After all the times the Pharisees had tried to trick Jesus into saying or doing something that would incriminate Himself, you would think they would learn that Jesus was smarter than their tricks. In last week’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees enlisted the help of their disciples and the Herodians to trick Jesus so that they would find cause to put Him to death, yet their attempts proved to be unsuccessful.
It is Tuesday of Holy Week and Jesus’ public ministry is rapidly coming to a close. Jesus now faces yet another three temptations so to speak, questions asked by the Pharisees: the question of paying taxes to Caesar, the question of the resurrection of the body, and this question regarding the greatest commandment.
In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees gathered together after they had heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. They were delighted to see that Jesus had managed to silence the Sadducees, yet the Pharisees had to continue to find a way to trap Jesus in His words or actions because they couldn’t find anything else to pin on Him.
Jesus had just made the Sadducees look like fools when they tried to trick Him with a question about the resurrection, which they didn’t believe in. The Sadducees couldn’t trip up Jesus with their question, but that just gave the Pharisees all the more reason to try and do the same. After all, if they can trip up Jesus with a trick question, then not only will they show Jesus to be a fool, but they will also demonstrate their academic superiority over their greatest rivals – the Sadducees. As far as the Pharisees are concerned, this was a win-win opportunity. All their enemies would be silenced and they would come out on top.
Perhaps, this is the moment! The Pharisees send out to Jesus a lawyer, one who was an expert in the Old Testament Law, and asks Jesus a simple question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” When we look at the question, we are hard pressed to see how this question is designed to test Jesus. Maybe they were expecting a certain answer, one that would be the nail in Jesus’ coffin. Nonetheless, there was a reason why the question was asked.
Jesus does something different. He demonstrates the fact that He truly understands the commandments. He knows what they mean. This is why He sums up the entire Law in two brief statements: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is what all the Law and Prophets, that is, all of Scripture points to and teaches and means. You can’t argue with this answer, can you? The Pharisees didn’t even try to argue. In fact, St. Mark tells us that the Pharisee who asked the question could only congratulate Jesus for giving such a profound and wise answer.
How easy it is to say this law. Love God with all your resources and love your neighbor as you love yourself. This law is easy to say, but impossible to do. The fact is that we often love ourselves with all our resources, and we love our neighbor when we will receive something in return and love God with our leftovers. When we come before God, we must confess: “We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.”
But God does not punish us. Instead, He shows the love to us that we should show to Him. He shows us that ἀγάπη love, the unconditional love from the Father. In this unconditional love, God sent His only begotten Son into the world to save us from our sins.
Still, the Pharisees didn’t have enough to put anything on Jesus, nor did they truly understand the answer Jesus had just given. Instead of answering any more questions, Jesus asks a question to the Pharisees: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
What a change of events for the Pharisees. They were the ones who asked the questions, not the other way around. This isn’t just tit for tat that Jesus is doing. His is a serious question, and an honest answer would bring His opponents to a correct understanding of Him whom they are opposing.
Remember when this account takes place – during Holy Week. As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He declared Himself to be the long-awaited Messiah, but He did so in the humblest of ways by riding on a donkey. Now, on Holy Tuesday, as He puts this question to the Pharisees, He makes the highest claims for Himself as the Messiah.
They answer Jesus that the Christ is the son of David. Every good Jew knew that so it was pointless to ask that question, right – unless your name is Jesus and you are teaching the Pharisees through your question. If you were a Pharisee, you would have expected the Messiah to reestablish the golden age of David and Solomon, to cast off the Roman yoke and put an end to the hated tax and make Jerusalem great like it was before. But that was not the role of the Messiah; it was not the role of Jesus. The role of Jesus was to come and to die. The role of Jesus was to come and forgive you all of your sins. The role of Jesus was to make you holy before the Lord your God.
That’s why Jesus asked this question to them. They had forgotten about the fact that the Messiah was also Almighty God and Lord. They had completely forgotten what the Messiah meant to people living in this fallen and sinful world. They had forgotten that the Messiah would come to forgive them all of their sins.
We may not want to admit it, but sometimes, we, too, look for the same son of David that the Pharisees were looking for, and when He’s not meeting our expectations, we doubt. We go looking for something else. We look around for an earthly solution; failing to look up to our Lord and Savior in humble thanksgiving for the solution He has provided for our deadly and damning sinful condition. We want things to be good and right in the here and now, often failing to remember that Christ’s kingdom is not of this fallen and sinful world. We fail to remember that because of Christ’s all-redeeming death and resurrection, we are co-heirs and fellow citizens of His heavenly kingdom, and that by His unconditional grace and love alone.
There was a time that each of us hated God as an enemy. Now He fills us with His love and makes us His beloved children. Once, we were not a people. Now we are the people of God. Once, we were the slaves of sin. Now we are the free people of Heaven. Once we were subject to God’s eternal judgment. Now we are subject to God’s eternal love. God’s love has conquered evil and made us His children forever. In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.