Read the passage here.
Again, we are covering quite a bit of text, and so we won’t be able to say everything about these verses as we would probably like. But, also again, we are covering verses 15-40 together because of the way they hang together (and we should probably also include 41-46. We’re going to leave those but I’ll say a few words about them). In other words, I think that Matthew is presenting something quite specific, especially about the relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders – something that we’ve seen a lot of.
So it’s apparent that we have three episodes here (and again, if we include vv. 41-46, we have four). We’ll spend a little bit of time considering the first two episodes and more on the third, but mostly (again) we want to think about how they hang together – what is Matthew trying to tell us/show us?
The first section, vv. 15-22, show us the episode with the Pharisees (actually the disciples of the Pharisees) and Herodians. The Pharisees we’ve encountered a lot; we don’t know much about the Herodians – they’re only mentioned in the NT a few times and again only a few times in extra-biblical sources – what we can assume is that (perhaps obviously) they stood on the side of the Herodian dynasty. So the challenge to Jesus is set up in an interesting way. On the one hand, we have the Pharisees who are striving for a “pure Israel”; on the other hand, we have the Herodians who are in league with (or at the very least supportive of) the Roman empire. (Obviously this is a simplification).
The “imperial tax” (NIV; NASB – “poll tax”, other translations, “taxes”) was a tax imposed by the Romans and which was vehemently opposed by the Jewish population. This opposition undoubtedly consisted of finding the tax onerous and unfair; but it also likely included a sense that God’s people, as part of God’s kingdom, should not be subject to human rule and authority (i.e. only God’s). For this reason, not long before this time, a revolt was led by a Judean named Judas on the basis of opposition to the tax. So if Jesus opposed the tax, he would align himself with such folks as these (which presumably included the Pharisees) and against the Herodians and the official government (i.e. Rome). That is, he could be charged with sedition.
On the other hand, if Jesus supported the tax, he would be seen in league with the Herodians, and against the general population of Israel and the Pharisees who enjoyed popular support.
And Matthew tells us directly that this whole situation was presented to Jesus as a trap. Jesus essentially sidesteps this question altogether. Again, we could dig into this a lot more than we are, but essentially Jesus says that it’s not contradictory to fulfill your duties both to God and to worldly authorities (at least that it’s not inherently contradictory).
Moving on to the second episode, vv. 23-34, this time the Sadducees confront Jesus. We haven’t encountered the Sadducees much in Matthew’s gospel. But they are the other major religious group at the time along with the Pharisees. Unlike the Pharisees who enjoyed support primarily from the general population, the Sadducees were popular among the upper or ruling class. We don’t actually know a lot about the theology or beliefs of the Sadducees, but one of the issues of contention between the Sadducees and Pharisees was that of resurrection – the Sadducees didn’t believe in it. (This was because resurrection, or life after death, was a relatively new doctrine in Jewish thought – it isn’t talked about in the Pentateuch and the Sadduccees believed that only the Pentateuch (or Torah) mattered).
So the Sadducees bring this to Jesus to see what he has to say. Though we haven’t seen much of the Sadducees in Matthew, they have certainly heard of Jesus and are concerned about his rising popularity. On the basis of Matthew’s telling, we can assume that they are concerned (like the Pharisees are) about the teaching of Jesus and the claims that are in the wind about Jesus being the Messiah. So they too try to test him.
Unlike the previous episode, where Jesus is tested as to His allegiance (“what side of the fence are you on?”), this time Jesus is tested as to his theology. The Sadducees present Jesus with what essentially amounts to a ridiculous theological puzzle, and again, hope to trap him by his answer.
If Jesus accepts the premise of the question, thereby accepting the problem of resurrection, then he aligns himself with the Pharisees (who believe in resurrection). He will then face opposition from the ruling classes who support the Sadducees. If he rejects the problem as stated, rejecting resurrection, then he aligns himself with the Sadducees. He then essentially opposes the Pharisees, and likely loses much of the popular support that the Pharisees enjoy.
I think further that the question is specifically intended to be ridiculous. It’s a rhetorical technique whereby you attempt to make the responder look ridiculous by making him/her deal with a ridiculous question or situation.
But again, Jesus essentially sidesteps their question. He exposes their lack of understanding of what resurrection life would look like. And without getting into the details of Jesus’ argument (again, with apologies), he exposes their lack of understanding of scripture and how God works (“He is not God of the dead, but the living.”
At any rate, I want to move on to the third episode we’re looking at today: vv. 34-40. What we get here is a third test (this is indicated by v. 35). This time it’s predicated on the assumption that there are some commandments in the law that are more important than others. (Note that we’re probably talking about the entire law, not just the ten commandments; and it seemed to be generally understood that some laws/commandments had greater importance or higher priority – not that some are unimportant).
