New Testament Week 20: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” – Matt 21-23, Mark 11, Luke 19-20, John 12

The final week of Jesus’s mortal life begins in this week’s chapters. For the first time in a while we also get to see all four gospel accounts of this final week. Each of the accounts gives us something different and meaningful as we piece together the timeline and atmosphere in and around Jerusalem.

For our study this week we will cover the events starting from Saturday before Passover until Wednesday. Because we aren’t sure when Jesus taught some of the parables and teachings during this week, the following week’s chapters are likely taught on Tuesday and Wednesday, but can’t be sure of which order. This week we will focus on the narrative timeline and the teaching from the chapters, and next week we will not discuss timeline and solely focus on the teachings and parables.

In most of Christianity the events of this last week are celebrated in what is called Holy Week. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and each day remembers events during the week leading up to Good Friday (Crucifixion of Christ), and Easter (Resurrection of Christ). Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints don’t typically celebrate Holy Week. We have made it a point to celebrate at least some of the days of Holy Week in our family, for example we watch a video that reflects each day and then talk about what it means for us. I feel closer to the Lord when we do that and also it is wonderful to see what those days mean to my family members. It is also a great time to talk more about the Lord’s sacrifice on our behalf. I hope over the next 4-6 weeks as we finish the Gospel witnesses that you can find ways to implement Holy Week into your life next year.

CHAPTERS FOR STUDY WEEK 20 – Matt 21-23, Mark 11, Luke 19-20, John 12

– Failing and changing is where we find holiness. There is no shame in failing, but in pretending to be holy.

– We must love God and our neighbors and our selves to be one with the Lord and the Law.

– Checking boxes off through obedience can distance us from the Lord if it not accompanied with love, humility, faith, and needing the Lord in our lives.

Context and Timeline:
– Because the gospel accounts are not entirely clear on when certain events happen it can be difficult to figure out when Passover actually began during this last week. Most of the scholarly sources I consulted go with Jesus’s anointing in Bethany happening on the evening of the Saturday before Passover. This event would have happened after the Sabbath ended (Sabbaths began on Friday evening and ended Saturday evening) and the evening before Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday. On Monday Jesus cleaned the temple and had confrontations with the Jews Monday thru Wednesday. The Passover was a week-long celebration and it would begin on Thursday evening, while the Lord’s final supper was happening, but the initial festivities, including the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, would happen on Friday. This timing matches up with Christ’s own sacrifice being completed on the cross.

– The Paschal Lamb was the traditional sacrifice offered at the beginning of Passover. It was the most pure and spotless white lamb that could be found and traditionally it was raised and taken from Bethphage. It is not a coincidence that Jesus is intent on going through Bethphage on his journey to Jerusalem on the final Sunday before his death.

– It was tradition for kings to enter into cities and particularly in Jerusalem on horses that befit a king, but in Zachariah 9:9 and Zephaniah 3:16 it was prophesied that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. This would have also been a symbol of peace and not war. It is possible this is not what people were expecting from the Messiah, even though it is was what the scriptures were foretelling.

– Palm Sunday is named because of the palm fronds that were used to celebrate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem by believers. Most of the believers had been converted through the story of Lazarus being risen from the dead. When they celebrated Jesus with palm fronds it was symbolizing a victory (palm fronds were the traditional way to celebrate a military victory when the king returned), even though he came in the method of peace.

– As mentioned before, Caiaphas had created a pretty good financial situation for himself by using the temple for the selling and exchanging of sacrificial animals – especially at times of pilgrimage. The entire temple courtyard would have been full of animals and money changers. Jesus had already cleansed the temple once three years before.

– Saducees are traditionally known to deny resurrection. What is lesser known is that they actually used the complicated marriage law in the Law of Moses, where if the husband dies then the wife is remarried to the brother and so on, as their reasoning for there being no resurrection. All of that confusion just doesn’t add up and so how could an ordered God do that? When Jesus responds to them he seems to be addressing marriage, but in reality he is actually more intent on saying that marriage in this instance has nothing to do with the fact that resurrection is real and we will all live again.

– The three challenges to Jesus in these chapters by Pharisees are often compared to the three temptations of Satan. The first question is about Jesus’s authority or his pride, the second question is about Jesus’s standing with politics or His desire for power, and the third was about marriage and resurrection or the trials of the flesh (marriage fidelity and death).

