Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 22:34-46
Proper 25 A - Year A

Other texts: 

Leviticus 19-1-2, 15-18
Psalm 90-1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2-1-8
Matthew 22-34-46

The latest "guidelines" for the Lutheran lectionary on Reformation Sunday is to use the assigned lessons for that Sunday. Especially as we look at the "Great Commandment," it would be a good time to rightly distinguish between law and gospel. (I haven't necessarily done that in these notes because I forgot it was Reformation Sunday until I sat down to send them.)

There are two parts to our lesson. The first section deals with a question asked of Jesus about the greatest commandment. This is the third of three questions presented to Jesus in this chapter: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (asked by Pharisees and Herodians) (v. 17); "In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?" (asked by Sadducees) (v. 27); now comes the question from a lawyer (nomikos -- only here in Matthew, and a different word than "scribe" who, because they copied the law, were also considered experts in the law) about the greatest law. Jesus is able to respond to all their trick questions.

In the second part of our lesson, it is Jesus who asks the Pharisees a question, which they are unable to answer.


Why would the question about the great commandment be a "test" or "temptation" [peirazo used by Matthew only of testing by the devil (4:1, 3) and by Pharisees (16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35)]? It is not a "test" in Mark's account (12:28-34).

If the Pharisees assumed that all the commandments were equal, that no one was greater than any other; then the question becomes a "trick" question with no right answer.

In a similar way, if we were to assume that all verses in the Bible were equal, then asking, "What's the most important verse in the Bible?" would be a "testing" question. We could find fault in any answer that was given.


While Jesus quotes two OT passages (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18), I think that we should stress the triple aspect of these two commandments: love God, love neighbor, and love self. I don't believe that Jesus is telling us to loose self in our care for neighbor -- or, in other words, become co-dependent. Jesus isn't proposing anything new, but using the authoritative writings for both Pharisees and Sadducees.

I found it interesting that commentators offer different opinions about the relationship between these two commandments.

Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) writes: "... these two commandments remain distinct. They should not be identified with each other. Loving God should not be reduced to loving one's neighbor! Loving God is an act of love distinct from loving one's neighbor, and vice versa" [p. 314].

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: "To love God is to love one's neighbor, and vice versa (25:31-46)" [p. 426]

Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries): "Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God (cf. 1 John 4:20-21)" [p. 260].

I agree strongly both ways. On one hand, I think that loving God means something different than just loving one's neighbor. One can be a very kind, caring, philanthropic person without giving any thoughts or love to God.

On the other hand, I don't think that a believer can love God without loving neighbor and self, because God loves that neighbor and me, too.

Although I am guilty of contrasting the meanings of agapao/agape, phileo/philos, and eros -- and I will do so again -- Boring, (Matthew The New Interpreters Bible) says that the words are synonymous -- that agape is not necessarily a special word for "God-love". He writes:

When Christians use the word love with reference to God, to the deepest human relationships, and of the stance they are to exercise toward the world, the content of this word is not to be filled in with supposed meaning of a special Greek word, but from an understanding of God's nature made known in Christ. It is from this revelatory perspective that we come to know love as unmotivated and unmanipulated, unconditional and unlimited. Such love is not a matter of feeling, which cannot be commanded in any case, but of commitment and action. It is at the farthest pole from sentimentality and is related to the OT word for "covenant love" or "steadfast love" (hesed). [p. 425]

While I think he is right to stress the nature and actions of God to give understanding to the word "love," (i.e., it is God's actions that give the content to agape, rather than a dictionary meaning of agape that defines God's actions) and recognizing that the meanings of the three Greek works for "love" overlap -- that is, they are partially synonymous, I still think one can find different emphases or nuances in these three words. Given a continuum with "selflessness" on one end and "selfishness" on the other, I would place agapao/agape towards the selfless end and eros towards the selfish end with phileo/philos in the middle.

Agapao/agape are words that tend to center on actions (not emotions) towards other people. Eros is a word that tends to center on (sexual) actions or feelings that please one's self. Phileo/philos are words that tend to center on actions and feelings that benefit both parties, e.g., friendships.

Especially as a verb, agapao refers to "loving (or caring) actions towards other people for their benefit." It is not primarily a word to describe one's emotions, e.g., having warm feelings towards.

For a slightly different definition, Hare, (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) writes:

In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. [p. 260]

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) have a lengthy "reading scenario" on "Love and Hate". They expand on what I have quoted above.

First-century Mediterranean persons were extremely group oriented. They learned that a meaningful human existence required total reliance on the group in which one found oneself embedded. This primarily meant the kin group, the village group, the neighborhood, and/or the factions one might join. In various ways these groups provided a person with a sense of self, with a conscience, with a sense of awareness supported by others. Such first-century Mediterranean persons always needed others to know who they were and to support or hinder their choices of behavior. The group, in other words, was an external conscience.

