Matthew 22:34-46 • “What Do You Think?”
Back in the days when shopping malls were places everybody frequented, you often saw people scattered about with clipboards in hand stopping shoppers to seek their opinion on topics ranging from political causes to entertainment tastes to leisure activities to favorite sports teams. I’ve even bumped into some who were conducting religious surveys. Nowadays, most of those surveys are done by telephone or email, but the end result is still the same. People are always trying to gauge where the Court of Public Opinion stands, not so much out of mere curiosity but more as a way to initiate a conversation that might those who answer the survey to consider an option they may never have considered before.
I rarely respond to those types of surveys, but I do always respect them. I respect them because of how I share the conviction of those who are doing them that opinions do matter. Opinions really do matter. Opinions matter because they reflect deeply held beliefs, beliefs that people may not even know that they own until someone invites them to bring their beliefs to the surface, beliefs that ultimately translate into behaviors.
This notion of belief ultimately translating into behavior is behind the question that Jesus posed to those religious authorities who originally had posed a question to him. By now, if you’ve been paying attention as we’ve walked these past weeks over this section of Matthew’s account of the Jesus story, the religious authorities have been looking for ways to trip Jesus up and bring Jesus down in the eyes of the crowd. Consider the questions they’ve been reading off from their clipboards. “By what authority do you minister?” “Should we or should we not pay the temple tax to Caesar?” “If a woman has married seven brothers and all of them die, whose wife will she be at the resurrection?” Each question carries an agenda, which Jesus artfully dodges so that he can point his interrogators to God’s agenda, which is the only one that really matters. That theme of Jesus elevating God’s agenda could not be made any clearer than in this last exchange that Jesus must endure – this exchange we have before us this morning between Jesus and the Pharisees.
Matthew tells us the Pharisees had chosen one of their best examiners, an expert in the Law of Moses, to put Jesus’ knowledge to the test. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Much as with last week’s story, this question again intended to put Jesus in a “no win” situation. If he answered with one of the commandments, then his examiner could have used the other nine against him. But Jesus, seeing the trap, refused to be caught in it, answering it by combining the Shema, the most famous of sayings in the Jewish religion taken from the book of Deuteronomy, with a passage from Leviticus so that it came out: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” (or as we phrase it here in our church, “Love God and live with grace and generosity”).
That answer alone would have been enough to have silenced the Pharisees, but Jesus pressed the matter further by turning the tables on his questioners and posing to them an even more important question, a foundational question upon which every person of faith ultimately builds his or her life: “What do you think about the Christ (the Messiah)?” “Whose son is he?”
The concept of the Christ was a pivotal one for the Jewish people. Given how their history had been marked by one occupation after another, with the exception of the years in which the house of David held the throne, God’s people longed for the day when God would send His promised deliverer, His “Anointed One,” who would finally and definitively deliver God’s people from every enemy, every danger, and every snare.
For 21 chapters Matthew has been patiently guiding his readers, who were originally Jewish in composition, to see how Jesus is that Promised Messiah. From the angel’s command to Joseph to name Mary’s child Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21) to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi to this passage where Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees, Matthew’s account of the Jesus story is geared toward helping people to see that Jesus is the one in whom all of God’s redemptive purposes have come to pass and that our hopes for a promising future are all wrapped up in him and him alone. God has no “Plan B.” There is no one else to whom we can turn for our salvation. Even when we may be tempted to turn Jesus into a Messiah that fits our preconceptions, we must reject such temptation and embrace Jesus for who he is: a Suffering Servant, who was crucified, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “to cancel the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Col. 2:14) and raised from the dead on the third day that we might have “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
You say, “I’d never yield to a temptation like that!” Be careful. That’s exactly what the Pharisees would have said, even when they looked for a Messiah 180 degrees different from Jesus – a mighty warrior who would lift up the sword to conquer the hated Romans, which is why Jesus raised the question about David, the shepherd king, and how he could have called the Messiah his “son” and yet yielded his own authority to him? Jesus asked that question to challenge their misconceptions of what they expected the Christ to be and to call them to accept the Messiah who was standing right before them.
This story reminds me of something I heard Barbara Brown Taylor, the eloquent Episcopal priest and teacher of preachers, once say. “Blessed are those who do not let the Messiah they are expecting blind them to the Messiah who is standing right in front of them” (God in Pain, p.21). For the longest time, I couldn’t appreciate that saying, until one day I recognized my own Pharisaical tendencies in how I had embraced a Political Jesus, who shared the same political views I have, or a Touchdown Jesus, who loved the same teams that I loved and worked to help them win the day against all manner of rivals, or Therapist Jesus, who loved me just the way that I was and didn’t see any need for me to change anything about myself, or Spirituality Jesus, who detested organized religion in the same ways I sometimes do and just wanted me to reach my human potential. I say all of that, of course, somewhat tongue in cheek. But you see where I’m going. You’ve had to contend with those False Messiahs as well so that what you think about Jesus as the Christ goes far beyond your own desires and your own take on things. You’ve had to come to the place where you were willing to do what Jesus called you to do: to deny yourself, and to take up your cross and to follow hard after him (Mt. 16:24-26). You’ve had to come to the place where you were ready to stand in the presence of One who knows you for who you really are, the good and bad of it all, and crosses all boundaries to touch your life in such a way that you see things you never saw, hear things you never heard, and feel things you never felt. You’ve had to come to the place where all other loves and loyalties have had to take a back seat to your love and loyalty to Jesus.
Is that the place where you stand this morning? I know I don’t have a clipboard with me this morning, but how you answer that question really matters. Your opinion really does matter. It matters because of how what you believe about Jesus will eventually show up in your behavior, and whether or not you live every moment of every day loving God and living with grace and generosity because of how you simply cannot get over the difference it makes to see how in Jesus God so loves and is so gracious and so generous to you.