John begins his narrative sometime soon after the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is the end of the Sabbath and they are having dinner together when Mary takes some very expensive ointment and anoints Jesus’s feet. Judas Iscariot complains that the ointment could have been sold to feed the poor, but John questions whether Judas wanted the money for himself, and Jesus responds by saying again that He will be leaving soon and this is really to prepare Him for His burial. It is clear that John is continuing to show the building plot against Jesus. If we remember from John 11 Caiaphas was already letting people know they were in a very sticky situation with Jesus.

It seems like in an effort to avoid killing Jesus some chief priests were considering killing Lazarus instead. His witness had escalated a huge movement in and around Jerusalem. So many people were believing, including Jewish leaders, that if they could silence Lazarus that may stem the tide growing in the populous.

On the following morning, Sunday, Jesus is walking in Jericho and decides to visit the house of man named Zaccheus. This man was reviled by leaders of the Jews because he was a chief tax collector. Jesus talks with the man, who clearly believes and lives his life the right way by giving so much of what he has to the poor and treating people fairly. Jesus gives him assurances that he is living the way to salvation and then teaches the Parable of the Pounds.

This parable is similar in many ways to the later told Parable of the Talents, but in this instance man leaves money with his servants and expects them to grow his wealth and holdings. Two of the men do this and upon the return of the nobleman they are given many cities and holdings in return for their efforts. Another man hides his money in a napkin and his money is taken away and given to the other servants. For the second and not the last time, Jesus teaches the idea that those who are given and are good stewards will receive more, and those who do nothing will have what they had taken away. In the Book of Mormon we get other versions of this teaching that relate to spiritual knowledge and connection with God. I believe this principle and have seen it play out so many times, but it is even more striking when considering how we treat the poor and those around us plays into this as well. Jesus is specifically teaching this parable in the house of a very rich man, but one who truly cared about taking care of others.

Jesus then begins the journey to Jerusalem for His Triumphal Entry. He sends servants to Bethphage to get the colt of a donkey prepared for Him. The Lord is fully intending to fulfill the Messianic prophecies that will later convince billions of people that He is the Christ. Traditionally the north gate of Jerusalem was thought to be the place where the Messiah would return and so as Jesus entered that gate there were already many people there who had been converted by his miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. There were also many pilgrims from the north who were telling stories of His miracles and teachings. The city was buzzing with anticipation and when he entered in such a ceremonial way many broke palm fronds and began shouting Hosanna! This leads some of the Pharisees to say, “Behold the world has gone after him.” Which means they could feel their control over the people transitioning to Jesus’s movement.

By the time Jesus was able to get to the Temple, where He likely planned to teach, it was evening, and they returned to Bethany for the night with a plan to return on Monday.

The following morning on the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem, the Lord and apostles come across a fig tree. Mark says the Savor was hungry, but it was not the time of year for figs to grow yet, and yet the Lord curses the fig tree. I am sure they were confused as to why Jesus would curse a fig tree for not having fruit when it wasn’t the season for it have fruit, but they don’t say anything at first and eventually they arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem. For a second time Jesus cleanses the temple and calls those leading the racket a den of bandits. This likely would have only endeared the people to Him even more, but obviously this was an attack on the status and power of Caiaphas. From the accounts of John in previous chapters and now these events it is becoming clear that the Pharisees have no choice but to eliminate Jesus if they want to survive His ascension.

The only remaining narrative event that happens in these chapters that specifically points out a day is that on a following morning, Tuesday or Wednesday, the apostles notice the fig tree that Jesus cursed had died. Jesus uses this moment, where His power was demonstrated, to explain to them the importance of having faith when we pray. That the prayer of faith requires us to be compassionate and forgiving of others, and to believe that what we ask for is in harmony with God. If we do that then our prayers will have power.

We are not sure when the rest of the teachings in the chapters we are studying or next week’s chapters actually occur. However, we can safely assume that they all happen between Monday evening and Wednesday night.

