Something Greater than David

Matthew 22:34-46

In this passage a group of religious people have gathered together to confront Jesus. They start by asking him a question meant to trap him, saying, “which is the greatest commandment?”

The rabbis had identified 613 commands in the Scriptures. Some rabbis ventured to say which was the most important. One rabbi said it was the command to be circumcised. Another cited the verse from Zechariah saying, “seek truth and judge justly.” But many said that all the commands are equal in importance.

The group confronting Jesus seemed to think that if he named a specific command as the greatest that it would be controversial, and they could somehow use it against him.

In answering them Rabbi Jesus refers to the central confession of the Jewish people, used daily in their prayers. It’s called the Shema, and it’s still prayed by devout Jews today: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.”

This command also summarizes the first part of the 10 Commandments, the foundation of the Mosaic Law, expressing the importance of whole-hearted commitment to God.

Jesus then adds, “and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This summarizes the second part of the 10 Commandments, expressing the importance of unselfish commitment to other people.

When people try to trap Jesus with trick questions his answers are always remarkable. That was certainly the case here. Jesus gave an answer that the group questioning him could not challenge without denying the heart of their faith.

In the silence that followed, Jesus then asked the group a question of his own, “Whose son is the Messiah”? They answer, “the son of David” – a common title for the Messiah. What follows is a short but deep theological dialog.

The point Jesus makes is that he himself, as the Messiah, is greater than David, greater than the revered historical king of Israel. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had already implied that he is greater than Moses. On another occasion he says of himself that “something greater than the Temple is here.” Now he’s saying that he’s also greater than King David. 

Jesus is greater than David in many ways. Whereas David delivered Israel from enemy nations, Jesus saved humankind from sin and death. 

Whereas David was a mighty warrior who used military violence to destroy Israel’s enemies, Jesus was a mighty warrior with very different weapons, who rejected military arms and saved human beings by means self-giving love.

Psalm 110 had declared that the Messiah would be both King and High Priest. God didn’t permit any Israelite king, even David, to also be the high priest. But Jesus the Messiah is both King and High Priest.

And as the Apostle Peter points out in Acts 2. David died and remained dead in his tomb. But Jesus rose from the dead immortal.

In Jesus, we encounter something greater than David, greater than Moses, greater than the Temple and even greater than Abraham. For Jesus says, “before Abraham was born, I am.” Jesus was greater than all these ultimately because he was and is God incarnate – God’s unique Son. In the person of Jesus the Divine came among us, as one of us – a human being.

The meaning of the incarnation is inexhaustible. But part of its meaning is that Jesus’ life and character is the standard and model for all human beings.

Genesis tells us that we humans – male and female — are created in the image and likeness of God. In Jesus God has shown us what that likeness looks like. Jesus is the model human, who perfectly expresses God’s likeness, that is, God’s character and actions. Accordingly, we are called to desire and to grow to be like Jesus.

Humans are natural imitators. Young children usually want to grow up to be like their Dad and Mom. A younger brother or sister often wants to be like their older sibling. Teenagers may idolize a pop music star or famous athlete.

When I was in college many young men, especially those interested in politics, wanted to be like the late President John F. Kennedy. I knew a fellow student who would stand in front of a mirror and practice imitating Kennedy’s speech cadence and gestures.

We humans commonly look up to others and seek to model ourselves after those we especially admire. Or we identify a set of character traits that inspire us. This can be a good thing and help young people develop their identity and find a direction in life. But, of course, it matters who or what our model is.

I was reading recently about how many young men today feel that they don’t have a clear sense of what it means to be men, of what masculinity is. So they have a weak sense of identity and self-worth. As a result some men are latching on to bizarre ideas of masculinity.

The picture a few years ago of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin riding bare-chested on a powerful horse seemed to some Christians an ideal of masculinity. What’s more, some writers and speakers have put forward ideas that involve expressing manliness by denigrating and disempowering women.

But rather than trying to be manly or womanly, the answer to this struggle for identity is to focus on Jesus as our model and seek to be like him, whether we’re a man or a woman.

Because Jesus is God incarnate – the Divine in human form — he is the model for all humankind. Seeking to grow in Christ-likeness will help all of us mature toward who we truly are and are meant to be.

But what does it look like to be like Jesus? Jesus tells us in verses 37-40. Being like Jesus means loving God with all our heart, soul and strength, and loving others as we love ourselves.

Christ-like love is often tender and merciful, but it is not a soft and sentimental thing. Such love is revealed most clearly in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Jesus went to the cross not as a weak and helpless victim, but as a strong and courageous leader, a good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. Christ-like love is strong and courageous — a determined and disciplined effort to always put God first and to genuinely care for others even when it costs us.

Jesus says that the entire Law hangs on these two commands to love. This means whatever we do to obey God we do it with Christ-like love. When we share the Good News of Jesus with someone, we radiate love for them, not browbeating or threatening them. If we seek to influence society at large with the values of Jesus, we speak and act with love, not arrogance or anger or contempt. All our actions, plans and efforts are to be evaluated by whether or not they express Christ-like love.

We can’t grow in loving like Jesus loves by means of our own strength and virtue. Jesus’ commands to love are not so much orders, as an invitation. A promise that God will form in us the loving character of Jesus as we focus our lives on him and seek to follow him with all our heart.

And yet, God becoming human in the person of Jesus means something even more profound than having Jesus as our model. The incarnation means that God loves us so much he held nothing back but gave himself fully to us and for us.

When I was a small child my Mom sometimes sang songs to my sister and me. One song went, “Take all of me, Why not take all of me.” The original song was about romantic love. But I think Mom sang it as a mother who gave everything she had for her children, sometimes to exhaustion.

That’s what God has done in the incarnation. God has given all of himself. He has gone all the way to be with us and for us, as one of usuniting us with himself.

It’s possible to respect and fear a god who holds himself back from human beings. Who relates to us from afar, who remains in heaven. Such a god might even inspire a form of obedience.

But only a God who shares our vulnerable humanity, who gives us all that he is and has — only such a God can be truly loved.

That’s the meaning of the incarnation. God is love, and he loves us so completely that he came to be with us as one of us, even to death on a cross. How can we not love such a God as this!

Brothers and sisters, the incarnation isn’t merely a doctrine. It’s a wonder — the most astounding wonder there is. It’s the miracle of God’s immeasurable love.

In Jesus there is something greater than David, greater than Moses, greater than Abraham. In Jesus we meet the God who is absolute love and who loves us absolutely.

In that love we find home, security and joy. As the old hymn says, “Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing.”

Marty Shupack, October 2023