Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jesus' first and last disputations in the Temple

Holman Hunt - The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple
(courtesy Wikipedia)
I've been preparing a Sermon on Jesus's final disputations in the Temple (Matthew 22.34-45) and made what to me is a really interesting discovery.  First of all here is the passage:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments all the Law depends and the prophets.

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he 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?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

A rabbai by one of his disciples: “Rabbai, why do you always answer a question with a question?” He replied “And what is wrong with answering a question with a question?”

Public debate and discussion are fundamental to the Jewish culture. Indeed as Amartya Sen argues in his wonderful book The Idea of Justice, they are fundamental to justice and liberty.  This Chapter of Matthew is full of questions. The Chief Priests ask by what authority Jesus upsets the moneychangers and Jesus answers with a question about the Baptism of John. The Herodians ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar?”  and Jesus answers with a question “Whose image is this?”. Then the Sadducees ask about the resurrection.   And now the Pharisees. They have heard disturbing reports that Jesus is making claims of divine authority.  He is named after Joshua (the words are the same in Hebrew) and it’s bad enough that he takes thousands of followers into the wilderness and talks of feeding them bread from heaven. There is only one God, the Lord. Everyone knows that this is the greatest commandment: we have to say the Shama (Listen O Israel, The LORD your God is ONE, You shall Love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength) twice a day. Let’s see how he responds.

So Jesus gives the “correct” answer but with a twist. He adds “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18) and then says “on these two commandments all the law depends and the prophets.” (This is the Greek word order, which might also suggest that the law should be read in the light of the prophets, but we don’t really have time to develop that thought). The great Rabbi Hillel was approached by a heathen who asked him “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot” and Hillel replied 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour:  that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it; go and learn it.”  Hillel died in 10AD in Jerusalem, so Jesus could well have met him when he was in a disputation with the sages in the Temple when he was 12 (Luke 2.41-52). Hillel was clearly "not far from the kingdom of God" though note how Jesus takes it further than Hillel ever does.

 When an expert in the law asked Jesus a similar question in Luke 10 and Jesus (answering a question with a question) replies “what is written in the Law? How do you read it?” this expert knows enough to reply Love God and Love neighbour and then asks “who is my neighbour” which ends up with the legal expert being told to act like a Samaritan.

This time, Jesus asks his own question. Whose Son is the Messiah? This is a massively tricky and topical question. There was an enormous amount of expectation that the Messiah would come, set the world to rights, expel the Romans and inaugurate the age to come.  Jesus has many of the expected characteristics of the Messiah, but was deeply puzzling. Instead of turning his thousands of followers into an army he disperses them.  He can claim descent from David but he refers to himself highly enigmatically as “Son of Man” Where is this going to lead? Still there is a standard answer: “Son of David” What will he make of that?

As always, Jesus leads us beyond our preconceptions. If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?  Psalm 110 is a highly messianic psalm. “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool…you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” and is explicitly stated to be “A Psalm of David” (unlike Psalms 111-121)  As the writer of Hebrews astutely observes, Melchizedek received tribute from Abraham and is therefore “superior” even to Abraham, let alone David. (BTW I think Hebrews was almost certainly written by a woman, probably Priscilla, but that’s another story!)  Who is this Messiah?  Who is this man? Can it be that, as Jesus claimed, “one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42, Luke 11:23)

“No-one could say a word.” And from that time no-one dared ask him any questions. Are they in the presence of someone greater than Abraham? Someone who, in the words of Psalm 110, “will execute judgement among the nations, filling them with corpses”?

And this passage jumps right across the 20 centuries to us today. Twice a day the observant Jew repeats the Shemah – “Listen O Israel, The LORD your God is One. You shall love The LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength”. Tom Wright’s wonderful magnum opus on Paul brings out, amongst many other things, how central the Shemah is for Paul and how he redefines it to include Jesus.  I could, and certainly should, do a lot more to live and breathe the Christian Shemah including “love your neighbour as yourself.”

Secondly, we all have to face up to the question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Son of Mary – born in a Palestine ruled by the client despot of an Empire whose own ruler, Caesar, was held to be Son of a God and the bringer of peace? Son of David – heir of God’s great promises and the means of their fulfilment. Son of Man – one who is like us in all things, yet without sin? We have all sinned, in that we have fallen short of the glory of God: but Jesus makes the glory of God known and was obedient in all things, even death on the Cross.

And finally, we need to recognise the deep connection between these two passages. To love God with all you heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself are wonderful goals but, in human strength, they are impossible.  Only be done by God’s grace through Jesus his Messiah, putting on the wedding garment that God supplies, can we participate in the Messianic banquet which is eternal life, of which this communion is a wonderful foretaste.

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