15 October 2014

Matthew 22: 34-46 … ‘hang all
the law and the prophets’?

Bishop Charles Gore’s statue outside Birmingham Cathedral … “… Hang all the law and the prophets”? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week, 26 October 2014, is the Fifth Sunday before Advent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary, and as set out in the Church of Ireland Directory, that Sunday are: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 22: 34-46.

These notes are to help us to prepare for preaching on the Gospel reading that Sunday.

Matthew 22: 34-46

34 Οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες ὅτι ἐφίμωσεν τοὺς Σαδδουκαίους συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό. 35 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν [νομικὸς] πειράζων αὐτόν, 36 Διδάσκαλε, ποία ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ; 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: 38 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή. 39 δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 40 ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.

41 Συνηγμένων δὲ τῶν Φαρισαίων ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς 42 λέγων, Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ περὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ; τίνος υἱός ἐστιν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Τοῦ Δαυίδ. 43 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Πῶς οὖν Δαυὶδ ἐν πνεύματι καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον λέγων,

44 Εἶπεν κύριος τῷ κυρίῳ μου,
Κάθου ἐκ δεξιῶν μου
ἕως ἂν θῶ τοὺς ἐχθρούς σου
ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν σου;

45 εἰ οὖν Δαυὶδ καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον, πῶς υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ἐστιν; 46 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ λόγον, οὐδὲ ἐτόλμησέν τις ἀπ' ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπερωτῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐκέτι.

Translation (NRSV):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43 He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’.”?

45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.


Kerry Crescent in Calne, Wiltshire, recalls a FitzMaurice family title and a story told by Charles Gore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Charles Gore (1853-1932) was one of the great, almost formidable theologians at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. He was the editor of Lux Mundi (1881), an influential collection of essays; the founder of the Community of the Resurrection (1892); and the first Bishop of Birmingham (1905). He was also from a well-known Irish family; his brother was born in Dublin Castle, his father, Charles Alexander Gore, was brought up in the Vice-Regal Lodge, now Arás an Uachtaráin, and his mother was from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny.

But formidable theologians are also allowed to play pranks on the unsuspecting. And it is told that Charles Gore loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances when he was a canon of Westminster Abbey.

He would enjoy showing visitors the tomb of one of his collateral ancestors, the 3rd Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words, highlighted in black letters and in double quotation marks: “hang all the law and the prophets.”

On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...” “…hang all the law and the prophets.”

A more recent Irish-born theologian of international standing, Professor David Ford, sees these two commandments as the key, foundational Scripture passage for all our hermeneutical exercises.

He was born in Dublin and since 1991 has been the Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. Speaking at the Dublin and Glendalough Clergy Conference in Kilkenny a few years ago [2012], he was asked about some of the hermeneutical approaches he outlines in his recent book, The Future of Christian Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 20111). He said that if the two great commandments are about love, and God is love, then no interpretation is to be trusted that goes against love.

And he reminded us of Augustine’s great regula caritatis, the rule of love. If love is the rule, then the “how” of reading scripture together is as important as the “what.”

In The Future of Christian Theology, he says: “Anything that goes against love of God and love of neighbour is, for Christian theology, unsound biblical interpretation.”

In other words, this passage, and its parallels in the other synoptic Gospels, provides for David Ford the hermeneutical key to understanding all Biblical passages.

Cambridge Divinity School ... David Ford has been Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge since 1991 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Putting the Gospel reading in context:

When preparing a Bible study or sermon on a particular Gospel passage in the lectionary readings, it is always important to look at its context, not only in its setting within the readings, taking account, for example, of the Gospel readings the Sunday before and the Sunday after, but also in the context of the other readings that are being heard that Sunday.

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

The Old Testament reading is the final chapter of the Book Deuteronomy and the conclusions of the Law or the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The wandering in the wilderness, and after 40 long years the people can now look to the promise of the future as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.

However, Moses has been told that he is going to die without entering the Promised Land because he “broke faith” with God when the people demanded water and God provided it (see Numbers 20: 1-13). God shows Moses the whole Land from a mountain near the northern end of the Dead Sea. Moses, now an old man, dies suddenly in Moab (verse 6). We are told he dies as he lived: “at the Lord’s command” (verse 5). Joshua is his successor and is commissioned.

Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17:

The first section (verses 1-6) contrast God’s eternity with the short and troubled span of human life. The second part (verses 13-17) seeks God’s compassion and mercy.

I Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Saint Paul turns his back on the way other teachers and philosophers of his day seek popularity for “impure motives” and through “trickery.” He wants neither “flattery” nor his own advantage. Instead, he has been gentle and caring, sharing all that he has. In other words, instead of self-love, he has lived and worked in the love of God and the love of others.

Matthew 22: 34-46

In Saint Mark’s Gospel these two commandments are cited in this way when one of the scribes comes and asks Christ which is the first commandment of all? (Mark 12: 28-31).

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, these two commandments are given in answer to a certain lawyer who stands up, tempts him, and asks him what he shall do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10: 25-28).

In this Gospel reading, the two great commandments come as part of a reply to a debate within the series of dialogues in the Temple in the week leading up to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

The Sadducees believed that human life ended with our physical death. Some of them have argued with Jesus, and have tried to show him, by quoting from the Torah or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, what they see as the absurdity of belief in the Resurrection.

Christ has told them that they neither understand the “power of God” (verse 29), to transform us into a new way of being alive when risen. Nor have they understood the purpose of the Scriptures.

The Pharisees now “test” (verse 35) Christ by asking him a question that was often debated at the time (verse 36): of the 613 laws in the Torah, which is most important?

The first part of Christ’s answer would not have surprised them.

However, the second part of his answer, his understanding that a “second” commandment (verse 39) is of equal weight (“like it”) would have surprised them, for it was considered not be important.

Here Christ is citing Leviticus 19: 18, which says: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And he says this commandment is of equal importance with the first.

Yet, as Daniel Harrington says in his commentary on this Gospel (p. 315), and as Sarah Dylan Breuer writes in the agreement with him, “there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others.”

She says self-esteem is a fine and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology. But these interior emotional states were not a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.

The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the Gospels is James 2: 1-17, which may be a major help in discussing this.

When Christ says “love your neighbour as yourself,” he is essentially saying, “treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood” – as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honour and special care.

It is worth noticing that in that passage, James treats “faith” and “love” almost as synonyms.

Developing a right relationship of actively loving God and our fellow humans provides the key to understanding the Scriptures and to our faith.

The Pharisees regarded themselves as the experts in Biblical interpretation. But Christ now asks them some questions (verse 42).

At the time, the general understanding and expectation among people was for a political “Messiah” who was descended from David, “the son of David”.

At the time it was also thought the David was inspired by the Spirit to write the Psalms. But in verses 43-44, Christ asks: “How is ... that David” refers to “him” (the Messiah) as “Lord” (overlord), in writing “The Lord” God (Yahweh) “said to my Lord” (in other words, David’s overlord, whom Christ present in this dialogue as the Messiah) “sit ...”

So (verse 45), how can the Messiah be both David’s son and his overlord?

While in English and Greek, the word “Lord” (κύριος, kurios) occurs twice, Christ may have quoted Psalm 110: 1 in Hebrew; there the words are different. He was probably not unique in taking “my Lord” there to be the Messiah, for a political Messiah would defeat his “enemies”.

And so the Pharisees too are shown not to understand the Scriptures. And the two great commandments certainly do not provide them with the hermeneutical key to understanding the whole of Scripture, as David Ford would want us to have.


Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Help us to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom.
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Next: Matthew 23: 1-12.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 15 October 2014.

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