October 23, 2011
Beginning with Matthew 21:23, Jesus' authority is repeatedly questioned. He refuses to claim outright his messianic identity (21:27). He leaves it to those with ears to hear and eyes to see to infer his identity from his recent entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech.9:9) that was preceded by authoritative teachings, exorcisms, and healings.
In between his entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11) and his increasingly direct denunciations of the religious authorities (chaps. 23-25) that culminate in his death, come what scholars refer to as "The Temple Disputes" (Mt. 21:23-22:46).
There is a heightened atmospheric hostility as we come to the end of Matthew's gospel. What would we expect when Jesus has turned over tables in the temple, cursed a fig tree, and told three offensive parables? How would he expect those on the receiving end of his prophetic ire to react? When those with prestige and position are challenged, when their presuppositions are upturned, they react with hostility and fear. That is as true now as it was then. No sooner has Jesus finished offering three offensive parables (two sons, wicked tenants, wedding banquet) than the testing committees arrive.
Pop Quiz for Jesus
While I understand the motivation of the repeated testing of Jesus in these chapters, in reading them this time the futility and ridiculousness of the endeavor spoke to me. A series of people come to Jesus with questions for which there is no right answer and, each time, he manages to speak a word of truth without falling into their trap. First, the Pharisees send some lackeys to trip him up over the tribute (taxes) question. He avoids that trap (22:21). Next some Sadducees try to trip him up with a tricky question about the resurrection. Again he avoids the trap with theological depth and finesse (22:33). Now, in our passage for this week (22:34-46) the Pharisees come in person with a question about the greatest commandment to test him.
I've been on job interviews (not at my current institution!) in which people have asked me questions to show their erudition or expose my ignorance. But this isn't a job interview for Jesus. God has given him the job already. The trouble is, I think, those around him with power and possessions suspect it, and are throwing every obstacle they can think of in the way of his mission and identity. I don't think it's that they don't know with whom they're dealing. I think it's that, at some level, they do, and they are inwardly agitated by the implications. I'm not a psychologist, but in my experience, people don't put this kind of persistent bitterness into trying to trip up someone who doesn't threaten the hell out of them.
In effect his opponents try to make him into a reality show contestant in these temple disputes in Matthew. Reality shows, a phenomenon some have referred to as "a culture of humiliation," test people all the time. The prize is prestige and money. The penalty is being sent home, one's dreams destroyed, with lots of people watching. Let's see if Jesus can sing a cappella like on "Sing Off." Or lose fat and gain muscle like on "Biggest Loser." Let's see if Jesus can dance for us like on "So You Think You Can Dance?" Let's see if he can survive in the wilderness like on "Survivor." Let's find out if he can cook like on "Chopped." Let's make Jesus put on a wet suit and subject him to an obstacle course complete with huge rubber mallets and tubs of green goo and a moat for him to fall into at the slightest misstep like on "Wipeout." These examples are ridiculous and disrespectful to Jesus' mission and identity. But, while taking into account the social context of Matthew's gospel, so are the tests in Matthew 22:15-40. How absurd is this impulse, driven by the desperation of the privileged: "Let's give the savior a pop quiz and see if he passes."
He Passes with Flying Colors
It's no surprise that he does (Mt. 22:34-40). In Mark's version of this encounter (Mk. 12:28-34) a scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment; Jesus gives the same answer here as in Matthew. The scribe praises Jesus' answer and Jesus affirms the scribe's wisdom with these words "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (Mk. 12:34). A pleasant encounter, but, as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare says, "There is no room in Matthew's Gospel for a friendly scribe. He sees all Jewish teachers through the lens of the biter persecution suffered by Jewish-Christian missionaries" (Hare, 258).