I plan to break up the teachings and parables of these chapters into three sections. We have already studied the Parable of the Wedding Feast, so we will discuss the Parable of the Two Sons and the Wicked Tenant and the questions from the Pharisees. The second section we will discuss Jesus’s Messianic teachings. Finally, we will discuss the Lord’s final attack on the Pharisees and Scribes, which likely seals His fate.

In almost all of the gospel accounts Jesus is confronted with questions by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. He is first asked about where His authority comes from. It seems this is an apparent attempt to coax Jesus into puffing up His own authority. We know that a few months before Jesus had claimed that He was Jehovah, which wasn’t a popular teaching among the people. Jesus quickly turns the question against them by bringing up the baptism of John, who was very popular. They could not answer His question without causing a problem and so when they say as much, He responds likewise and goes into a three parable sermon.

  • Parable of the Two Sons (Matt 21:28-32)
    • Two sons are asked by their father to go and work in the yard. The first son says rebelliously, I will not go, but then later changes his mind and goes to work. The second son says obediently, I will go, but then never actually does the work.
    • Jesus pulls no punches here when he says that tax collectors and prostitutes will go into heaven before the people who are like the second son.
    • The reason why is because we can all change with the help of the Lord, but we must be willing to believe and change. Checking off boxes by superficial action is the same as speaking words that have no meaning.
  • Parable of the Wicked Tenants
    • A land owner plants an incredible vineyard and then rents it to farmers. When the land owner sends his servants to collect the fruits of the harvest, the farmers kill the servants. The land owner sends more servants and they are also killed. Eventually the landowner sends his son, and the farmers kill the son as well.
    • Jesus asks what will happen and the Pharisees agree that the landowner will likely come and destroy the farmers and lease the land to other farmers who will bring the fruits to the landowner.
    • Jesus then tells them they will be removed as the custodians of the landowners vineyard. In this sense it means the ordinances and covenant of Abraham. It will be taken from them as Jesus, the son will die, and it will be given to others who will bear it’s fruit to God. After Jesus’s imagery of John’s baptism, it is clear those who are baptized into Jesus’s fold are those who are the new “farmers of the vineyard.”

The Pharisees are getting even more bent out of shape at this point. If we remember Caiaphas’s scare tactic of the Romans destroying them because of Jesus then the next question makes more sense. A contingent of Pharisees, after regrouping to plan their trap, and Herodian soldiers gather around Jesus and they question Jesus as to whether it is lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not. Jesus gives one of His only documented teachings regarding church and state at this point by saying that they should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s, thus thwarting their second trap.

Later that day, Saduccees approach the Lord and challenge the idea of resurrection by mocking the strange marriage law in the Law of Moses where women were married to brother after brother if their husband’s died. This would seem confusing in a resurrection situation. Jesus deflects again their desire for Him to engage in the weird point of law, and instead He goes to the heart of their argument and declares that the resurrection is real and that God is a God of the living.

In a final attempt to trip up the Savior, a Pharisee lawyer asks the Lord which is the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus responds with his most famous retort. Love God and Love your neighbor like yourself. This final refutation to their traps leaves the Pharisees frustrated and awed.

Jesus then speaks to them and the crowd with Messianic teachings. He begins first by addressing the concern brought by them months earlier about Him not being David’s descendant by questioning how David could call the Christ Lord if the Christ was David’s son. This left them speechless because it not only disproved their argument against Christ, but also enforced His previous claim to being Jehovah. Jesus then goes on to prophecy again regarding His death and resurrection and He again says that He has come to save us if we will believe in Him. We need only not reject Him.

To finish off these confrontations with the Pharisees the Lord denounces them in the strongest language He has used. The denunciation is short in Mark and Luke, but it is an entire chapter in Matthew (23). I will bullet point the reasons Jesus denounces them and hopefully we can find things in there that can help us change our own behaviors as farmers in the vineyard.

  • They do not do what they teach.
  • They create heavy burdens for others but do not lift a finger to help.
  • Every work they do, they do for the purpose of being seen as righteous.
  • They make their acts of devotion more grand than necessary to be seen.
  • They want to be seen next to the most important religious leaders
  • They want to be called by their religious titles instead of brother or sister
  • They make it harder for people to come to Christ by shunning them or preventing them from worshiping
  • Offer long and pretentious prayers to make themselves look good.
  • Their oaths related to money are more important than their oaths to God.
  • They believe their tithing is more important than the weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith.
  • They did their “jobs” but neglected the faith of others.
  • They cared about insignificant things of others (gnats), but indulged in terrible actions and hypocrisy themselves (swallowing a camel).
  • They cared about the outside purification and actions, but inside they never sought sanctification and instead were greedy and lacked self-control.
  • They declared their love and adoration of prophets and the righteous of old, yet they had the desire to kill and remove a prophet in their midst.

