The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A)
October 29, 2023
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity;and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
It is absolutely true to say that the origins of Christianity are in Judaism. It is, however, our view of the nature of that relationship that has gotten us into trouble. From earliest days, many Christians have understood Christianity as the replacement for Judaism. It is the next logical step. After Christ, the messiah, comes, then there is no need for Judaism. In Christ, something new has happened and the religion of the God of Israel has developed into something else, something beyond Judaism. This is called supercessionism, and to my mind it is the sin at the heart of continuing Christian antisemitism.
In fact, the relationship between these twin faiths of the God of Israel is more complex, and understanding it is especially critical in this moment. In other sermons, I have discussed this from a Pauline perspective, and followed recent scholarship in interpreting Paul’s writings on the law as applying to Gentiles, not Jews, and showing how he believed that the the covenant made with Abraham remained unbroken, that Jews maintain their relationship with God, and are on a parallel path to the Kingdom. (1) Today, I want to look at this essential question from the vantage point of the Gospel of Matthew, and especially today’s lesson from it.
Matthew compiled his account of the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection after the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 in the particular environment of the Roman province of Syria-Palestine, and the political reorganisation of the region from the Jewish Kingdom of Judea into this new designation. He was clearly, like Paul, highly educated in the Law and although he never said it himself, I imagine that, to use Paul’s words, he probably considered himself to have “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). This is certainly the impression we get from his writing, consistently quoting from Hebrew Scripture to show how the course of Jesus’ life was the very fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. He was, then, a Jew who had come to see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and was a part of a community that was separating and differentiating itself from other Jews who did not see it the same way as he did.
This is how we need to read Jesus’ encounters with the Saducees and Pharisees in Matthew, especially the ones from this Sunday’s Gospel and Jesus’ earlier disputation on the question of the Resurrection. Each of these questions, the Resurrection, the Great Commandment, and the identification of the Messiah, are all treated by Mark and Luke, but in neither is it discussed in the context of a confrontation. In Matthew’s text, however, there is a clear sense of tension as Jesus makes a clear demarcation between his authority as an interpreter of the Law and that of the Jewish leaders. This is, in fact, exactly what Matthew was doing in his own time.
On subjects of the Resurrection and the Great Commandment, Jesus is expressing thoroughly orthodox views, accepted widely in the Jewish world. This is especially true in terms of the Great Commandment. One of the Pharisees
asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
It is a very reasonable question for the Pharisee to ask. There are something like 613 laws that can be distinguished, some positive (“thou shalt”s) and some negative (“thou shalt not”s), and being able to navigate and interpret the contradictions and subtleties is essential to live a life in keeping with God’s precepts. You need a way to interpret these many laws. Jesus’ answer, then, is absolutely in keeping with the widely accepted interpretation of Torah. Indeed, we see similar pronouncements by Hellenistic rabbis, including Hillel, who died about the year 10. It contains echos of the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” and makes reference to the Ten Commandments from Exodus. What is perhaps new here, is Jesus linking together God love and neighbour love. Nevertheless, Jesus’ response is absolutely unassailable.
Jesus has provided a tool for interpreting the law. It is a theory of interpretation based on the oneness of God and our duty to love him, and is shown to be practical in daily life through the command to love our neighbour. It is, in fact, the very foundation of the ethical life, as witnessed by the vision of the final judgement Matthew describes in chapter 25, when we learn that those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and prisoner, have shown love to God. Love of God and love of neighbour are inextricably linked together and provide a key to entry into the Kingdom of God. There is nothing to which the Pharisees could object.
Jesus then seizes his advantage and asks them a question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?”and they answer that the messiah is “the Son of David.” Jesus then challenges them, basing his argument in an obscure interpretation of Psalm 110, and says that the Christ is actually the Son of God, not the Son of David. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ argument was so convincing that “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.” Most scholars agree that Jesus’ arguments here are hard to follow, and that his logic is artificial and strained.(2) But, that does not matter within the world of the text. Here it is essential to establish the uniqueness of Jesus and his position, a separation between the followers of Jesus and those other Jews who see the Christ as only the Son of David. Matthew shows us how Jesus is now the master of the interpretation of the Law. Matthew is differentiating himself and his community, setting them apart, showing his followers that this Way, the way of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, and his authority is the path to follow.
What we are seeing here in this moment, as we also see in the Gospel of John, illustrates the relationship between the burgeoning Jewish-Christian community and the Jews who did not follow Jesus. We see two groups, each sorting out who they are. In this aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the extinction of an entire way of worshipping God, of being a faithful and observant Jew, everyone who worships the God of Israel is trying to figure out what comes next. There is no more physical sacrifice, neither the offerings of grain nor the burnt offerings, no more priests, no more incense, no more public ritual cleansing. The Romans have seen to that.
The Torah, and its interpretation, has become more and more important. With the Temple gone, it is now in the Torah (the Word) that God is primarily found. For these Jews, the coming of the messiah is not a satisfying answer. They begin to take the rituals of the Temple and made them part of their daily life at home – something that the Pharisees had begun to do – and gather in synagogues to study the Law, the Torah, the Word of God. For others, however, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God – for them the greatest interpreter and personal fulfilment of Torah – becomes the point of access to the God of Israel. This is a completely new thing, a new way of understanding what God is doing in history, and an avenue by which the Gentiles might also be brought into relationship with this God of Israel. We see then, two paths emerging out of the destruction of the Temple, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, and Matthew’s framing Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees in this way shows us this with great clarity.
Christianity’s long history of antisemitism is well known and needs no rehearsing here. Recently, we have seen attempts at a correction. On the one hand we have liberal interpreters appealing to Christianity’s roots in Judaism, which still ends up feeling supercessionist and condescending. On the other, we have Evangelical Christians becoming great supporters of Israel and Jewish causes because of their beliefs about the second coming of the messiah. Neither is particularly satisfying. Seeing the controversies out of which Christianity and Judaism emerged as twin faiths reckoning with the trauma of the Roman wars and destruction of the Temple and the earthquake caused by the Jesus movement can help us re-imagine our relationship with each other.
Today’s Gospel shows us that at the core of both Christianity and Judaism lies this understanding of the Great Commandment, emerging in early first-century Jewish thought in the writings of the Rabbis and taken up by Jesus. For Christians, Jesus gives us the principles by which we can examine and judge all our actions. For everything that we do, he teaches us to ask whether it is loving to God and whether it is loving to our neighbour.
This is not always an easy judgement to make, as we often face, not simply, evil, but contradicting goods. We are called to make this judgement, knowing that we will not always get it right, but knowing that God’s love for us is boundless. Jesus Christ has come to bring the nations into relationship with the God of Israel in and through the works of Love. In all our relationships, especially with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are in these days isolated and in pain like nothing since the Holocaust, let us look to the law of Love and show our love for our Lord, by loving our neighbour as ourself.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Crispin and Crispinian, Martyrs, 25 October 2023
1. Beginning with the work of Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Augsburg: Fortress Press, 1976).
2. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew Sacra Paigna Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 319.
© 2023 Andrew Charles Blume