Monday, April 8, 2013

A Different Messiah [Matthew 22.41-46] (25 March 2012)

During the last three Sundays we have dealt with passages in which Jesus was questioned by different groups. First was the issue of paying the census tax to Caesar. Then was the issue of the resurrection. And finally last week was the matter of the greatest commandment. Today we have Jesus initiating a dialogue with the Pharisees.

The problem with today’s passage is not that Jesus deals with an Old Testament passage here. Rather, the force of what Jesus has done while dealing with this passage has all but obliterated what was done with the passage before Jesus came along. This came to mind when I was preparing for today’s message. 

And so we have a few things to ask ourselves. Why did Jesus choose this passage from the Old Testament? How was this passage interpreted among the Jews at that point? What is Jesus’ interpretation of the passage? And what is it about Jesus’ interpretation that actually silenced the groups that were trying to trap him? 

Before proceeding to answer these questions, we must set in order a couple of things. First, while Jesus probably knew and spoke Greek, given that he was a carpenter in Galilee, it is most likely that he spoke Aramaic while in Jerusalem. Also, while quoting from the Old Testament, he would have quoted from the Hebrew text rather than from the Greek Septuagint.

Second, we must avoid the view that, since Jesus stumped the various groups of interlocutors, these people must have been not very smart. Rather, we must realize that Jesus stumped these teachers of the Torah because he was exceptionally smart. In other words, he is like the good teacher who brings out treasures both old and new depending on whether the wineskins can accommodate the teaching or not.

So what does the Hebrew text say? 

Na-um YHWH la-Adoni: 
shev limini ad-asheet ow-beka ha-dom la-regleka

The poetic nature of the passage is evident in both the rhyme and rhythm. Let me repeat.

Na-um YHWH la-Adoni: 
shev limini ad-asheet ow-beka ha-dom la-regleka

In English we would translate the verse: 

The word of Yahweh to my Lord: 
Sit at my right till I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.

But we still have interpretation problems. And you may ask, “Why in the world is this important?” Why did Jesus bother with this passage? Remember, he is the one who brings it up.

In the 2nd century BC, angered when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple at Jerusalem, the Jews revolted under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. When the Jews evicted the Seleucids from Jerusalem and its vicinity, the Maccabees set themselves up as rulers. But the Maccabees were priests in the Temple and had to justify their rule since they were not descended from David.

They found support in Psalm 110, which Jesus quotes here in our passage for today. Psalm 110.4 says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” This allowed the Maccabees to say that Yahweh’s plan was to have a priestly ruler.

The Jews accepted this for two reasons. First, they were honest with their scriptures. While speaking about Solomon in 2 Samuel 7, God promises that God will establish Solomon’s throne forever. But the Jews knew that something had gone wrong. Solomon’s throne, David’s throne, had not lasted more than a few centuries. Wave after wave of foreign invasions had finally resulted in the deportation of the last Davidic king to Babylon. And since that time there had been no throne of David, no throne of Solomon.

Second, Psalm 110 was an obscure scripture that no one knew what to do with until the Maccabees came to the picture. We find this hard to believe given that Psalm 110.1 is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. But before the Maccabees, this psalm was an obscure one. So when the Maccabees interpreted the scripture in a certain way, the Jews were just glad to have an interpretation!

So how did they interpret it? They interpreted it as a regular prophecy one might find in any of the prophetic books. So they interpreted it this way:

The oracle of Yahweh: To my lord, (that is to Yahweh’s king,)
sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.

According to this view the words “my lord” refers to anyone whom Yahweh installs as king. Then apart from the fact that the psalm was written by David, there is no further need to keep David in the picture. 

According to the Maccabean view, the verse is not talking about a king descended from David, but any Jewish king who ruled from Jerusalem. And so the Maccabean rulers are also included in the interpretation.

When the Maccabean rulers soon became corrupt in just over a decade and themselves profaned the worship in the Temple, the Jews now had no way of critiquing their rule because they had already accepted the Maccabean interpretation of Psalm 110.1. Eventually, the Maccabees were removed from power by the Roman General Pompey in 63 BC, just a century after the Seleucids were driven out.

So for a period of about 150 years the Jews had no way of critiquing rulers like the Maccabees. And then came Jesus. What he did was twofold. First, he reinterpreted the Psalm. Second, he indicated the single most important factor about the reign of the true Messiah. And on both counts he excludes the Maccabean rulers. But he also critiques the then – and now – prevalent view of the reign of the Messiah.

