And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked Him a question to test Him – Matthew 22:35 (NET)
Immediately after Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, one of the Pharisees, said to be “an expert in religious law” (22:35b), posed a question to Him. The language used by Matthew, which is that the purpose of the question was “to test Him” (22:36c), informs the audience that this encounter was to be understood as a rabbinic debate, which would have an honor and shame dynamic. This is fitting, since the greatest source of honor was a connection to the Temple, and Jesus is in the midst of an extended process of shaming the Temple and those connected to it. If they are able to overcome Jesus in a rabbinic challenge, thus diminishing His honor, then they can also diminish the effectiveness of His words and actions against the Temple.
Jesus’ opinion in regards to the greatest commandment of the law is elicited. Quoting from Deuteronomy and from Leviticus, Jesus responds with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (22:39). Summing up His response, Jesus adds “All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (22:40). Of course, we are quite familiar with these words of Jesus, as were the respective audiences of both Jesus and Matthew. We must here consider that the Temple and His judgment upon it lies in the background of both His words and the narrative that records His words and deeds, and considering that singular quotations of Scripture are designed to call to mind large sections of the Scriptural narrative (and by extension, Israel’s history), we are forced to look at the context for Jesus’ Scriptural quotations. In doing so, we find that they fit within the overall movement of Matthew and of this section of the story he tells.
Prior to His triumphal entry, in multiple parables, Jesus is shown to be speaking about the kingdom of heaven (God). Talk of the kingdom of heaven fits together with thoughts about the restoration of the promised land of Israel, which would manifest itself in independence of people and land from the rule of foreign and pagan nations. Jesus’ triumphal entry aligns with such talk. Jesus’ continued speech about the kingdom of heaven, in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, following His judgment upon the Temple (which then cannot be disconnected from that which follows) fits neatly with what has been previously heard from Jesus and presented by Matthew. So when we hear Jesus speak about love of God with heart, soul, and mind, and are thus thrust upon the pages of Deuteronomy, we would be disappointed if we did not find concerns within the same vein being voiced. Naturally, we are not disappointed.
The words quoted by Jesus are prefaced and followed by statements such as “Walk just as He has commanded you so that you may live, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land you are going to possess” (5:33); “Now these are the commandments, statutes, and ordinances that the Lord your God has instructed me to teach you so that you may carry them out in the land where you are headed… as the Lord, God of your ancestors, said to you, you will have a land flowing with milk and honey” (6:1,3b); “Then when the Lord your God brings you the land He promised to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you” (6:10a); “for the Lord your God, who is present among you,” which is a Temple/tabernacle reference---the place the Lord dwells, “is a jealous God and His anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land” (6:15); “Do whatever is proper and good before the Lord so that it may go well with you and that you may enter and occupy the good land that He promised to your ancestors” (6:18); “He delivered us… so that He could give us the land He had promised our ancestors” (6:23); and “When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy” (7:1a).
His talk of the kingdom, His triumphal entry, and His dramatic and judging words and actions in the Temple, are rooted in hopes concerning God’s promise to His people and the covenant faithfulness of that God. Occupation and possession of that land, in which God would build His temple and in which He would dwell amongst His people, was always the evidence of God’s power and of the fulfillment of His promises to His people. So when Jesus speaks in the way that He does, when challenged by the expert in the law, He is not simply offering up aphorisms on how the people of God are to live. Rather, He is building upon the ideological edifice that is already in place, and we must hear Him speak in the context of promise, land, Temple, and kingdom. So even though it does not appear, on the surface, that this particular exchange is linked to His Temple concerns, we can affirm that it most certainly is, and that it continues in the narrative flow that Matthew offers. It is not an isolated statement or encounter, but one that demands to be understood in connection to the Temple.