Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Great Command and the Work of the Christ

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments on Matthew 22:34-46, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. At bottom is me, prattling on, again. As always, your comments are welcomed.  

34 Οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες ὅτι ἐφίμωσεν τοὺς Σαδδουκαίους συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό.
Yet the Pharisees having heard that he muzzled the Sadducees were gathered together against him.
ἀκούσαντες: AAPart, npm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐφίμωσεν: AAI 3s, φιμόω, 1) to close the mouth with a muzzle, to muzzle
συνήχθησαν: API 3p, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 
1. For some reason, only Young’s Literal Translation (of the five that I consult in my process) seems to try to capture the last three words of this sentence, ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό. The NIV, ESV, KJV, and NRSV seem to omit them entirely. In my Greek text there is not indication of a textual variant, so I think we may just be up against words that seem out of place, redundant, or indecipherable to the translators.
2. My own use of “against” to translate ἐπὶ reflects how this preposition takes shape when combined with the accusative case, per the definition tool of thebible.org: “upon, by direction towards, marking the mental direction with a view to the act.” I may be overstating it.
3. And I like “muzzled” for φιμόω, but “silenced” is probably a better choice for a refined translation. I guess. Geez.

35 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν [νομικὸς] πειράζων αὐτόν, 
And one out of them [a lawyer] interrogated testing him,
ἐπηρώτησεν: AAI 3s, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an inquiry, put a question to, ask, interrogate.
πειράζων: PAPart nsm, πειράζω, 1) to try whether a thing can be done  1a) to attempt, endeavour  2) to try, make trial of, test: for the purpose of ascertaining  his quantity, or what he thinks, or how he will behave himself
1. There are two terms here worth noting, both of them verbs. ἐπερωτάω, as the definition above suggests, is much more intentionally confrontational than “ask.” Matthew uses it in 12:10, 16:1, 17:10, 22:23, here, vv.41 and 46 below, and 27:11 (Pilate’s inquiry). All of them, except 17:10, come from those specifically identified as Jesus’ opponents or as trying to provoke Jesus in some way. I try to use “interrogate” consistently with this verb to distinguish it from more genuine questions or requests.
2. The second verb πειράζω likewise has a sinister use throughout Matthew’s story. In 4:1 and 4:3 it describes the devil as tempting and tempter. In 16:1, 19:3, and 22:18 (last week’s text) it describes Jesus’ opponents trying to trick him with disingenuous requests or questions.
3. Not all of the early manuscripts identify this Pharisee as a lawyer, so it is probably an amendment added by a scribe along the way for clarification.

36 Διδάσκαλε, ποία ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ;
“Teacher, which command greatest in the law?”  
1. There is no verb in this question. Since one is implied most translations add it.
2. The verb that is implied and added is “is,” or some form of the verb “to be.” That addition gives the translator some interpretive choices. The words “which” “command” and “greatest” are all in the nominative case. With the verb “to be” both the subject and the object can be in the nominative case (the “nominative predicate.”) That is why translations vary from “which is the greatest command” to “which command is greatest.” Both are possible.
3. I like how, simply on the face of the question and answer, Jesus and the Pharisees agree that there is a kind of priority among the many commands of the law. Even before identifying the two greatest commands, this approach toward the law is interesting in itself.

37 ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου:
Yet he declared to him, “You will love the lord your God in all of your heart and in all of your soul and in all of your mind;
ἔφη: IAI 3s, φημί, 1) to make known one's thoughts, to declare 
Ἀγαπήσεις: FAI 2s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly 
1. The preposition ἐν usually becomes “in,” but in this case I would end up refining it to be “with” as in all other translations.
2. It seems to me that the verb φημί has more intention and purpose than the common word for “to say” (λέγω). Jesus is saying something powerful here.
3. Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 6:5, the “Shema,” which reads in the LXX:
καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου. The difference between Matthew and the LXX would be that the Matthew uses ἐν instead of ἐξ as the preposition for each clause, and διανοίᾳ instead of δυνάμεώς or “mind” instead of “strength.”  

