Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity + October 20, 2019
Text: Matthew 22:(23-33) 34-46
The Pharisees knew who they were, and they knew who the God of Israel was. They knew His Word thoroughly, and unlike those fools who don’t even believe in angels, the afterlife, or the resurrection (the Sadducees), they held steadfast to God’s Word. They kept all the commandments, plus the “oral Torah”—the traditions of the elders—which were a hedge lest anyone transgress the Law and they lose the land again.
They studied the commandments, but more importantly, they obeyed the commandments. Chief among them was the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (Deut. 6:4-6) And how shall they be on your heart? By repetition, by “binding them as a sign on your hand…as frontlets between your eyes…by writing them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deut. 6:7-8)
So, when these Pharisees hear that Jesus has silenced the flimsy and proud Sadducees, they are ready to test this Rabbi’s mettle. Following the tradition of the respected rabbis of the past, they asked Rabbi Yeshua ben-Yosef [Jesus, son of Joseph] a question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” They ask this, fully expecting the answer quoted above.
But this Rabbi adds more: “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [Lev. 19:18] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” And that’s quite a statement to make! Certainly others like Hillel the Elder had recognized this second great commandment before, when he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
What this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees boils down to is a difference in how you approach the Word of God. You see, there’s a difference between seeing the Bible as something to be studied and mastered, and seeing it as the living and active Word of God.
The Pharisees were a group that had learned to approach the Word of God under a microscope. Its instructions were largely prescriptive, and anyone who followed its rules would be blessed, while the disobedient would be cursed.
What this attitude also allows is for one to come at the Word as a judge. Another display of this came immediately before today’s appointed reading. It would be helpful to follow along in the pew Bible, page 828:
23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”
The Sadducees approach Scripture with preconceived truths. For them, there are no angels, there is no afterlife, and there is no resurrection. Now, with these parameters firmly in place, they go to Scripture and try to make it fit their views.
This Rabbi—as they supposed—responds to the Sadducees,
29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
He combats all of their high-handed ideas and wraps up a rebuttal into a Scripturally-authoritative package: resurrection, angels, God of the living after death.
Now, back to the Pharisees, Jesus’ response to them is a question of His own:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘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 is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word…
For them, all the Bible’s contents fit into neat little dogmatic packages. Everything had a reasonable explanation, and one or two opinions about what might be less clear. But when Jesus asks them about the very prominent Psalm 110, written by King David, they are forced to admit defeat. They don’t have an answer for this part of Scripture. They must admit that they are not the judges of Scripture, but God will be their judge, and not on the basis of how many commandments they can enumerate and obey, but on whether the Word of God has been kept with their hearts.
The Sadducees and Pharisees represent problems that are still widespread today. Like the Sadducees, some approach the Bible as skeptics with their mind already made up. They find so-called controversial verses or look for seeming inconsistencies. They are people who have already made up their minds about the origin of the universe, what God is like, what ought to be priorities in life, whether it’s okay to live together apart from marriage or whether divorce is sinful. They come to the Bible with reservation (if they read it at all), and subscribe to it “in so far as” it agrees with their own worldview.
The Pharisees represent those who strive to study the Bible and master it, to memorize numerous passages and never miss an opportunity to grow in knowledge. And as we sit here with Bibles in our laps, we think this is the preferable option. If knowing the Bible is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. But the desire for knowledge and learning is not the problem; it’s the motive. It’s what Jesus said in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” God’s Word is not something that we master and become experts on; it’s God acting upon us and declaring to us who He is and recreating who we are in Christ.
The approaches to Scripture illustrated by the Pharisees and Sadducees—the experts and the skeptics—is really one of terrible insecurity. The experts are afraid of losing the footing they have by information about God. If they get swept away by this living God, they will then be the ones studied by Him, and they will be at His mercy. The skeptics are insecure because their conscience accuses them. They know that they think and live at odds with God’s revealed will, so they put up the mask of the unconvinced cynic. Both are terribly afraid that if they let God have an ounce of power over them, He might actually change who they are. He would make them into something of His choosing, not theirs.
What is this which God would change us into? He tells us what His intentions are: He is powerful, even able to raise the dead, for “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” He is the Son of David, and yet David’s Lord, who will trample His enemies. He is the God who desires us to know Him in both His power and the holy Scriptures.
And if we will abandon our weak attempts to know or repel God, we will at last discover that He is not to be discovered and studied by us. He seeks us out. He gives His commandments, that we might first know how far we have fallen short (Rom. 3:23). But the Son of David also became a priest after the order of Melchizedek, to offer what no human being could—a life without deceit or any stain of sin. It is only when we hang on this Christ, that we can sincerely (and in a God-pleasing way) love God with all of our heart, soul, and might; and our neighbor as ourselves.
God grant that we continue to be astonished at His teaching, for He has the words which are able to save, to count us with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not dead, but living forever more. Amen.