Wow. I challenge us all to look at that list and really ask ourselves what we can change.

Jesus finishes up by lamenting the fate of Jerusalem, the city He truly loves. This will be the final time that He engages with Pharisees until His arrest. The remaining teachings we will discuss next week are with his disciples and those who are following them.

In what ways can we improve our relationship with the Savior? Prayer? Study? Serving? Helping others feel love, mercy, and compassion?

Do you feel like Jesus was at times antagonizing the Pharisees to ensure His death? Does that mean some of his teachings could be seen as hyperbole to serve a point?

How can we love God more with our hearts, souls, might, understanding?

How can we love our neighbors more like ourselves?

Key Moment or Scripture: Matt 22:35-40
35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 
38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In our current social generation love is the calling card. We should just love, and that is all we need. I am one of the ones who shares this belief that love is the most powerful force on earth and one of God’s greatest weapons against evil. However, like anything important, love can be taken into contexts that can be destructive to our spirits. When Jesus answers the question of the tricky lawyer in this exchange, He does not answer the questions with a blanket “Love.” Like most things the Lord was teaching, these two different loves are challenging to us and meant to help us grow to be more like Jesus Christ. They work in tandem.

Sometime the two loves can be labeled, lazily, as follows:
Love God = Obedience
Love Others = Tolerance

I feel like these equations cause terrible problems for us and defeat the purpose of the Savior’s teaching here. Jesus is clearly attacking the box checking mentality of the day. Doing things because they were the law was the primary way to distinguish a persons righteousness. The box checking was also the primary way people were separated into classes of people without any chance of change for people who were ostracized. Jesus was teaching a principle that condemned that behavior without condemning the need for laws and ordinances. However, his prescription for the ailment was probably more difficult than living the law.

It is probably an entire book worth of information to talk through, but it boils down to this for me. Loving God with the level we are asked to by Jesus (heart, mind, soul, understanding) requires humility and desire. This love will likely motivate us to keep the commandments and “check the boxes”, however, the intent and journey matters much more than the actual box checking. If we do things because simply because we built an environment that makes them so easy to accomplish, then the things we do have little deep benefit to us and we don’t change much. Also, if we only check boxes to demonstrate our relationship with God then when bad things happen we think they are from God, or somehow we didn’t do enough, or that, even worse, God doesn’t even exist. However, if we seek to connect with God in different ways that require us to grow and challenge ourselves, like Christ so often challenged the disciples, we will see the deep infinite need we have for Christ to lift us and change us. Then, whether we follow his commandments or are challenged to repent because we don’t follow a commandment, we are changing along the way. Our change comes, not because of our obedience, but because our weak things through Christ become strong. This is meaningful change, this is becoming like Christ because it is motivated by love and gratitude. This kind of Love for God, and relationship to the commandments, provides protection when life sucks, or when we make mistakes and don’t feel like we measure up.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves, the way Christ is expecting, is potentially more difficult. Loving others isn’t just tolerating everything they do and liking them anyway. That might be part of it, but loving others is relating with them, learning from your differences, desiring to understand their plight and their circumstances, and deeply desiring for them to feel loved. This is hard when you don’t combine it with the love of God because it is hard to see people as yourself when you think you are better than them, or worse than them. We have to see them as just like us no matter their circumstances. They are separated from God and yet they are His children and He loves them. We all need Jesus. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. US. This makes it possible to see their mistakes and our mistakes for what they are, opportunities to come back to the Lord.

Final Thoughts:
Jesus’s escalating conflicts and challenging teachings bring His life to the brink of death. It was part of the plan, and He knew it was coming, but as we will see over the next few weeks, it was still incredibly difficult for Him. I really felt His spirit as I studied this weeks lesson, I hope that we can find ways to love God, love others and love ourselves the way He loves us. Have a great week.