38 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή. 
This is the greatest and first command.
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. In this instance the verb “to be” (εἰμί) is included. So, the interpretive choices that I mention in v.36, n.2 stand here as well.

39 δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 
Yet a second like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ἀγαπήσεις: FAI 2s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly 
1. Any time a sentence begins with the conjunction δὲ (it is a post-positive word, meaning that it is often positioned after the first word but gets translated as the first word), I try to use the word “yet.” I do so because δὲ could mean either ‘and’ or ‘but,’ indicating either successive thought or contrasting thought. I hope that ‘yet’ is more neutral, until I am ready in a later stage of translation to go with ‘and’ or ‘but’ or something else that seems to capture the flow better.
I this verse, I certainly do not see contrast, but continuation. Therefore I wanted to clarify that I do not intend ‘yet’ to show contrast, although it could appear that way.
2. If Matthew 22:37-40 were all that we had for a New Testament, to summarize all that Jesus said, did, and represents, then I think it would be enough. More importantly, I think Jesus thought that it would be enough. Even in response to another trick question, what is there besides this answer?
3. The second part of this answer comes from Leviticus 19:18 and in Matthew 19:19. I genuinely wish people who seem to love quoting Leviticus 18:22 in order to bash gay and lesbian persons would read Leviticus 19:9-18 and repent.

40ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται. 
On these two commands the whole law is hung and the prophets.
κρέμαται: PPI 3s, κρεμάννυμι, 1) to hang up, suspend 
1. I’m using “is hung” to capture both the present tense and passive voice of κρέμαται.
2. The whole law and the prophets!

41 Συνηγμένων δὲ τῶν Φαρισαίων ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς 
Yet the Pharisees having gathered themselves together Jesus interrogated them
Συνηγμένων: PerfPPart gpm, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 
ἐπηρώτησεν: AAI 3s, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an inquiry, put a question to, ask, interrogate.
1. The verb/participle συνάγω appears here for the third time in this chapter. Each time I get the sense that the Pharisees and their various partners have run a play that lost yardage, so they are going back to the huddle to try to come up with a better play. While my parsing notes say this is passive, it is functioning more as a middle verb, as they gather themselves together.
2. This is the one time when Matthew applies the verb ἐπερωτάω (see v.35, n.1 above) to Jesus. Jesus becomes the interrogator. However, I think the form of this interrogation is similar to vv.31-33, when takes a trick question scenario about marriage that was supposed to upend the doctrine of the resurrection and then turns on the Sadducees with a verse from the Torah, the part of the OT that they gave greatest legitimacy, to show that the principle of resurrection is at work even there.

42 λέγων, Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ περὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ; τίνος υἱός ἐστινλέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Τοῦ Δαυίδ. 
saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The [son] of David.”
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
δοκεῖ: PAI 3s, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
1. The answer is literally “the of David,” in the genitive case. The question clearly implies that the answer intends “the son of David.”
2. The gathering point for Jesus and the Pharisees is some kind of messianic expectation. Of that they are not in dispute. I think that is a reflection of some of the theological innovations from the 2nd - 3rd century BCE, which is often called the ‘intertestmental’ period. I believe the 2nd half of Daniel was written during this time, along with many of the books that have been listed among the OT Apocrypha. It was a very fertile theological time and the messianic interpretation of the Psalms, the Suffering Servant motifs, the nemesis of the “desolating sacrilege” and the hope of the “son of man coming in the clouds” are all part of this theological movement. Some of the questions would be whether the older theological suppositions were still in play: Is the temple the place to look for God’s presence? Is the Davidic throne the place to look for God’s activity? Does God’s faithfulness to the covenant mean that the nation of Israel shall prosper? If God does not evidently reward faithfulness during one’s earthly life, does that mean that God will do so after death? I think many of those questions arose when the Greek Empire swept through, when a Seleucid general name Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the altar in the temple with a pig sacrificed to Zeus, and so forth.
I think the theology that emerged from that period is different than, or perhaps even challenges, the kind of “follow me and I will give you great lands, many children, and you will live well and be buried in peace” kind of theology that seems to be at work in many of the earlier OT books. And I think socio-politico-theological tragedies, like the exile, the execution of the king, and the destruction of the temple, are what provoked these new expressions of theology. My point is that by this text’s publication in the late 1st century CE, these points were largely accepted by Jews as different as John the Baptist, Jesus, the Pharisees, and the chief priests. The lone exception would be the Sadducees and their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection, which Jesus addresses in 22:23-33.

