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Who are your relatives?

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday October 23 - Pentecost 19
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

We can look at the content of this reading, and also the context. Both have a message.

The context is that in the past chapters Jesus has been under constant attack by people questioning his authority. Since 21:23 the authorities have been reacting to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and his cleansing of the temple. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The reading this week, asking which is the greatest commandment, is one more attempt to trick him into a wrong answer. How can there be one commandment more important than the others?  They all come from God.

As usual, he outwits them:  “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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Yes, they do all come from God, and so they are equal in a sense. But on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. These two are foundational.

Jesus then goes on the offensive in chapter 23. My Bible heads it Jesus denounces scribes and Pharisees. The denunciation is savage; blind guides and hypocrites...

The question of the Messiah and whose son he is, is actually the beginning of this attack. It is a blunt statement of his authority to say all he has said, and to now make the denunciations of chapter 23.

We need to understand the way Jesus’ culture understood itself, and its scriptures, in order not to be bamboozled by the text, or to feel that his argument is forced, if not simply invalid. Jesus is making a claim to authority, based on the common use of scripture in debate, not mounting an argument in Newtonian physics. What matters here is the validity or power of the argument in its context, not how it sounds to us today. The context of the argument clearly indicates that for the readers, it was a clincher, no matter how strange it may seem to us!

The content.

Matthew, of course, is preaching to the choir in this section, as with most of the gospel. He is showing Jesus is superior to the opposition; chapters 21-23 are exhortatory, as much as anything. But beyond the exhortation and encouragement, there is content that is reminding “the choir “of serious issues.

Loader says,

Matthew has made much of the acclamation of Jesus by the outcast and the outsiders as 'Son of David' (9:27; 15:22; 20:30,31; 21:9, 15). He is Israel's messiah. The genealogy made the same point. But just as the genealogy in some respects misses the vital link (Joseph is by passed!), so 'Son of David' is true but not the whole truth. David, believed by people of the time to have written the Psalms, is inspired to speak of Jesus as 'Lord', thus implying that he is a lot more than the messianic descendant of David. Beyond the genealogy he is the miraculously conceived and created Son of God.

Bill goes on to point out the content and function of this final clinching argument of Jesus’ superiority.

The function of this tutorial in christology ... was to break a mould which would have held Jesus within a limited form of expectation. Matthew wants to claim for Jesus that he is more than Israel's Messiah. He follows Mark in flashing before the reader a glimpse of resurrection belief according to which this Jesus was exalted to sit at God's right hand.

The metaphor is drawn from Ps 110:1 and originally belongs to the scenery of royal coronation. But it projected an understanding of Jesus which broke traditional categories. To hail Jesus as 'Lord' was to hail him with a term frequently used for gods and used in the Greek Old Testament for God. To say in Christ we encounter God is a claim which can make sense way beyond Jewish tradition.

Just before this “mould breaking” claim by Matthew, the content is equally carefully chosen. The final argument in which Jesus proves superior, is about the greatest commandment. There was no argument about the existence or relevance of God; no Dawkins or Hitchins were in sight. So the key thing for all sides was “What is the most important commandment?” What does God want above all else? It is not just the occasion for a trick question. It is also a serious issue. There were, after all, 613 commandments in the law.

Above all else, above all of the supposed 613 commandments in the Law of Moses is that we should “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind.” I considered beginning this reflection by asking, “What more can I say?” There is a logic in this choice of the greatest commandment by Jesus, that transcends the millennia. Unlike the argument about David’s son, it has not lost any power because of cultural obscurity.

Yet this teaching of Jesus will always fail, if it stands alone, because of my humanity. Obsessive person that I am, I will apply myself to the loving of God in the greatest detail, and with tiresome passion, and ignore you; or more likely,  simply forget you are there. Therefore, I need the second commandment, which is like the first; “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

This second commandment is the governor of my passion, and the rudder of my service. It steers me away from narcissism. It prevents me from being wrecked on my dehumanising obsessiveness. It will bring us into the same boat, where you will teach me about God, and about myself, and rescue me from my idolatrous solo adventure.

Brian Stoffregen noted a difference of opinion among commentators about this text.

Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) writes: "... these two commandments remain distinct. They should not be identified with each other. Loving God should not be reduced to loving one's neighbor! Loving God is an act of love distinct from loving one's neighbor, and vice versa" [p. 314]....

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: "To love God is to love one's neighbor, and vice versa (25:31-46)" [p. 426]

I agree strongly both ways.

As do I. If I do not love you, my proclaimed love of God is immature at best, and more likely, a sham or self-deception. But there is something in me which knows that even if I could, in theory, love my neighbour hugely, and be a saint in my street, I would yet be lacking something. There needs to be recognition of the bigger picture. There is more happening in this mystery, which is the universe in which we find myself, than just us. There is God. There is unfathomable mystery. I must love and worship this God, nothing else is adequate for a full life.

Stoffregen also quoted at length from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels about the word agape, which is used in 22:37-38.

As an Australian male the whole loving God thing doesn’t quite gel. We don’t get gushy about feelings. Passionate singing, and re-singing, of choruses about love of God is disturbing of the digestion.  It feels fake.

Brian’s selection from the book reminded me of my experience with tribal aboriginal people as a young man. The first thing which happened to me when I arrived at Ernabella, was a jockeying and negotiating about the family to which I would belong. It was obvious enough that even I, speaking no local language, was aware of it. I met the love of my life there, and when we married after about a  year, there was a slight rearrangement of the family lines to cope!

Relationship was everything. Family was crucial. Fortunately, Europeans were give a lot of slack to allow for their general ignorance, but our social connections; who we went hunting with, our work relationships; who wouldn’t work with us, and so on, were all affected by the Pitjantjatjara families to which we belonged.

Most noticeable was meeting aboriginal folk from out of town, or when we were out of town. Across the huge area from Indulkana, up to Tennant Creek, and across to Warburton, conversations did not begin with, “Howdy. Nice day,” which is what Europeans would say. The first question would be some variation of, “Who are your relatives?”

All the world falls into place when this answer is known.  Whom you are obliged to is clear. What you must do, and not do, is obvious. In short, you know who to love and who to hate, in the New Testament sense.

Two words nearly always assigned to internal states in our society are "love" and "hate." To understand what they meant in the first-century Mediterranean world, it is necessary to recognize their group orientation. The term "love," for example, is best translated "group attachment, attachment to some person." Thus, in Matt. 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 behavior 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 neighbor as oneself" (19:19) is to be attached to the people in one's neighborhood 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. But it is the inward feeling of nonattachment along with the outward behavior bound up with not being attached to a group and the persons that are part of that group that hate entails. (My italics.)

It’s the “internal state” kind of loving God which has a high “ick” factor for Aussie men, or at least, so often seems fake or forced.  But attachment, total devotion, and giving everything for the team, are concepts we know all about, and are good at. We can truly love God in this way. We can do love. And we can do it, and will do it, regardless of how we feel on the day. We will do our best to give all we've got to God; it's how we do things.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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