Summary: In one of the final debates with the Pharisees, Jesus exposes their penchant for complicating the simple meaning of God’s Word, while ignoring those parts of God’s word which truly are full of mystery.
Hard or Simple?
A university research wished to study the differences in perception that are related to ones vocation. So, they devised a simple test in order to detect how a person’s professional vocation influenced their answer to a simple question.
The first to be tested was a brick layer. The researchers asked him: “What does two plus two make?” The engineer simply said, “Why, four, of course.”
After making their notes and dismissing him, they summoned an artist. To the same question, he responded, “Well, there are several possibilities: two and two make four, but so does three and one -- or two point five and one point five -- they also make four. So, what are you really after: the answer four? Or, the various ways of arriving at the answer four?”
They dismissed him and called for a mathematician. “What does two plus two make?” they asked. He responded, “How can I tell if you haven’t first told me what it is that you have two of. Two zeros plus another two zeros is zero. Two negative sixes plus two positive sevens is two. Or, if you add two squares of 2 to two halves of the square root of 16 you’ll get twelve. I can’t really answer your question until you get more specific.”
The researchers thanked him and made their notes. Finally, they called an attorney. When he heard the question, he first looked around the room to check out who might be listening. Then he asked the researchers if he could close the door. Finally, he drew his chair up close to the researchers, leaned forward, and said very quietly, “Well, tell me now – what would you like it to be?” [hat tip: greg yount, with modifications]
The researchers in this story might just as well have gathered a bunch of Christians together and asked them a simple question such as this: “what is the gospel?” or “How may a sinner be saved?” The answers you’d get to those kinds of questions might be all over the map. The differences wouldn’t necessarily vary according to the vocation of the one giving the answer (though, I suppose it’s likely that a Christian lawyer might give a different sort of answer from that given by a Christian ditch digger).
In today’s gospel lesson we see yet another session of Jesus sparring with the religious leadership of the nation Israel during final days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And, in this episode, Jesus is asked a simple question, and he gives a simple answer. After that, Jesus asks his interrogators a question which utterly stumps them. As with all such encounters between Jesus and his persecutors, there are a great number of profitable lines of meditation we might take. Today, I wish to stand back a bit and draw a lesson for ourselves about God’s revelation of Himself in his Word, and the right and wrong ways that we relate to what God has told us.
For, it is God’s word that is the subject of this particular sparring session in today’s gospel lesson. In this chapter of Matthew the religious leadership has already challenged Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar, and about the nature of the resurrection. In the previous chapter, the Pharisees and Sadducees had challenged Jesus’ authority to teach and to drive the money changers out of the Temple. Here, they endeavor to ensnare Jesus in a trap, to get him to trip himself up as to the meaning and the purpose of God’s word. And, it is probably significant, that they make this attempt through the agency of a lawyer.
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” In the New King James version which we are using, the lawyer asks what is “the great commandment” as if there was one commandment which was great and all the others were not so great, and he wanted to know if Jesus could identify which commandment this was. Actually, as most other translations indicate, the question the lawyer poses has to do with which commandment the GREATEST commandment.
Matthew tells us that the lawyer asked this question in order to test Jesus. It doesn’t look like much of a test to us, but that’s because we don’t have the lawyer’s perspective on the Law of Moses. The Pharisees had decided, after careful examination of the Law of Moses, that it contained exactly 613 separate laws. Three hundred sixty five of these laws were prohibitions; and another 248 of them were positive directions for living.
They also believed that some of these laws were more important than others, and many arguments among the Pharisees revolved around putting all 613 laws in order, from the greatest of them to the least of them. And, with 613 laws to work with, you can see how much controversy was possible in how you arranged them. As usual, it really didn’t matter which commandment Jesus said was the greatest, since they were going to use whatever answer he offered as a pretext to embroil him in a fight with some specific party among the religious leadership.