IN OUR SCHOOL DAYS we all were subjected to “trick questions,” designed to fool us into giving an incorrect answer. Is this the kind of question which the “expert in the Law” described in Matthew’s Gospel asked Jesus to “test Him”? Was he trying to trick Jesus with this question or does “test” here mean something else?
The way in which this encounter is described in the Gospel of Mark can help us understand how the lawyer was “testing” Jesus. Matthew, when reporting this incident simply says, “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question…” (Matthew 22:35). Mark, however, gives us the man’s motivation: “Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” (Mark 12:28)
Mark’s explanation suggests that the lawyer was not trying to trap Jesus, but to probe His view of the Law because He showed a good understanding of it. The man was testing Jesus, not in the sense of trying to trap Him but to learn His understanding of the Law’s deepest meaning. He sensed that Jesus had a more profound view of the Law than the Sadducees who were debating with Him (see Mark 12:18-27). And so his question was motivated by a sincere desire to deepen his own appreciation of the Scripture.
The Lord’s Answer
The Lord did not answer this inquirer with a new teaching. He simply repeated the commandments found in the Torah. Mark quoted the preceding verse as well, “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5). Both Matthew and Mark give us variant readings of the commandment. The Hebrew text of Deuteronomy mentions only “heart, soul and strength.” Matthew replaces “strength” with “mind”, while Mark adds “mind.” Since there were various texts of the Old Testament Scriptures in use at the time that the Gospels were written, the Evangelists may have been simply using the version known in their community.
The Lord’s second commandment is also found in the Torah. In Leviticus 19:18 we read, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Torah here identifies one’s “neighbor” as another Jew (“anyone among your people”). The Lord Jesus would expand that definition in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There it is the Samaritan, reviled by Jews, who is portrayed as the model of the good neighbor. Clearly for the Lord, ethnicity is not the standard for judging who is my neighbor.
In the Torah these two commandments are found in different books, so why are they connected here? The answer found in the Greek Fathers is both simple and profound: man is God’s image. The person who loves another as being in God’s image is, in fact, loving God who created him. A true believer cannot look at another without seeing God in him or her.
The Lawyer’s Response
The last thing the Lord says in Matthew is different from the text in Mark, but both mean the same thing. Matthew says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (v. 40). Mark, however, simply notes: “There is no commandment greater than these” (v. 31). Commentators from the earliest centuries have thought that Matthew was writing for believers with a background in Judaism while Mark was writing in a Gentile community. It would make sense for Matthew and not Mark to cite the Hebrew Scriptures in making the same point.
In Mark the scene is concluded by citing the lawyer’s reaction and Jesus’ response. “‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions” (vv.32-34).
The lawyer expresses what Jesus had been saying so often in other circumstances during His ministry: it is love, rather than religiosity, that expresses the will of God for us: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13, also 12:7). The Lord’s response is one we would all like to hear from His mouth.
The Lord’s Turn to Ask a Question
As Matthew tells it, the Lord then turned to the Pharisees with a question of His own. “‘What do you think about the Messiah?’ He asked. “‘Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,’ they replied” (vv.41, 42)
In Jewish belief of the day the Messiah was called “the son of David.” In part, this referred to the prophecy which Nathan pronounced to King David: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16). On one hand this prophecy referred to the physical line of David’s descendants, his own son Solomon and his sons after him. But David’s descendants did not rule forever. When the Greeks conquered the Holy Land in the third century bc, the royal house of David came to an end.
When the Greeks were defeated by the Maccabees, another line, the Hasmoneans, who had no connection to the house of David, began to rule. This prompted some Jewish thinkers to see “the throne of David” in a spiritual way, referring to the presence of the Messiah. In this sense many people in Jesus’ lifetime referred to the Messiah as “the Son of David.”
Jesus’ question helped nudge His followers towards a deeper understanding of His Messianic role. He quoted Psalm 110 which begins, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”’ (v. 1). The first “Lord” clearly referred to God, but who was the person David, the Psalmist, called “my Lord”? Jesus then posed His question, “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” (v. 45)
Jesus’ suggestion that the Messiah was greater than King David helped His followers to understand Him as more than just a prophet. If the Messiah was not just an ordinary man, could He be the Son of God in a unique way?
The reading concludes, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (v.46). To question Him might take them into unfamiliar territory – territory which even His closest disciples could not imagine until after His resurrection.