34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’”? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Simeon the Just was among those left from the Great Congregation. He used to say: “The world stands on three things: on Torah and on worship and on acts of kindness.”-- Mishna, Aboth 1.2
It happened again that a certain stranger came before Shammai and said to him: “I will become a proselyte providing you teach me the whole Torah while I'm standing on one foot.” Shammai knocked him down with the builder’s rule in his hand. The stranger came before Hillel, who made him a proselyte. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn it!”
-- Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a
I find the attempts to summarize the core of the faith are often helpful reminders of what to bear in mind (or at least the back of the mind) as being most essential in any given approach to the text. There are a number of such attempts: one could look to Proto-Isaiah’s kingship oracle (33:15-16) and find there a recipe for right behavior, or to the postexilic Isaiah (ch. 58) and his take on the difference between false and true worship. Amos 5:1-15, with its call to break bonds imposed by those who pervert justice, is compelling in its own way. And, of course, the famously durable sixth chapter of Micah, in which the prophet litigates the covenant between YHWH and his people: “[YHWH] has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (The fact that these are all in the form of prophetic utterance ought not be lost on us.)
Now we come to Jesus’ succinct summarization of the law as it is rendered by Matthew, and we find that it’s no seashells-and-balloons type moment. In fact, it’s within a coldly bitter context. It occurs at the end of Matthew’s fifth narrative block (chapters 21-27), where the question of Jesus’ authority is being hotly contested. Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, and scribes parry and thrust, post and riposte, around a substantial problem: By what authority does Jesus do these things, and who gave that authority to him? (21:23). (Or, in the words of an Old Testament professor extemporizing on the prophets in the courts of kings, “Oh yeah? Well, who the hell are you to tell us what to do?”) Of course, it’s going to get even worse after this: standing in the temple, Jesus will go on from here to heap curses and predictions of apocalyptic ruin upon all those who bear the mantle of the ruling religious elite: the scribes and Pharisees; poor, bosom-less Jerusalem; and finally the temple herself, a key symbol of correspondence with the divine. All that, as I say, yet to come.
If Jesus – here functioning as both teacher and prophet – seems quick to dig his heel into their graves, perhaps a word or two of what makes up the whole section. In this lection, Jesus is asked a question by a teacher of the law (a scribe of the Pharisees) and then poses a question to the gathered Pharisees. This is immediately after his having been asked two rather more pointed questions on the law, one by the Pharisees and one by the Sadducees. The business between Jesus and the Pharisees gets pretty nasty over the matter of paying taxes, and they’re completely stymied by him (22:22). Then the same thing happens with the Sadducees when it comes to the resurrection, and he shuts them down, too (22:33). Such conversations and questions are built around snares – setting rhetorical traps for Jesus to step into (22:16) – but his refusal to fall for it frames his teaching authority as being extraordinary in nature. (Surely that’s a not-too-subtle way of answering the question on the table about authority, is it not?)
It’s only my opinion, but Jesus’ summarization of the law is a way of telling these teachers of the law that they’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to be about; it’s an early form of condemnation for the much stronger coffee he’s got brewing for chapters 23 and 24, the apocalyptic fire sale where everything must go but the very center of the beating heart of the law. It must also, for Matthew, be a fundamental teaching device for telling the gathered community of the people of the Way how to treat one another and walk reverently before God (even though Matthew, clearly, has borrowed it from Mark/Q).
So anyhow, Jesus summarizes the law in the presence of the Pharisees and then, doubling back on them, he returns to the question of authority, only in a different way. “What do you think of the Messiah?” Their answer is not wrong, but neither is it connected to the conversation they’ve just had with respect to either Jesus or messiahship, so he reframes it by citing Psalm 110:1 – the pre-exilic oracle of the royal psalm, which maintains that the Lord grants earthly power and authority to the ruling and priestly office of the king. That this was said by David in the Spirit.
In other words, that he may well be David’s son (Matthew’s genealogy takes such cartoonish pains to point that out), but that his authority is the very authority set over David to begin with. David is a type of a messiah, the adopted Son of God, the oily-headed righteous ruler of Psalm 89. What sets all that in motion, however, is the greater power – the selfsame prerogative out of which Jesus tries to teach these petty elite. David’s enemies only became his virtual ottoman in an act of deference to the One ruler who, in scripture, ideally uses the power of an undivided government as a great light to which the nations are meant to stream. And that light, in practice, is supposed to look like the prophets’ summation of the law: the summation upon which everything else hangs, and in the light of which everything else appears as minor detail.
So here’s Jesus, before the Pharisees with these words still ringing in the air about who he is, and with all their rhetorical crowns already gathered at his feet. You’d only have to go a little way from here to connect the dots, but even in the best of circumstances you can’t make a horse drink no matter how well led. Thank God for the element of choice, but if these ruling religious elites won’t recognize his authority – especially after what has just happened – then there’s really nothing left to say.
Worse yet, I’d bet a month’s salary many of them do understand well enough but are incapable of properly acting on this new knowledge. They’re impotent, calcified; they’ve become inured to the power of the truth by virtue of their enviable social positions. I can see the disciples kicking around the edges of this transaction, deeply mistrusting of the crowd but also kind of jealous. Peter’s comment from John 6 reverberates – We can’t go with anyone else but you, Jesus – but when you look hard enough, you can just sense their very human envy.
In any case, Jesus will now proceed with his sharpest attacks against them, and they will retreat and gather support to get rid of him.
That’s a bummer, all right. And, it may not be the “good news” part of this gospel lection. But even in this parting of the ways, drawn so clearly between Jesus and the religious authorities around him, there is given both a summation of the law and a still-further setting-of-the-face toward what is to come. To exercise the prophetic utterance, to become vulnerable to the long knives of the ruling elite, is, for Jesus, a way of embracing the cross before him.