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Matthew 22:34-46

Love God; love neighbor. The Messiah said so.

The gospel reading this week includes the last confrontations between Jesus and religious authorities during his teaching visit to the Temple. The first two snippets of public interrogation focus on the issues of taxes and resurrection, put forth by the Pharisees and Sadducees, respectively. Jesus passes the tests, and we arrive at yet another “test” (peirazo) by the Pharisees once again, this time with respect to ranking commandments.

The preaching challenge is two-fold. On the one hand, we have a very well-known text in verses 34-40—the Greatest Commandment. How can the preacher help her hearers encounter the drama of this encounter? How can he help the congregation see the purpose for which Matthew has grouped these four debates, with Jesus articulating a vastly different understanding of the law than he was confronted with? On the other hand, we have Jesus turning the interrogation onto the Pharisees in verses 41-46, but in a strange quotation of a Psalm of David about the Messiah. On first reading Matthew 22:41-46, we might wonder about leaving it behind in order to focus a sermon on the two great commandments. And yet, I would like to offer a unifying thread that holds these two confrontations together.

What if in both of these questionings, Jesus is making the point that the religious leaders have it all twisted around and are looking at things the wrong way? Mark also includes these encounters, but they are presented in a much different tone. As preachers this week, we have the opportunity to invite our congregations into a well-known text (or one that is usually glossed over on the way to more parables and Jesus’ trial and passion). In many contexts, the task will be to help hearers properly think about the law of modern Christian discipleship in much the same way that Jesus was forcing the Pharisees to properly think about the Jewish law here. Perhaps it is time for a sermon on that axis of vertical and horizontal discipleship: Love of God, Love of Neighbor. So, what is the law for? At the core of the law is the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments). Often these ten are broken into four relating to God and six relating to neighbor. Maybe that is a launching point for talking about the intriguing image that Jesus offers us: “all the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (22:40, emphasis mine).

Too many of our regular attenders still conceive of the law as primarily about restriction. In fact, that’s the approach that the Pharisees seem to be taking in their “test.” Many commentators note that Jewish scholars counted up the commands in the law of Moses to be 613.[1] Thomas Long notes that Jesus demonstrates that the Pharisees are focused on rules and regulations, but really the law is about a more positive way of loving (an ethics of being more than doing). D. Stephen Long frames his Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction around the concept that the law is fulfilled in Jesus and serves as a gift to form a witnessing people, as opposed to serving as a trap for them. I would propose that the law as Jesus articulates it here as “hanging” on the commandments to love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself presents a discipleship of graced participation founded upon right seeing, rather than a stumbling block to inoculate us to any attempt of human effort.

Jesus contrasts an overwhelming trap of 613 commandments with a foundation that offers life. I love that Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 here. Too often we think of Leviticus as a wasteland that derails year-long Bible reading plans, or offers fodder for works righteousness and condemnation of those with whom we disagree.

Leviticus 19 is actually the middle of the Torah. So perhaps Jesus was being literal—a Torah scroll could be hung on a bar at Leviticus 19 and the whole law would hang in balance like the scales of justice. But of course he is not making a scroll joke. He is articulating a different notion of interpretation and authority.[2] He extends the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 and the neighbor-love command of Leviticus 19 into the Prophets as well. In one sense, his response to the interrogation is to say love of God and love of neighbor together form the interpretive key of all of Jewish authoritative scripture.

And this is why the final six verses are not meaningless add-ons, and are in fact crucial to engaging the Greatest Commandment. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “Are we done yet?” These confrontational interactions misunderstand Jesus and Jewish tradition. The law is not about ranking the various commands, nor is the identity of the Messiah to be found in theological debate. Jesus is about to demonstrate what it really means to be Messiah, son of David. He is about to fulfill the promise of Psalm 110, and sit at the Father’s right hand, and put the enemies of sin and death under his feet. As chapter 22 concludes, Jesus has passed the test; he is victor over his interrogators. He has also shifted the interactions and confrontations with the religious authorities to the point that these types of exchanges will not happen again in Matthew.

This vertical and horizontal axis of Love of God and Love of Neighbor has so much importance for a holistic discipleship, and Wesleyan theology has rich ways of talking about personal and social holiness that can be connected in sermons on this lesson. For those of us who preach in contexts where discipleship is talked about in terms of growing in holiness, pursuing sanctification, and attending to the means of grace, Jesus’ posture and the content of his responses in these verses should challenge us to the task of imagination.

How have we perpetuated a narrow and negative vision of the law? How have we stripped the law of its beauty as a positive task of disciple formation? Perhaps we have locked the law in place and stripped it of its ability to speak fresh to new challenges facing ourselves, our congregations, and our church traditions? Jacob Milgrom shares a rabbinic story that highlights the ways that God’s gift of the law is living in each age.

Moses (in heaven) requested of God to visit R. Akiba’s academy. Permission was granted. He sat down in the back and listened to R. Akiba exposit a law purportedly based on the Torah. Moses didn’t understand a word; “his energy flagged.” At the end of R. Akiba’s discourse, the students challenged him: “What is your source?” R. Akiba replied… “an oral law from Moses at Sinai.” The story concludes that Moses was reinvigorated, “his mind was put to rest.”[3]

Milgrom goes on to state that though Moses knows he never said the words Akiba claims are from him, “Moses recognized that it was based on Mosaic foundations. Akiba was not creating a new Torah, but was applying Moses’ Torah to problems faced by Akiba’s generation.”