What’s love got to do with it?

29 October 2017
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25A (RCL)

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

I find it odd that Matthew ends his report of Jesus’ disputes with the religious authorities with something as uncontroversial as the question concerning the greatest commandment. This would have been standard fare among rabbinic Jews, and we have record of other rabbis addressing the question (granted, after the time of Jesus, but them Matthew is writing after Jesus, also), and coming up with the same answers. So, why would Matthew sum up these disputes with something so uncontroversial as the shema (Hear, O Israel), and the commandment to love neighbor as self?

In our liturgical reading, we skip over the interchange with the Sadducees about the resurrection (and the single bride for seven brothers), but there may be some wisdom to this. Last week’s Gospel raised the question, “What do we owe to God?” and did not answer it. This passage perhaps is Matthew’s answer. But then there is even more oddness when Matthew attaches to Jesus’ answer about the greatest commandment, a question about the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” What do the two have to do with one another?

In Mark, the title “Son of David” is inadequate for Jesus, with its implication of violence and retribution to the nations. Matthew accepts the title, but wants to redefine it. Not only is the Christ David’s son, but also David’s lord, greater than David — again a revision of the role of the Davidic messiah. Jesus, as David’s lord and son, is about to undergo a trial and suffer and die on the cross. This forces a reassessment of lordship. Hence the connection to the commandment to love God with the whole self and neighbor as self. This will require a reorientation toward the messianic expectation. The messiah is no longer a figure who will pay back our enemies, but someone who, through suffering, will make it possible for us to love God and neighbor.

The passage from Thessalonians provides a little insight. Paul is using language common to teachers in antiquity. His teaching is sincere, not calculated to make an good impression or make a profit, but to improve the life of the student, even at the gift of the teacher’s self. The love that Matthew holds up as the fulfillment of the law is not a feeling or even an attitude, but a way of life, an ascesis, a discipline or practice, just like the philosophies taught by the schools. It was a way of thinking, of acting, of living, and interacting with the world on all levels. It took training.

And if the Deuteronomy passage has anything to say to us, it says we are not there yet.

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