First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 20

William Loader

Pentecost 20: 26 October Matthew 22:34-46

The passage includes the final two episodes of interchange between Jesus and his opponents in the temple. The first concerns the greatest commandment. Mark's version of the question about the greatest commandment of all is much more generous to the questioner, whom Jesus hails as not far from the kingdom (12:28-34). The man is genuine and ends up agreeing strongly with Jesus and mouthing basic tenets of Mark's theology: it is not sacrifice and offering that matters, but mercy and compassion, except that Mark would say the former do not matter at all.

Matthew twice uses Hosea 6:6 which expresses a similar thought: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice', adding it into stories he drew from Mark (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Matthew does not see this as an either-or and is careful never to give the impression that Jesus attacks the temple as such and its system. For that would entail an attack on parts of scripture. Matthew disapproved of Christians doing so and always revised Mark whenever he either seemed to, or actually did, set aside Scripture. This he does here, leaving out the comparison with sacrifices and also removing all the positive traits about the questioner. It is a little sad that Matthew lacks Mark's generosity and that the inner Jewish conflict had made it hard for him to acknowledge others' strengths.

Matthew does however add something: 'on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets' (22:40). They recall what Matthew said in 7:12, 'Therefore all that you want people to do for you, do likewise for them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.' Jesus, according to Matthew, has come not to set aside the Law and the Prophets but to uphold them, to fulfil them, to make sure they are understood and observed properly. The slightest deviance from this on the smallest detail (jot or tittle) warrants sharp condemnation (5:17-18). Hence Matthew's revision of Mark.

Matthew comes closest among the gospel writers to being fundamentalist, to use an anachronistic term. He certainly sounds like it. Every part stands; every jot and tittle remains. Yet it is revealing that he espouses a clear hierarchy within Scripture on the basis of these two commandments or thoughts similarly expressed (such as 7:12). He makes a similar point in 23:23 about tithing. More weighty than tithing herbs (which, he says, is not to be neglected!) are justice and mercy and faith. This is Matthew's emphasis throughout. He even makes a point of adding, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' into Jesus' list of the commandments in response to the rich man in 19:19.

Perhaps Matthew was also uncomfortable with the way Mark's account contrasts the two commandments and the sacrificial system, as though they were alternatives. For most of his fellow Jews, loving God meant exactly that: loving God and keeping his commandments and these included many things including sacrifices. It made no sense to say that to love God was more important than offering sacrifices. Mark or his tradition had introduced a distinction which would be nonsense for anyone believing all of Scripture, including its ritual and cultic laws. Matthew's preference was to see love of God as encompassing everything, but within that 'everything' some things were more important than others.

The central tenets of love of God and love of neighbour stand here next to one another. Paul's reflections on the work of the Spirit help us make the connection between the two more dynamic. Loving God opens us to the Spirit who pours love from God into our lives and brings that love as a fruit of the Spirit to others (Gal 5; Rom 5; 8). It is good, however, to have these grounded calls to love which we find in gospel tradition. They keep the balance against the tendency among some in the pauline tradition to become so overwhelmed in the Spirit that conscious responsibility for attitudes and acts of love get lost (as evidenced at Corinth).

Matthew has made much of the acclamation of Jesus by the outcast and the outsiders as 'Son of David' (9:27; 15:22; 20:30,31; 21:9, 15). He is Israel's messiah. The genealogy made the same point. But just as the genealogy in some respects misses the vital link (Joseph is by passed!), so 'Son of David' is true but not the whole truth. David, believed by people of the time to have written the Psalms, is inspired to speak of Jesus as 'Lord', thus implying that he is a lot more than the messianic descendant of David. Beyond the genealogy he is the miraculously conceived and created Son of God.

The function of this tutorial in christology which Mark has included at the close of Jesus' public ministry was to break a mould which would have held Jesus within a limited form of expectation. It works the same way in Matthew, even more dramatically since he makes so much use of 'Son of David'. At one level it is a matter of christology. At another level it is a matter of culture. Matthew wants to claim for Jesus that he is more than Israel's Messiah. He follows Mark in flashing before the reader a glimpse of resurrection belief according to which this Jesus was exalted to sit at God's right hand.

The metaphor is drawn from Ps 110:1 and originally belongs to the scenery of royal coronation. But it projected an understanding of Jesus which broke traditional categories. To hail Jesus as 'Lord' was to hail him with a term frequently used for gods and used in the Greek Old Testament for God. To say in Christ we encounter God is a claim which can make sense way beyond Jewish tradition. It is as though both Mark and Matthew are reminding us of this. It leaves each generation with a new challenge: how do we speak about God in Christ in a way that communicates the essence of the good news to people in our culture? It is as though every generation needs a christological tutorial like this which will expose the inadequacy of culturally bound categories. Sometimes the church is a mortuary of such categories where no such issues are raised.

Epistle: Pentecost 20: 26 October  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

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