So let us see how Jesus reinterpreted the psalm. Prior to the Maccabees, the psalm was ignored. Then for about 150 years the psalm was interpreted according to the template provided by the Maccabean rulers. Then Jesus reinterpreted the psalm and the interpretation he offered for this psalm is the interpretation it has held ever since. Even the Jews subsequently accepted this interpretation that they learnt from the Church even though they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. And this is why uncovering the earlier interpretation of the Maccabees is extremely difficult.

Jesus said that we should interpret the psalm not as a regular prophecy, but as a poem that is presenting a mystery. “Yahweh said to my lord, that is David’s lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” According to this view, the words “my lord” refers to the Messiah, who alone could qualify as David’s lord. But this immediately presents a mystery in the first century, how can the Messiah be David’s son?

But the mystery is also unraveled if we listen carefully to Jesus. What Jesus is doing is saying, “We know that the Messiah is David’s descendant But this psalm indicates that David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’. Let us interpret the difficult passage – Psalm 110 – in light of the easier passage – 2 Samuel 7.”

So what does 2 Samuel 7 say? In that passage Yahweh promises David, “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.”

In other words, while the Messiah was expected to be David’s son, at a deeper level the Messiah would have a relationship with God so special that he would be God’s son.

This is much like the saying where Jesus says that those who do not hate their father and mother are not worthy of entering the kingdom of God. We know what he means there. He is telling us that our love for him must be so great, so intense, so all-encompassing that in comparison the love for our parents would seem to be completely missing.

In the same way, while the Messiah is David’s descendant, his son-ship to God is of such a nature that it would seem as though his son-ship to David were lacking.

While not discounting the importance of the biological descent of the Messiah, Jesus insists that the spiritual descent is more important. The Messiah is first and foremost God’s son as revealed in the promise to David. Indeed, if we look at the practices then prevalent in the Middle East we would realize that at the right hand of the king was where the crown prince sat.

It is because his son-ship to God takes precedence over his son-ship to David that the Messiah is asked to sit at God’s right hand. But more than this, it means that there is something inherently different between someone who is primarily David’s son and someone who is primarily God’s son.

And this brings us to the most important factor about the Messiah’s reign, something we so easily skip. After Jesus’ reinterpretation of Psalm 110 as a Messianic Psalm, we forget what the Psalm says. So let us go back to the Psalm and see what Jesus quotes: “Yahweh said to my lord” That was the riddle or mystery, which we have solved to indicate that Yahweh spoke to David’s lord, the Messiah. And Jesus continues, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”

This is a critique of all views that insist that the Messiah is a military conqueror. Yahweh tells the Messiah, “Sit!” He does not say, “Fight at my right hand and both of us will make your enemies your footstool!” He says, “Sit!”

Jesus tells his audience and us that the true Messiah is asked to be passive while God orchestrates history to the point where all the enemies of the Messiah acknowledge his authority over them.

What Jesus has done is provided his audience with an interpretive tool by which they can critique any messianic claimant. If they follow Jesus’ scheme of things they will be able to see that Judas Maccabeus and his brothers did not fulfill Psalm 110 for two reasons. First, they were not descended from David. Second, and more importantly, they did not “sit at God’s right hand”. In the same way they could have dismissed every single of their messianic claimants because every one of them wanted to fight. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If your view of the Messiah includes a battle waged by him then you are expecting a false messiah.”

This critique holds true for us Christians too. As I prepare for the studies on the Revelation of Jesus Christ, I come across so many interpretations that are gory and reveal the thirst for blood that many Christians have. Jesus, according to many of these interpretations, will return and wage war against his enemies and the Antichrist and destroy them.

But according to Psalm 110 the Messiah does nothing to make his enemies submit. That is done by God and we don’t know how he will do it. In other words, Jesus will not return until God has brought Jesus’ enemies to the point where they will acknowledge his authority over them.

Do not conclude that I am saying that Jesus cannot return today. Neither you nor I know whether Jesus’ enemies are ready to submit to him or not. All I am saying is that he will return when God has brought his enemies to the point where they are ready to submit. That may be today. It may be many years from now. 

The chronological time is not the crucial issue – unlike so many people trying to predict the date when he will return. Rather, it is the momentous time that is crucial. He will return when God has fulfilled Psalm 110.1.

Our major creeds tell us that Jesus is right now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And that when he returns, it will be to judge rather than to fight. This current age is the time captured by the word ‘until’ in Psalm 110.1. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and will continue doing that ‘until’ God has brought Jesus’ enemies to the point where they will acknowledge his supremacy.

Jesus will return when the time is ripe. His enemies will submit then. But he will not come to wage a conquest over his enemies. Indeed, in about 12 days we will observe the solemn day on which he was victorious over his enemies. If we are looking for a conquering Jesus to return, we are looking for a figment of our imagination and we then need to repent. The only Jesus who will return is the one who has already won when he hung on the cross.

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