43 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Πῶς οὖν Δαυὶδ ἐν πνεύματι καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον λέγων,
He says to them, “How then does David in spirit call him lord saying,
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
καλεῖ: PAI 3s, καλέω, 1) to call 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 

44 Εἶπεν κύριος τῷ κυρίῳ μου, Κάθου ἐκ δεξιῶν μου ἕως ἂν θῶ τοὺς ἐχθρούς σου ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν σου;
‘The lord said to my lord, Sit out of my right until I place your enemies underneath your feet’?
Εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Κάθου: PMImpv 2s, κάθημαι, 1) to sit down, seat one's self
θῶ: AASubj 1s, τίθημι, 1) to set, put, place
1. How do you mark a tertiary quote? Matthew is quoting Jesus who is quoting David who is quoting God. I decided to move from double quotes to single quotes to italics. So, um, … English majors, please help a brother out!
2. In a college class I was assigned to go through the NT and find every time a psalm was quoted. Of course, this was pre-google, so it was just me reading through the NT looking for psalms. According to my research, this verse is the psalm most commonly quoted in the NT. It is here, in parallel synoptic gospel texts, and Acts 2:34-35, where Peter makes the argument that since David is dead and buried, this text is about Jesus.

45 εἰ οὖν Δαυὶδ καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον, πῶς υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ἐστιν;
“Therefore if David calls him lord, how is he his son?”
καλεῖ: PAI 3s, καλέω, 1) to call 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. It seems that an assumption is at work in this argument, which may not be evident to 21st century readers. Apparently, a father, when speaking of a son, would never use the phrase “my lord” (even if “lord” is used to mean something like “sir,” and not a term for a deity).  

46καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ λόγον, οὐδὲ ἐτόλμησέν τις ἀπ' ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπερωτῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐκέτι. 
And no one was able to answer to him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day to interrogate him nothing.
ἐδύνατο: IMI 3s, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power
ἀποκριθῆναι: APInf, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
ἐτόλμησέν: AAI 3s, τολμάω, 1) not to dread or shun through fear  2) to bear, endure  3) to bring one's self to  4) to be bold  5) bear one's self boldly, deal boldly
ἐπερωτῆσαι: AAInf, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an inquiry, put a question to, ask, interrogate.

After the rough translation and some comments about each verse, I feel like three interpretive questions remain, to which I will offer some response.
1. What difference does it make that the question regarding the greatest command is another trick question, a test, to ensnare Jesus?

To many Christians, this pericope is precious and powerful because it gets to the heart of the matter – What is the greatest of the commands in the law? It is to love God with everything and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. However, given the context of this chapter, especially from v.15 on, Matthew argues that the Pharisees are conspiring to entrap Jesus. Mt 19, mk 12, lk 10.
There are other places where something as fine and wonderful as this text can be found apart from a trick question. The latter part of the greatest command is found in Matthew 19:18-19, where Jesus answers the question of what commands one must follow to gain eternal life. Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Mark 12:13-34, which we assume was written prior to Matthew’s gospel and was a source for Matthew’s gospel, sets the sequence of questions and answers, with the Pharisees setting out to trap Jesus with the question of the coinage, then the Sadducees taking Jesus on over resurrection. But when Mark introduces this last question, he seems to take it out of the context of a trick question: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’” (v.28). That introduction does not suggest subterfuge, but a real question.