The result of such group orientation was an anti-introspective way of being. Persons had little concern for things psychological. What we would call psychological states were ascribed to spirits, good and bad. It follows that in such cultural arrangements, words referring to internal states always connoted a corresponding external expression as well. For example, the word "to know" always involved some experience of the object know. "To covet" always involved the attempt to take what one desired (hence, the word is best translated "to steal").

Two words nearly always assigned to internal states in our society are "love" and "hate." To understand what they meant in the first-century Mediterranean world, it is necessary to recognize their group orientation. The term "love," for example, is best translated "group attachment, attachment to some person." Thus, in Matt. 6:24, "to love one's master" is paraphrased as "to be devoted." There may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment along with the outward behavior bound up with attachment that love entails. Thus "to love God with all one's heart, etc." means total attachment (22:37); "to love one's neighbor as oneself" (19:19) is to be attached to the people in one's neighborhood as to one's own family -- a very normal thing in the group-oriented Mediterranean until families begin feuding.

Correspondingly, "hate" would mean "disattachment, nonattachment, indifference." Again, there may or may not be feelings of repulsion. But it is the inward feeling of nonattachment along with the outward behavior bound up with not being attached to a group and the persons that are part of that group that hate entails. For example, one can be "negatively disposed toward" (Matt. 6:24, NRSV translates "despise"), "betray one another" (24:10), or "grow cold in love," that is, indifference (24:12). Since "to hate" is the same as "to disattach oneself from a group," one can describe departure from one's family for the sake of Jesus and the gospel as either "hating" one's father, mother, wife, children, and so on (Luke 14:26) or loving "father or mother more than me" (Matt. 10:37), or "leaving everything" (Matt. 19:27; Mark 10:28) -- or more precisely leaving one's "house" (Luke 18:28). In sum, Paul's famous triad in 1 Cor. 13:13 (faith, hope, love) might be best translated: "personal loyalty, enduring trust in another, group attachment," and, of course, the greatest of these is group attachment. [pp. 57-58]

Loving God then implies an attachment to God -- a commitment that goes beyond personal, inward feelings. The same is implied towards the neighbor. Within the OT context of this commandment (Lv 19:17-18), neighbor referred to "kin". (However, Lv 19:33-34) extends the love to "aliens" who reside among them. I wonder how much we should push this "attachment" meaning concerning church membership. I find many "members" who are not too attached to the congregation or to other members. They are more attached to recreational activities, personal leisure, hobbies, etc. At the same time, there are those members whose commitment and involvement in church activities witness to their love of God and church.

Having been born and grown up in the Pacific Northwest, we sometimes have been given the reputation of not liking "outsiders". A magazine article I read some years ago suggested a different understanding of the Northwestern attitude: "If you come here, we want you to love the place as much as we do." (I'll add: Even if you think it rains too much.)

I've thought: That's the same attitude that many long-time church members have. They really aren't opposed to newcomers, but they expect the new people to love the church as much as they do. Or, in connection with the above quotes -- to be as connected to the congregation as they are (or used to be).

Some stories about love.

In a wonderful little book, Dudley's Dog Days: Joining Faith to Life, by Harley G. Rusch, the family has just bought a cocker spaniel puppy named Dudley. On their way to grandma's house to show off the newest member of the family, they stop at an ice cream store. It was a hot summer day -- and, of course, Dudley was given an ice cream cone, too. Next they stopped at a hamburger stand for some food, which, of course, Dudley had to eat, too. Dudley had hardly gotten the hamburger down, when it came right back up -- along with the remains of the ice cream and cone.

They get to grandma's house, who quickly gave her grown son a tongue-lashing: "How could you give a puppy an ice-cream? Don't you know anything about taking care of a puppy?"

The author writes about his experience:

We were inexperienced at showing love to a dog. Although we loved him at first sight, the technique by which we showed that love needed a lot of improvement.

It would not be the last time either. The first walk, the first trip to the vet, the first night, all proved that some expertise was needed in the art of loving a puppy.

Society has told us by means of movies and television that love is something that just happens. Caring for another is something you just do. How wrong can they be? To love takes the desire but also a lot of practice, preparation, and perspiration.

We discovered with Dudley that there are proper and correct ways to show love. There are also acts that can be motivated by love, but can in effect be unloving -- like ice-cream cones for puppies.

The love Jesus calls for is more than just warm feelings. It can often involve "practice, preparation, and perspiration." In some cases loving others means giving a dose of "tough love".

Some other quotes about tough love that I'd used in a sermon on this text come from the September/October 1990 issue of The Door. In an interview with H. Stephen Gleen called "Creating (or Preventing) the Potential for Addiction," he is asked:

What is the most common mistake parents make, when it comes to raising their children, that contributes to this problem of low self-esteem and leaves a kid vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse?

His answer:


"Weaning?" you may ask. "What does he mean by that?"

It means learning to make decisions independent of mom and dad.

