We listen to a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees in the gospel read at this morning’s Divine Liturgy (Matt. 22:34-44). Right before the section that we heard this morning, from the same 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find a short exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees. The Sadducees, together with the Pharisees, made up the ruling class of spiritual Israel. While they had their similarities they also disagreed on many things. This morning’s reading begins right after Jesus had proven the Sadducees wrong on the issue of the resurrection (verses 23-33). In the verse right before the reading heard the holy Evangelist writes, “when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.”
As they rallied together they chose among them one capable enough to “test”, as St. Matthew notes, Jesus. A lawyer among them was chosen, one familiar with the many laws of the Jewish people who, appropriately so, poses the question to Jesus: “what is the most important law.” Besides the ten commandments the Jewish people had compiled a list of over 600 laws and were always, it seemed, in argument over which of the laws was the most important. Therefore, the lawyer’s question put Jesus on the spot, so to speak.
In response, Jesus’ words should not have been all that unfamiliar to either the lawyer nor his friends standing by. After all, a similar command is found in the pages of the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6:5 we read: “You shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart, from your whole soul, and from your whole power.” While the other commandment proclaimed by Christ isn’t too different than the one found in Leviticus chapter 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
St Paul writes about this in his epistles. He says to the Romans, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved…” (10:1). The Jewish people were unable to see past the letter of the law, to discern its spirit. For them Christ was a “stumbling stone”. Subsequently, they viewed the law of God and Christ separately not realizing that Christ is the “end of the law”.
Not accepting Christ, how could they possibly expect to understand Scripture? Therefore, I would suggest that for a moment we not consider so much the answer given by Jesus in this morning’s reading, rather the fact that Jesus is the answer.
I think it is all the more illustrated as the gospel reading continues. Namely, since the Pharisees were all gathered together Jesus decides to turn the tables and pose a question to them. He asks them about the Christ, “Whose son is He?” They all reply, “He is the son of David.”
“Well,” says Jesus, “how then does David call him lord when he says: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”
It was at this point that Jesus, just as He had silenced the Sadducees earlier, silenced the Pharisees as the holy evangelist notes “no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (Matt. 22:46). David was the king of Israel and would never have referred to anyone as “my lord” other than God. Therefore, in this verse from the Old Testament Psalms, God is talking to God. God the Father is talking to God the Son. Since the Pharisees believed that God was one Person they were afraid to answer Jesus.
It is certainly an amazing thing to ponder upon how the Son of God was introduced, revealed, to the Jewish people one thousand years before Jesus was even born with the words of David’s Psalm 110 which he wrote “in Spirit” (for that matter, the fact that all of Scripture is about one Person, Jesus Christ). And yet they remained ignorant of its meaning. More tragically perhaps is that even after meeting Him face to face, they continue in their ignorance of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
I think it can put things in perspective for all of us whenever we have the urge to pick up the Bible and start interpreting it on our own. We are most fortunate in our Church tradition to have the writings of the holy Fathers and the availability of their many writings and interpretation* of Scripture.
Indeed without Christ there is no way to understand the Bible. Without Christ we can’t understand the law of God, we can’t understand the gospel; without Christ we can’t understand what it means to love. Ultimately, without Christ we can’t even begin to understand ourselves, the purpose and meaning of our lives.
All of these mysteries lie in the person of Jesus Christ who died for our sins and granted us everlasting life. It is only through our faith in Christ but also and more importantly, through our life in Him that we are able to see these things, even though not fully, but certainly with enough clarity to realize that we are created in God’s holy Image and loving Him with all of our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves is definitely the answer. Amen.
*Fr. Seraphim Holland offers some interesting thoughts on the interpretation of Holy Scripture, especially when he shares his experiences as a young Protestant seminarian. He says, among other things, “When I was a student at Southern Nazarene University preparing to become a Protestant Minister, when I was taught how to study the Bible, we were not taught to consult sacred Tradition or the writings of the Fathers — not even those fathers that knew the Apostles personally. We were told that the Church fathers were all allegorists, and that they really didn’t have a clue as to what the Bible was really saying.” Read the article, “The Orthodox Mind” here, Part II, C – Arrogance/Hubris/Prelest