Jesus’ response is one that should be familiar to all of us – it should be burned into our minds and our hearts. He says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Note that Jesus doesn’t quote “thou shalt not murder,” or “Honour your father and mother,” or even, “Don’t take the name of the Lord your god in vain.” He doesn’t list any specific thing that we have to do or we cannot do. (Now I’m not saying those things don’t exist – that there aren’t things we have to do or cannot do). Jesus talks about love. First, loving God and then loving one another. Rather than answering the question of “what one thing do we have to make sure we have to do?” Jesus gives them an answer that applies to everything we have to do – it’s an answer that applies to how we approach life as a whole.
Now the important thing that I want us to pay attention to , and the reason we’ve gone over each of these so quickly, is the fact that each of these episodes take place in the context of a test. Jesus is being tested by his interlocutors.
And the reason that this is important, in my head, is because Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap of the test. We’ve mentioned this before – we’ve seen it in other interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders – but the Pharisees and Sadducees are not looking for information here. They are not seeking to better understand God, better understand the kingdom, or better understand how to be kingdom people. They are trying to see if Jesus is good enough. The test is not given in order to better themselves, but to weigh and measure Jesus.
Now I said we’re not looking at the next verses today – that I’d only say a few words about it. So looking at the next verses, vv. 41-46, say:
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”“The son of David,” they replied.43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’
45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.Matthew 22:41-46
Now these verses are a little obscure, and require us to consider the Old Testament references (which we’re not going to do) but in essence, I think Jesus is making a claim to authority (which derives from identity). Though he has frequently accepted the term of Son of David (which is a Messianic designation), here he is saying that he goes beyond David, that he surpasses David. In the context of what we’ve been looking at, we might (with tongue firmly in cheek) think that Jesus is saying something like, “who are you to question me?” or, “I don’t need to pass your tests because my authority comes from God alone.” In other words, after being tested, Jesus flips the test and asks his questioners, “Do you really know who I am?”
As another aside, it might be worth noting that immediately preceding Jesus’ testing in the wilderness was his baptism, where God announced, “This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So, returning to the verses we’re looking at today, the first thing I’d like us to think about is that Jesus essentially rejects the tests imposed on him by the Pharisees and Sadducees. Because Jesus’ authority doesn’t come from the acclamation or approval of such as these. Jesus isn’t the Messiah because he fulfills their expectations. Jesus isn’t the Messiah because he passes their tests. Jesus has authority, Jesus is the Messiah, because of who He is as the chosen One of God.
Now the significance of this, for us today, is that we do this all the time – we act as Jesus’ questioners, his examiners. We are constantly testing Jesus. We are constantly trying to decide if God lives up to our expectations of how things are supposed to be. We are constantly testing to see if God will do the things he is supposed to do. Or to see if God will give us the things we think we deserve to get. We want God to affirm that we are right and others are wrong. Or that we are good and others are bad. And when He doesn’t, we’re more than happy to make God into our own image.
But throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, we can see how little we understand who He truly is, what He is truly doing, and what the kingdom truly looks like. The question posed is, “is the kingdom of Jesus what we truly want?”
The second thing to think about is specifically in relation to the “Greatest Commandment” episode. And the fact that Jesus named, “Love the Lord your God,” as the greatest commandment, followed immediately by, “Love your neighbour,” should tell us something about the kind of kingdom that Jesus has been talking about, the kind of kingdom that Jesus is bringing, the kind of kingdom He calls us to participate in. The kingdom is not realized by boundaries of politics, power, or privilege. It’s not recognized by theological acumen. It’s not even distinguished by moral superiority. It’s known by love.
I’m not going to go on about what this might mean and what this might look like. We’ve talked about aspects of it a lot and it’s more important that we think about it for ourselves. But if the primary commandment, the primary value of the kingdom is love, then the primary characteristic of the people of the kingdom should be love, shouldn’t it? No human kingdom is equivalent to the kingdom of God. And no human being knows or believes all of the right things. Or to put it another way, this is not how the kingdom is known.
When people look at Christians, when people look at churches, what is it that they see? And this isn’t a difficult question because, frankly, those who are outside the church (and many from within, actually) have been telling us for years.
And I’m not saying that this means we are called to anything less than holiness; and I’m not saying this means we shouldn’t call sin sin; Nor again am I saying that we should confuse Love with Niceness.
But throughout the gospel of Matthew, we get this picture of a kingdom (and therefore a people) that is distinguished in many ways from those religious (and political) figures of the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Sadducees. Not that everything about the Israelites is wrong; but there are things wrong.
So perhaps what I am suggesting is that we could be better at disagreeing – about not always having to be right, or making sure everyone else knows that we’re “right”; perhaps we could be better at humility; we could be better at welcoming and loving those who hate us or who are just different from us. So how we can be better at being representatives of the actual kingdom of Jesus. How can we better live out the love of God in and through our lives and to the world?