Example 1:

We seem to have a generation of "super-parents" who believe their children should never know boredom or experience the negative consequences of their decisions. Take the issue of boredom, for example. This generation of kids is continually bored. And when a child comes to a parent and says, "I'm bored" the wide parent should say, "I understand that, honey. It happens to me periodically, too. Now get out of here." I have never known a kid who, if allowed to be bored for an hour, didn't become so bored with boredom that they didn't figure out how to get un-bored. Instead, what happens is that a kid comes to their parent and says they are bored. The parent says, "Well, why don't you...?" And the kid says, "No, I don't want to do that." Then the parent makes a few more suggestions, which are all rejected for one reason or another. So the parent racks their brain trying to think of something their kid can do to keep from being bored.

Why should a child be totally dependent on Mom and Dad to solve their problem of boredom?

Example 2:

I had a mother come to me at the end of one of my workshops. She said, "I'm a single mother. I work all day at one job, all night at another. I stop at home to cook for my 19-year-old son. My problem is I cant' seem to motivate him to cook or get a job. What should I do?" I told her to take a quarter, go to the phone and call him up. I suggested she tell her son, "Son, I've just met someone interesting who I am going out to dinner with tonight." Then I told her to hang up. She said, "But, what will happen? I told her I didn't know, but that I have observed 19-year-olds become incredibly self-reliant when confronted with their own starvation.

The interviewee ends this section by saying, "We are simply allowing kids to depend on us too long. Weaning is not attractive for the weanor or the weanee." [When I shared this with a group of pastors, some couldn't imagine using "weanor" and "weanee" in a sermon. I know someone who did.]

Doing the loving thing for other people is not always easy. Tough love is very difficult. Weaning a child is difficult. We often want to play the role of a savior -- saving others from their messes, often because we want to feel better. It can give us warm feelings knowing we are helping another or taking care of our children. Love is not always warm feelings. Sometimes it has to be loving actions that are tough and painful.

That is the kind of love Jesus showed us. I doubt that he had warm feelings for us when the soldiers made fun of him. I doubt that he had warm feelings for us when the crowds were yelling insults at him. I doubt that he had warm feelings for us when he was hanging on the cross. But his actions were needed to help us -- to bring us salvation. It is obvious from the reaction of the crowds that Jesus was not the kind of savior they wanted -- he didn't always give them warm feelings; but he is the kind of savior we need. Out of love, he suffered and died for us. His agony had to have been motivated by much more than warm feelings.

When we define agapao/agape it has to be filled with the actions of God for us. While our text is a word of Law for us -- both telling us how we should live in the world -- lovingly; and revealing our sinfulness, because occasionally we may not be so loving towards neighbors or self -- looking at how Jesus' expressed love for us -- his enemies, because of our sinfulness -- can bring a word of Gospel into this text.

One of the gifts Martin Luther gave us was his approach to ethical behavior. If we are saved by grace through faith, then loving our neighbor (or self) isn't necessary; but we should do good deeds for our neighbors -- not because they earn us brownie points with God -- but because our neighbor needs them. Or, as Erik Gritsch puts it: "Lutheran ethics start to function when one no longer asks, 'What's in it for me?'"


The second part of our gospel reading (vv. 41-46) can be related to Jesus' revealing God's love for us on the cross.

The idea of "son" connotes more than biology and physical lineage, but with one's character and whom one obeys or is subservient to.

While the title "Son of David" is a term often used for Jesus (1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15), it is an inadequate term. Those who are inspired by the Spirit, including David, are calling (present tense) him Lord. Jesus will surpass the prevailing opinions and expectations of the "Son of David" -- namely, he will not be mighty warrior that David was, but the suffering servant who trusts that God will put all enemies under his feet. Is it going too far to state that the way Jesus defeated his enemies was to let them put him to death?

Hare talks about the changing understanding when he writes:

The weakness in the traditional understanding of "the Son of David" to which Jesus points in this passage is that the Messiah is too narrowly conceived as a conquering hero like David, who, with God's help, will destroy Israel's enemies. Psalm 110:1 suggests that the Messiah will be a very different kind of king, one whom even David must call "My Lord." Whose son, then, is he? The basic text of Israel's messianic hope is Nathan's oracle to David. Of David's progeny it is promised, "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam. 7:14). While it is not wrong to say that the Messiah is David's son, it is more important to recognize that he is God's Son, that is, that he will have a unique relationship to God.... The question addressed to nonfollowers (Pharisees, according to Matthew) intends only to provoke reflection concerning what it means to refer to the Messiah as the Son of God, one whom even David must call Lord. [p. 261-2]

Just as love is more than just warm feelings, so Jesus is more than just a Son of David. A question with which we as individuals, and we, as congregations, must wrestle is, what does it mean to call Jesus "Lord." What does it mean to be under Christ's authority, rather than trying to be authorities over Jesus (e.g., a "son" over David, or a child over parents)? Remember, this whole section began with a question about authority (Mt 21:23).

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364