Matthew 22:34-46. Jesus & Pharisees are in agreement (well for a moment anyway), and it’s really important.
A reflection by Dan Spragg.
It may seem strange that at the end of this passage which seems to be talking about the all-encompassing nature of Love, that there is this bit that talks about King David and the Messiah. But it opens up for us quite a bit about why the Pharisees and Jesus were so at odds with one another. They do actually agree on one thing. They both have expectations about the Messiah, and that the Messiah will come from the line of David. Jesus in one sense wasn’t a completely radical kind of Rabbi, he was in fact very orthodox – a Jew through and through – but, his knowledge, insights and interpretations, coupled with owning his identity and calling as the beloved and anointed Son of God had led him into the awareness and understanding that God was up to something new, that a better way existed and was possible and was at hand and near. This really was at the heart of their disputes, not that God wouldn’t act and be at work, but rather how and through who and to what effect with what scope. The Son of David for the Pharisees meant a Messiah through the restored King of Israel, one who would restore them back to their land as the people of God where they would live well and prosper and be at peace, and of course be free from the oppression of other nations. The Son of David as Jesus understood, while keeping in line with the heritage of David and the promises that had been made about this family line, was to be one that in actual fact superseded and moved beyond these. They all agreed that there would be a Messiah, one that would usher in a new age, but they disagreed on the details and on the literal size and scope of what that would mean.
They were living in a time of massive upheaval. The previous 300-400 years had seen the rise of both the Greek and Roman empires each bringing vastly different regimes and understandings about how the world worked and who was to be in control. Israel was small fry caught up in the massive melting pot and divergent forces and so, as always seems to be the case with the smallest and the least powerful, it was subjected to simply surviving as it was thrown around between the currents of the Greeks and the Romans. A time of change, of bigger societal forces, of uncertainty, of disruption, of endings and beginnings, and old ways that had to change, and new ways that were being birthed and needed to be birthed. Does it sound familiar?! There is a suggestion that all of Matthew’s gospel is seeking to answer one big question. ‘How do we cope with change?’ It is quite a universal question that all of us, wherever we are, have to face at some point. Matthew seeks to answer this through his telling of the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. How do we cope with change amidst all this? What is to be our response? What is this change revealing? So, what did Jesus do and say? And what does this reveal to us about what God’s movements are in the midst of this? What is God saying? And very importantly, what are we going to do because of what we discover?
The questions that are posed to Jesus in this series of stories are used by the religious leaders to try and entrap Jesus but they are also questions that had real substance in the faith of the Jewish people at that point in time. They were real questions, one could say that even though they came in the form of trickery they were in actual fact very honest questions. How do we live with loyalty to God and our required relationship to the empire? What is our response to be, do we believe in the hope of Resurrection – that God can raise new life and hope out of what seems dead and lifeless? (The question from the Sadducees that we haven’t looked at this time through the book of Matthew – see the footnote for a comment.) And today’s question – What is at the heart of our calling and identity as God’s people? The Pharisees response to the big questions was always the law and strict adherence to their tradition, down to the letter. Jesus’ response, uncovers a different way, one of larger perspective, one of love.
Today’s response is one that we know well. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the greatest commandment. And there is another which comes in at a close second, love your neighbour as yourself. We would agree, that in these is essentially all of what the way of being a Christian is about. If this was all that was written in the New Testament, then we’d probably get along quite fine! I heard someone say once that they couldn’t understand why Churches went through so much time and energy crafting up long and lengthy aspirational mission statements. He said, ‘If your mission statement as a church isn’t to Love God and Love others, then you’re missing the point!’ Yes these are some fairly central statements. We talk about and do two of these things quite well. We love our neighbours. We pray for those who are hungry and poor and sick and dying and lonely and stuck. We work where we can to do something about this. In this we are loving our neighbours as ourselves. As humans our tendency is to put ourselves first and so we seek to counter that by looking beyond ourselves and seeing all others as equal and worthy. We also endeavour to work on our own character, to do the hard work of doing whatever we need to do to process through the demons we carry around with us. As we become the best version of ourselves this too benefits the people around us and so with all of this, our focus on others and the work we do on ourselves, we live better together as one human family. We’ve got the second half of Jesus’ response down pretty well. Sure there is always room for growth and expansion, but on the whole we know what this is about. But what about the first bit? What about loving God? Some may say that in our loving our neighbours, we are loving God, that this is what it means to love God. Almost like the second half of Jesus’ response interprets the first, or is the ‘how to’ practical application. I would agree there is some weight to this, but I would also say that this isn’t the whole picture. Jesus didn’t say that these two were identical, the second command is ‘like’ the first. It is similar, but it is not the same. I’m really interested in this question – How do we love God? The question of how can we love our neighbour, how can we see others as equal to ourselves is relatively easy to answer especially for us practically minded folk. But how do we love God? It is like loving our neighbour, but it is not the same.
