Summary: But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord you
We’re in Matthew 22, and Jesus is brawling!
To be exact, we’re in the last round of a three-round brawl, where over the chapter in Matthew’s Gospel we’ve seen Jesus do battle with a group known as ‘the Herodians’, followed by a round with the Sadducees, followed by this week’s third and deciding round with the Pharisees!
And if you’ve been following the blow-by-blow description that you get in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll know that each round starts with Jesus’ antagonists taking the initiative and trying to trick Him. The Herodians led off with the question that Elias focused on last week - “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” - to which Jesus gave an equally tricky response: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”
In boxing parlance we’d call that a ‘slip’ (allowing the punch to go over your head). In other words, Jesus doesn’t really respond directly to the question. “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God‘s”. OK, so … do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Round two was with the Sadducees - those who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, if you remember, told Jesus a long and twisted story about a woman who was married to seven different men who all died on her, after which the question was posed, “whose wife will she be at the resurrection of the dead?”
It’s what’s referred to in philosophy as a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ - a question that leads to such ridiculous conclusions that you are forced to concede that something must be wrong with the question - in this case, that the very idea of a resurrection of the dead is itself ridiculous.
Jesus responds to this trick question very directly. He tells the Sadducees that they are a bunch of wankers, that they don’t know their Bibles and they don’t know God - that there is a resurrection of the dead, and … that there is no marriage in Heaven!
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my enduring memories of being lectured to by our current Archbishop while I was at seminary, was his commentary on this dialogue about there being no marriage in Heaven. He said that when he and his wife, Christine, were first married, she used to cry whenever she’d hear that text read, but that over the years, she’d stopped having that reaction.
At any rate, Jesus gives a direct and aggressive response to the Sadducees’ question (in boxing parlance, he counter-punches).
And so we enter the third and final round, where the Pharisees take their turn in sizing up to Jesus, and they, we are told, come with their own trick question, and if you know how these things work, you can bet that this will be the most mind-bending, gut-wrenching, complex and all-round tricky question of them all.
If you’ve ever seen a Bruce Lee movie, where wave after wave of thugs attack him, one after the other, you know that the final attack is going to be the most difficult to deal with. If you haven’t seen one of those sorts of movies for a while, you might have played a video game, where you have to fight your way through various levels, and you know that at the end of each level you have to fight ‘the Boss’ who is always the toughest guy to fight.
And so as we come to round three - the Herodians and the Sadducees having been knocked out of the ring, where they sit, nursing their wounds - and the Pharisees make their entrance. They come to succeed where their theological peers have failed. They come to deliver the knockout blow with what we suspect must be the most devastating of all questions. And so they ask Jesus, “Teacher, tell us, which is the greatest commandment?”
Now, I hope I haven’t over-dramatised the story, but I must confess that when I read through this passage again yesterday, and read it in the context of the series of confrontations that Jesus was engaged in, I couldn’t help sensing the way in which this confrontation seems like an enormous anti-climax!
This is the third and final round of a three-round stoush. This is indeed the confrontation which will prove the be the last stand-up entanglement that Jesus ever has with his theological contemporaries. At the conclusion of this encounter we are told that “from that day forward nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions.” And yet, the question appears to be so lame!
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” It doesn’t seem like a trick question at all, and Jesus’ response doesn’t seem particularly clever either!