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Today, the Temple was burbling over with activity—and not only because it was the busiest time of the year, Jewish Passover.
A new teacher had arrived in town two days before, bringing with him strange new teachings that had the religious leaders up in arms. This teacher’s name was Jesus, and he had just silenced a group of Sadducees who had attempted to stump him with riddles.
Amidst the drone of scandalous whispers, a lawyer stood up. A member of the Pharisees, this lawyer sought to test Jesus with a question.
“Teacher,” the lawyer asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36)
The burbling chatter of the crowd rose to fever pitch. What a difficult question the lawyer had asked! While the scriptural proficiency of the crowd varied, every onlooker knew that the scriptures contained hundreds of commandments that must be followed (the wisest onlookers, perhaps, knew that scripture held 613 commands); wading through these commands to identify which was paramount was a near impossible task—even for the most brilliant of teachers.
This new teacher, however, did not seem to appreciate the difficulty of the question. Without quandary or speculation, he answered the lawyer.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
Although the teacher’s voice was strong, patient, and overflowing with authority, there was the sense that the words he was speaking weren’t his own. It felt as if he was relaying words that had been entrusted to him by another.
“The second command is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus continued. “On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:39)
The crowds quieted down to a murmur and scrutinized the faces of the Pharisees. Earlier in the day, Jesus had cried out that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter into the kingdom of God before the Pharisees. (Matthew 21:31) How would the Pharisees respond?
While many of the Pharisees brooded in silence (silently plotting ways to rid themselves of this troublesome teacher without the crowd’s knowledge), the lawyer seemed to be deep in thought. He had been listening to Jesus carefully. Now, he nodded.
“Yes,” the lawyer nodded again. “Yes, you are correct, Teacher. You have truly said that he is the one and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)
Although Jesus had offered only reproach and reprimand to previous leaders, he looked at this lawyer and nodded.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. (Mark 12:34)
But this is not where the story ends.
Although the Pharisees had been vexed into silence, Jesus did not leave them be. Instead, he fixed them with a glance.
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42)
The Pharisees shot one another puzzled glances. Why was the teacher asking such a simple question? Everyone knew about the Messiah! Even the most foolish member of the crowd knew that the Messiah would be a relation to David. Jesus must have a trick up his sleeve.
“The son of David,” they cautiously replied. (Matthew 22:42)
“How is it, then, that David, in the Spirit, calls the Messiah, Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet?’” Jesus asked. “If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:43-45)
No one was able to answer.
When we read this passage of scripture, we are often tempted to read Jesus’ final question as an attempt to one-up the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees had approached Jesus in the hopes of stumping him; why shouldn’t Jesus respond in kind? But what if Jesus’ final question was meant in earnest?
The Pharisees had a very specific set of beliefs about the Messiah: The Messiah was going to be an entirely human descendant of David who saved the Jewish people from their worldly oppressors. Although the Jewish people had heretofore been burdened with the yoke of various empires (Babylon, Persia, and, most recently, Rome), the Messiah would not only set them free but herald in an enlightened Jewish empire, providing all with government-backed freedom.
It is no wonder, then, that the Pharisees who happened upon Jesus were incapable of bestowing upon him the title he was owed: Their definition of the Messiah was completely askew. (For an explanation of the freedom that Jesus offers, you can click here.) The Pharisees search for the Messiah was much akin to the police search for Saint Athanasius in the Nile. The police pulled alongside the boat responsible for transporting Athanasius and, ignorant of the saint’s appearance, spoke with the saint, himself.
“Is Bishop Athanasius on board?” The officers demanded of the saint. To which, the saint responded, “No! He is hiding on the boat following us.”
The police stopped to check the boat behind, and Athanasius made it safely to Upper Egypt.
While the officers are similar to the Pharisees, there is one key difference between Saint Athanasius and Jesus: Athanasius didn’t want to be found.
If we examine our scriptures for context, we see that the conversation at the temple takes place only days before Jesus is crucified:
Sunday: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11)
Monday: Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-17)
Wednesday: The religious leaders plot to arrest and kill Jesus (Matthew 26:3-5)
Thursday: The Last Supper and arrest of Christ (Matthew 26:17-68)
Friday: Jesus delivered to Pilate and the Crucifixion (Matthew 27)
This scripture also takes place only moments before Matthew 23:37, in which Jesus cries:
“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathered her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Jesus is not idly engaging in a battle of wits with the Pharisees. He no more wants the Pharisee to perish than the prostitute or the tax-collector. As mentioned before, the only difference between a Pharisee and a prostitute is that a prostitute acknowledges their sinful nature and spiritual ignorance. When Christ gives the prostitute a definition of the Messiah, the prostitute is more likely to accept it at face value. The Pharisee, however, has dedicated his life to study and purification; he is less likely to see himself in need of salvation and more likely to reject this new definition of the disciple based on his own definition.
So Jesus asks this impossible question of the Pharisees to open their eyes.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question is also meant to instruct. When he distills all 613 commands to two commands, he isn’t doing any favors. “On these two laws,” Jesus says, “hang all the Laws and the Prophets.” This means that if we are not loving God with all our heart, soul and mind—if we, for example, designate room in our heart, soul, and mind for something else—then we have broken all 613 commandments.
This is somber news deserving of much thought. It is more than telling that upon hearing this news, the Pharisees were not thinking about their own inadequacy, but the best way in which they could kill the very God in whom they were commanded to love.
That Jesus mentions the commandments immediately after this somber news is no mistake. Although we could never fulfill these commandments on our own, this Messiah offers us a way to become free from the weight of our own sins and imperfections. While the Messiah does not offer us physical freedom—in fact, he promises the opposite—he does grant us the freedom to follow all 613 commandments. He makes it possible for us to truly love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (as well as love our neighbors as ourselves).
This question isn’t just being presented to the Pharisees, however. Just like he asked Peter, Jesus is now asking you, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) Will you say that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? Or will you, like the Pharisees, completely overlook his importance? You have the freedom to answer in any way you choose; only, be honest. We can lie to one another, but we can never lie to Christ.
 Christopher Loveless, Strange Eventful History: The Story of the Saint (Lulu.com, 2012), 95-96.