Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Last Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 22. 34 - end: "An escalating conflict"
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
How do you feel about the rules and regulations that govern society? You may be someone who naturally conforms and maybe worries about breaking the rules? Why do you think that is? On the other hand, you may be someone who challenges authority and has little time for the rules? Why?
Reflection on the text
The conflict between Jesus and the religious elite continues to escalate with the religious authorities attempting a third time to wrong foot himby asking him another tricky question while he was teaching in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion. Which of God’s commandments is most important? They should have known better.
This time, they have gathered in a concerted attack (v34). But the question they ask of is not difficult for Jesus to answer. Others had summarised the Law (Torah) long before Jesus’ time: see for example Micah 6:8 or Isaiah 33: 15-16 and 56.1.
However, Jesus includes some vital phrases in the beautifully succinct answer he gives (vs 37-40).
- Living within God’s law is how the whole of life is to be lived, ‘with all your heart, soul and mind.’ It is not just a matter of doing certain occasional acts or avoiding certain narrowly defined sins.
- This includes human relationships at every level, including creation, and also involves loving one’s self. These are not just rules for individuals, but a code for building a just society.
- Love of God and love of people are inseparable together with self-love.
- There commandments are interconnected and inter-dependent.
Round one of this bout has gone to Jesus. They simply can’t fault him. His authority as a teacher is clear but the religious leaders fail to acknowledge the source of that authority. He is not just another clever or well-educated theologian like them.
Jesus goes on the offensive and puts them to the test: ‘Whose Son is the Messiah? They quickly fall into the trap and end up speechless. They still can’t see that Jesus could be the Messiah, never mind the Son of God. From the time of his birth, Jesus was quickly recognised to be the Son of David by the lowliest of people. And by this stage in his ministry those closest to him, the members of the disciple community, have come to recognise Jesus as the Messiah.
However, the religious elite still cannot recognise him as Messiah or Son of David and they are certainly not about to acknowledge that his great authority comes from God. Nor can they see that the life of the Temple, for which they hold responsibility, fails to honour the spirit of God’s Law.
So in reality, they are neither deaf nor blind to the requirements of the Law. And they are only too well aware that Jesus has an authority beyond his own humanity.
Their problem is that the cost of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah or of interpreting the true spirit of the Law was just too great.
Important Note: see More Background Information below for an outline of the meaning of the word ‘love’ in first century society.
some questions for group discussion:
- Share together some of the ways that your Christian community represents and shares God’s love in the world.
- The Peanuts cartoon character Linus said: "I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand." What "hidden restrictions" do we put on our notion of ‘neighbour’, and in what ways does this limit our love?
- People sometimes say that ‘how a person behaves is OK as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone’ and use it to justify things that many consider wrong. Are there hidden hurts that this statement hides? What might they be?
- Are there ways in which the commitment of your Christian community to build a just society is compromised? If so, what are the root causes and how might they be removed or diminished?
To what extent are the compromises rooted in a failure to…
- recognise or acknowledge Jesus as God’s anointed one (Messiah)?
- address the spirit of the Law rather than the letter?
- Say or sing the hymn, “Brother, sister, let me serve you …”
- Join together in the prayer of St Teresa of Avila (1515-82)
Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
No hands but ours, no feet but ours;
Ours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,
And ours are the hands with which he is to bless men and women now.
- Say together the Lord’s Prayer, and pause at “Your kingdom come” to remember the earlier discussion about how to build a more just society. Pause again at “forgive us our trespasses” to recall the compromises discussed earlier.
More background information
This is the third of three questions put to Jesus in this chapter: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" asked by Pharisees and Herodians (v 17); "In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?" asked by Sadducees (v 27). The third question put by a lawyer (nomikos) is only found in Matthew
- This great commandment is found in Mark 12:28-24 where a scribe comes to Jesus with good intentions, seeking to be enlightened, and reacts favourably to Jesus’ response. In Luke 10:25-28, it’s a lawyer, rather than Jesus, who states the commandment. Jesus elaborates its meaning with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here in Matthew, the question is put to Jesus in bad faith as a test.
- Hare, in his commentary on Matthew, (Interpretation Commentaries, page 260) writes:
In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbour, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbour is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.
- In their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina and Rohrbaugh explore the meaning of love and hate in first century Mediterranean society. They say (pages 57-8):
- People were extremely group oriented relying totally on the kin, villagers, neighbourhood or factions to which they belonged.
- People had little concern for things psychological. Psychological states were ascribed to good and bad spirits. Words referring to internal states always connoted a corresponding external expression as well. For example, the word "to know" always involved some experience of the object known.
- The term "love" is best translated "group attachment, attachment to some person." Thus, in Matthew 6:24, to ‘love one's master" is paraphrased as "to be devoted." There may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment along with the outward behaviour bound up with attachment that love entails. Thus "to love God with all one's heart, etc." means total attachment (22:37); "to love one's neighbour as oneself" (19:19) is to be as attached to the people in one's neighbourhood as to one's own family - a very normal thing in the group-oriented Mediterranean until families begin feuding.
- Correspondingly, "hate" would mean "disattachment, nonattachment, indifference." Again, there may or may not be feelings of repulsion.
An interesting way to explore the great Commandment is to ask group members to sketch an equal sided triangle on a piece of paper and to label the sides: Loving God, Loving Neighbour, Loving Ourselves. Alongside each side write the various ways in which we go about doing each of the three.
For example, under ‘loving ourselves’ we might write rest, recreation, nutrition. Beside ‘loving neighbour’ we might put taking time to listen, practical support through crises, etc.
Discuss how our lives look when we lose the balance and fail to attend to all three? For example, what happens when we love self and neighbour but not God or we love self and God but ignore our neighbour or we love neighbour and God but not self? How might we support each other in keeping the balance?