
laws in the Bible. Other rabbis of the time saw similar
interpretations. But Jesus sees them as central to his understanding
of the kingdom of God, to conforming oneself to the will of God
and to life in the kingdom.
The second part of Matthew’s lesson this morning is quite
different. Jesus sets up a controversy with the Pharisees that is not
very understandable to Twentieth-Century ears. So let’s walk
First, he asks the Pharisees who the Messiah is, “whose son is he.”
The answer was easy for them: a reading of the Prophets reveals
very clearly that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. The
writers of two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) agreed, working
hard to make it clear that Jesus is a descendant of David. They
wanted to prove that Jesus is Messiah by right of inheritance.
Secondly, they all agreed that Messiah was the coming king who
would save Israel. So David’s descendant, his son (as it were), will
be the great messianic ruler. But how can the son be greater than
his father? No traditional Jew could allow such an interpretation.
Jesus left his listeners speechless, entangled in their own
interpretations of Scripture. But Jesus’ intent seems to be to throw
doubt on Messiah, that he needed to be the son of David. Nothing
more is indicated in this passage.
Here is what I think: First, Jesus understood well his mission to be
Messiah. Second, Jesus did not think his Messiahship had anything
to do with being a physical descendant of David; he got his
marching orders not from inheritance but from the Father’s call.
And thirdly, Jesus seems to be moving toward an understanding of
Messiah that is larger than any one person. His promise elsewhere
to his disciples was that we would do greater things than he was
I think that Jesus expected his disciples, you and me, to take on his
mantle of Messiahship and to turn our attention away from
ourselves and toward saving the people around us. I think that
Jesus wants us to be other Christs, other Messiahs, and I think this
is what it means to follow Jesus.