Currently my thoughts on this are that it has something to do with desire. Love is a very complex emotion but a big part of it seems to be about desire, about longing. It seems that desire provides a bit of the motivation behind love; I desire a better world for my neighbour and myself and so I move in the ways of love to make that happen. Love is a deep and fluid thing with edges that are soft and porous, where the movements are two way and expansive. The most powerful thing about it is its ability to make us move, love makes us do crazy things, we are simply drawn to what we love; if you’ve been ‘in love’ you know what I mean. There is a sense in which what we desire shapes the way we move and act, and I would say, who we start to become, we change when we let love happen. I think this means that for us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, is to be open to desiring God, be open to long for God. It means being attracted to God, to living in a sort of devotion to God which may mean forming habits of love directed towards God. Cultivate time and space for you and God, listen, be attentive, respond to what you sense, respond to what you hear, trust, be honest, be open, be willing to change and to grow, and be regular in your rhythms of interaction. Some say that God IS love, I would nuance this by saying that yes God is love because you cannot separate love from God, but God is more than simply love, God is the one who is behind love, which gives meaning and life and energy to all that is good and true. To love God, is to make space for this, to desire the source of all life, and to cultivate ways of living that move towards this deeper way. It sounds mystical, and mysterious, and hard to pin down, like we could scramble around with words for hours to try and explain it. It sounds mystical and mysterious because it is – the very nature of love is simply that it is inexhaustible – there is no end to it. What happens as we devote ourselves to God in habits of love is what always happens when we act in love. We change and are changed, for the better! We move towards what we desire, and what we desire shapes how we then move in the world.
The question at the heart of love, of God, and of neighbour as ourselves, is really ‘What do we desire?’ What are we wanting? In the midst of change and our feelings of losing control what do we really want? The Pharisees’ had a clear picture of what they wanted. Their expectations painted it for all to see. They expected a Messiah who would restore Israel to its former glory. They wanted Israel to be ‘great again.’ They wanted to be God’s people once again, but I would argue that they had lost what it meant to truly love. They had lost their ability to hear with their hearts. They had lost their ability to be open to what God might be saying. They had lost their ability to listen, to learn, to grow. Jesus’ response to them is as deeply personal to them as it was universal for what God was up to. It is as if Jesus was saying to them, ‘Do you want to know what God is up to amongst all of this chaos that is around you? Then seek God, ask God, knock on that door… listen with your hearts, be open, give in to the dynamic nature of love that both comes from God and moves you towards God. Truly give in to this way, and live it outwards to the people that you find yourself rubbing shoulders with.’
If we agree with Jesus that this commandment is the greatest. And that the second is very closely related. Then this is what he may be saying to us too. There is no end to love, and so there should be no end to our loving God. No end to our devotion, and our seeking closeness with God. Jesus may be saying to us, ‘learn even more what it is to listen with your hearts, to make space to be open to love, to let love guide you towards God, and let love guide you towards your best self and what everyone else’s best can look like too. There may be a word to us here that amidst the all too familiar talk of rapid change and society’s shifting away from what we know to be faith and church, that our first response is to cultivate our devotion to God, and that from this, as we participate in love; then what we hope for, what we long for, and what we expect of Christ’s work in the world, will indeed become what we see happen, for ourselves yes, and for all our world.
One commentator I read on this said that he believes this was a political-theological question, that it wasn’t simply about life after death but rather it was a way of seeing the world that would put an end to the endless cycle of violence that striving for vengeance on one’s enemies creates. See Dr. Mark Davis, here – http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.co.nz/2017/10/the-great-command-and-work-of-christ.html