Luke 10:25-37, which contains the story of the Good Samaritan, begins with a lawyer standing to test Jesus with the question of the greatest command. However, it is the lawyer himself, in Luke’s telling, who answers the question (correctly, according to Jesus.)

To me, Matthew’s way of beginning this story in v.34 is a key to whether he sees this as a trick question or a sincere question that arises when Jesus demonstrates such insight in parrying off the earlier trick questions. Per my notes 1 and 2 of v.34 above, I think Matthew’s use of ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό indicates that this question emerges out of a continued attempt to entrap Jesus.

Still, it is a marvelous question, which opens me up to the possibility that a devious intent may still lead to a marvelous teaching moment.

2. What is the relationship between the three trick questions?
The first question was a question about the Imperial Tax, which, I believe is one of those enduring questions that arise again and again: What is the relationship between or ultimate loyalty to God and our relative/required loyalty to the Empire? In many ways, I think this is the question at the heart of much of the drama of the Old Testament and even of the history of the church (as H. Richard Niebuhr describes in his classic, Christ and Culture.)
The second question was about the resurrection, which I also think is a politico-theological question. When Jesus tells the story of the landowner whose slaves and son are murdered by evil tenants (21:33-46), he asks what the landowner should do. The Pharisees and chief priest answer, “Kill the bastards!” Jesus answers with what I consider a form of resurrection, which is present throughout the Old Testament: “The stone that the builders rejected has returned to be the chief cornerstone.” Resurrection, in this sense, is the opposite of revenge. It is not just a religious doctrine of life after death; it is a political direction that is posited over and against the cycle of violence that comes from vengeance.
The third question is at hand: What is the essence of our calling? And it is a radical love of God that is inseparable from a love of neighbor.
It strikes me that these questions are not just trick questions, but are trick questions that reveal the heart of faith for the People of Israel in Jesus’ time. From the perspective of his enemies, Jesus would not be liable for action by the Romans or for rejection by the people over a fruitless question, but over questions in which the people have investment of meaning.

3. What is the relationship between the first half of this pericope about the greatest command and the second half about the argument that Jesus makes regarding the Son of David?
Jesus moves directly from the conversation about the greatest command to the argument about the superiority of the Messiah to David. My suspicion is that the question “Whose son is the Christ?” is a huge matter. If the Christ is the son of David – therefore subordinate to the glory of David – then the activity of the Christ would be to restore the throne of David. If the Christ is greater than David – to the point that David calls him “my lord” – then the activity of the Christ would be greater than restoring the throne of David. Is this, perhaps, a way of saying that the radical love, which fulfills the law and prophets, is greater than a restoration of the Davidic throne?


  1. Immensely helpful and rich, as usual. What I don't understand is how we so casually look upon implications of the Davidic throne, and how seriously this "huge matter" is to those in conversation with Jesus. Didn't they know that the Davidic throne was a kingdom never to return? Sorry for pertinence and ignorance....

  2. Agree. This seems a trap for a lot of folk dealing with the 'holy land' - when all land is 'holy.' It informs decisions about nation-states that need to be held up against the 'great' commandments.

  3. When I read this last portion of the pericope, I almost feel that it is so case-specific that perhaps it is not my place to join the conversation. On the other hand, Psalm 110 has tremendous implications regarding the place of Israel's king ("my lord") and all the other nations.
    I think one of the ongoing arguments in Israel's conversation is whether Israel's election is for the sake of the salvation and glory of Israel or for the sake of the salvation and glory of the whole earth. If the one implicated in Ps.110:1 is the actual descendent king of David, a 'lesser light' of the lineage, then one lives toward a restoration of David's throne and Israel's glory. If - as I think Jesus is arguing - something far superior to the kingdom of Israel even in its glory (David and Solomon) is intended, then that which is restored/saved/glorified can be something far greater than Israel itself.
    Thanks for chiming in, friends.


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