Matthew 22:34-40 – The Greatest Commandment. Mt 22:34-46 – The Son of David.

Our Gospel passage for this Sunday concludes the debate between Jesus and the religious authorities, which began in chapter 21.  We are in the midst of a long discourse that lasts five chapters (21 to 25), and that I have called the Sermon in the Temple.  In this section, the Pharisees make their final appearance in Matthew’s Gospel and ask Jesus one last question.  It is not a very challenging one, but it seems the Pharisees would like Jesus to affirm his support for the basic precepts of the Law of the Torah.

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 commandment in the law is the greatest?” Mt 22:34-36

"The Scribes Listen to Jesus Preach in the Temple." Martin Knoller, 1790. Neresheim Abbey, Germany.

Jesus is happy to respond to the question, and he does so very directly and without critiquing the Pharisees.  This is Jesus’ answer, which is entirely in keeping with the Law of the Torah:

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Mt 22:37-40

Jesus’ answer is very matter of of fact. He neither elaborates, nor modifies, nor argues with the Pharisees.   First, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, which is the second verse of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5).  Next, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  In choosing to quote from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus refers back to the heart of Jewish law.  He also chooses two passages that are well within the mainstream of Rabbinic thought, so that it is difficult for the Pharisees to argue that Jesus is selectively proof-texting the Law of the Torah.

In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus concludes both the Sermon on the Mount (verse 7:12) and the debate with the religious leaders in the Sermon in the Temple (verse 22:37-39) with the same law:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Mt 7:12

Some scholars see in Matthew’s Gospel a deliberate concentric structure, where Jesus begins and ends his ministry with a major discourse, and where both major discourses conclude with an explanation of the greatest commandment.

The Yoke of the Law under The Covenant of Jesus

Returning to our passage… in Matthew 5:17, Jesus tells us that he has not come to abolish but to fulfill the law.  In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you” (See my blog post on the Yoke of the Law).   In Matthew, 23:2-4, Jesus complains that the teachers of the law set a yoke (burden) that is too heavy upon the shoulders of men.

In answering the Pharisees’ question, Jesus sets down his understanding of the Yoke of the Law – and it is not intended to be a heavy yoke.   The law he lays down is to love the Lord with all your heart, and to extend to one’s neighbor the same charity that you would want extended to yourself.

The Son of David

Now it is Jesus’ turn to test the Pharisees’ understanding of the Law and Prophets.  While the Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the Law, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question about the Prophets.  Specifically, he challenges the Pharisees to explain what is meant when Scripture says the christ is the son of David. I will paraphrase Mt 22:43-45, as it is confusing:

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For David says, ” ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”  If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”

First of all, King David never explicitly states, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet…” in Holy Scripture. What Jesus is doing is quoting Psalm 110, which is a royal psalm, presumed to be authored by David.   Psalm 110 is also one of the most unambiguously messianic psalms, such that it is a favorite of Christians.

Jesus is asking the Pharisees, who do you think David is really talking about?  There is an open question in Palm 110:  is “my Lord” a descendant of David, or a more direct servant of God himself?  The Pharisees presume “my Lord” to simply be a king and a descendant of David.  Perhaps David speaks in the third person: thus “my lord” may refer to himself.  Jesus challenges this presumption, and suggests to them that perhaps “my Lord” to whom David refers is more closely associated with God himself than with David.

Jesus elliptically argues in Matthew 22 that David would never refer to a descendant of his bloodline as “my Lord.”  If that is the case, suggests Jesus, then are we not speaking of a divine person?  Psalm 110 points out the irony that a descendant of David will one day come who will both rest his feet on the LORD’s enemies, and who will outrank David in precedence.  Jesus is suggesting that the messiah is not merely a Son of David.  He will be a descendant of David, surely.  But he will be a much greater man than David: he will be a Divine Son of God.

The Son of David in Scripture

The Son of David is never used as a messianic title in the Old Testament. It is only used literally; for instance, Solomon is the “Son of David.”  It is not even particularly commonplace. The phrase occurs less than ten times throughout the Old Testament. However, we note that in the Gospels, the term Son of David occurs perhaps fifteen times, and the vast majority of these mentions come from Matthew’s Scripture – the Gospel written for Christians of Jewish heritage.

The Son of David in "The Nativity." Gerard Van Honthorst. 1622. Cologne.

In first century Palestine, it would appear that the appelation Son of David was a compliment of the first order.  Obviously, a Son of David is a descendant of David. In Matthew 1:1, the evangelist tells us in very matter-of-fact fashion that the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  To suggest that someone is a Son of David might be to say that they are a “righteous Jew.”  For example, in Matthew 15:22, the Canaanite woman begs Jesus: Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, the term Son of David has acquired a new meaning: the Messiah. Thus we have this testimony from Matthew 20:10-16:

 And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?”  And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” …

…And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant; and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise’?”

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