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|"Silencing the Pharisees"
Although much of the teaching of Jesus comes to us
directly, through the sermon on the mount and the parables, a large
amount of it also comes indirectly, through his dealings with the
common people, his healing, and his conversations with his
Of this indirect teaching, what is most intriguing to me is that which comes in his disputes, in his responses to the Pharisees and the Sadducees in their continual attempts to discredit him.
In such disputes, not only does he win out over his opponents, but he also leaves those who hear him with a richness of wisdom that might not have been conveyed so clearly in a direct manner.
In the twenty-second chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, there are three questions, or debates, in which Jesus involves himself with the Pharisees and the Sadducess.
First, the Pharisees raise a question about paying taxes; and then the Sadducees raise a question about the resurrection. And neither group comes out of this very well.
Then we discover that the Pharisees, upon learning of the Sadducees failure, get together to take another crack at Jesus. Once again, they attempt to set him up:
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.”
Now it would appear that the Pharisees are pulling out their big guns, for not all of them were lawyers. On the other hand, if we consider Mark’s version of this story, told in the twelfth chapter, we learn that it was not a lawyer at all, but a scribe asking the question, and the scribe’s intent does not appear devious.
But let’s look to the question as Matthew phrases it:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
And I really must agree with Matthew that this probably was a test. For the Jewish people there was a great commandment, and it was recorded in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. It was standard teaching among the Jews; and if they knew nothing else aboiut their religion, they most assuredly knew what was called the “shema,” which was Hebrew for the word “hear.”
This commandment was essentially a restatement of the first of the ten commandments, but in a positive form. Therefore, to ask Jesus this question was to ask the simplest possible religious question for a Jew.
But the purpose of asking was to find out if he might, in fact, reject fundamental Jewish teaching. Jesus answer does not deny the great commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
This is, in the New Revised Standard Version, a word-for-word repitition of the fifth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy with one exception. In Deuteronomy, the last word in the commandment is “might,” not “mind.’
When Mark and Luke tell this story, they translate “might” into “strength” and add “mind.” But the Matthew story has deleted “might,” thus creating a love of God that has a considerably more peaceful tone than found in either Deuteronomy or the other gospels.
There are, however, those who would argue that “heart” and “mind” in the scriptures mean almost the same thing.
But Jesus goes on to affirm his answer: “This is the greatest and first commandment.”
And notice that he was not asked what the “first” commandment was; he was asked what the “greatest” commandment was. Nevertheless, he added that this was the “first” commandment.
And what he is doing is proceeding to once again set up the Pharisees, for this is leading into something. And that “something” will be a second commandment that is not found in Deuteronomy.
It will not be the second commandment of the ten that Moses brought down from Sinai, but it will be a commandment that does have its roots in the Jewish law. As such, it will be sufficient to make the Pharisees squirm some more in figuring out what to do with Jesus.
And Jesus continues, “And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And what he is drawing on is Leviticus, the nineteenth chapter, the eighteenth verse, from a chapter of scripture known as the “holiness code”:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
And the thirty-fourth verse continues this theme:
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
This second commandment also reveals itself in the epistles. In the ninth verse of the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
“The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder; You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the fourteenth verse of the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And finally, in the eighth verse of the second chapter of the letter of James, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus proceeds to sum up:
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
But he has in fact gone beyond the structure of the law as provided by Moses by positioning a second commandment which had not previously been thought of in that way.
The irony here is that the Pharisees do not respond, nor do we have any idea, from Matthew, of what they are thinking.
On the one hand, they should be busy rejecting this second commandment as not being the second of the ten commandments of Moses, and as not being second in the Deuteronomic passage with the great commandment.
But on the other hand, they do know that this is part of the holiness code of Leviticus, and they may be unsure of how to reject it without rejecting that code.
In other words, they have, in a sense, been caught in their own trap. Although they set out in an attempt to catch Jesus in a denial of Jewish law, his response affirmed the law. But his response went beyond that, to restructure the law to expand it, without in any way denying it.
The Pharisees are caught in a dilemma. How can they deny the way in which Jesus has rebuilt the law without denying the law themselves?
“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The Son of David.”
And now we are dealing with prophesy. Jesus is simply asking, from what part of the family tree can we trace the messiah. And the well-known answer is from the House of David. But we must understand that the Pharisees do not see Jesus as the prophesied Messiah.
For them, this question is merely academic.
It calls to mind the seventh chapter of Second Samuel, in which God tells David, who wishes to build a temple, that an earthly temple will be built by his son Solomon; but that than everlasting house will be established through David.
And thus is established what we have come to know as the Davidic covenant, the fulfillment of which was the incarnation of Jesus as the Messiah.
But Jesus goes on to ask, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet?”
We must understand that here the first “Lord” refers to God, but that the second “Lord” refers to the Messiah.
Jesus is drawing directly from the first verse of the one hundred tenth psalm, where he modifies only slightly the line, “until I make your enemies your footstool.” This also shows up in the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth verses of the second chapter of Acts:
“For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
And again in the thirteenth verse of the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews: “But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for thy feet”?
And again, in the twelfth and thirteenth verses of the tenth chapter of that same letter, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since then has been waiting until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”
But perhaps most important in Jesus recitation of the Psalm is the double meaning of “Lord.” For if “Lord” is to mean “master,” how can one Lord be master to another?
And to compound the difficulty of this question, Jesus asks still another: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” Or, in other words, how can the son, the servant to the father, the offspring of the father, be considered a master? And the next verse speaks volumes about the condition of humankind from that day to this:
“No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
What Jesus had done in those few words was to pose the ultimate question about the identity of God. Where is God in relationship to humans? Is God above us, beneath us, or within us? Is God our servant or our master? Where are we in relationship to God?
Do we have control over our lives or does God have control over us? Inevitably, any question regarding our theology, regarding whatever we believe in, must necessarily come back to these questions.
But for us as Christians, the answer must lie, I believe, in how we see Jesus Christ. And I believe that Jesus Christ is, in fact, at three levels in our lives.
Jesus Christ is master, God of us all. But Jesus Christ is also servant, the son of God. And further, Jesus Christ is within us--the Holy Spirit. And it is this reasoning that confirms for me the power of the trinity, the God in three persons.
But it is too simple to say three persons. For my belief, it is far more powerful for me to see God from three angles, from three viewpoints. There is a God who is creator, a God who is master, a God who oversees infinitely more than my puny being.
But there is also a God who serves me, who patiently waits on me, who takes care of me, even beyond my understanding of my needs.
And then there is a God working within me, a spirit that moves with me, that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ became like me, to be an example for me, and who suffered and died for me, to show me that the love of God for humanity is also the love of humanity for one another.
I believe that the reason the Pharisees were silenced on that day was that they were confronted with the ultimate mystery and miracle of the presence of God. And that mystery has been the source of debate for two thousand years since.
Even within the most devout of the Christian community, even amongst the most scholarly of the theologians, there continues to be controversy over who God is, how God works in us, and how God works in the universe. And although I know how I believe, it is not for me to expect others to believe likewise. But I do believe that our patient, all-loving God will work with us in our attempts to reach an understanding of what all this means to us and for us. Amen.
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