Behind all the probing questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees lie some key misunderstandings of what religion is all about. It’s not, actually, about controlling people (other than ourselves). Nor is it, at its heart, about being right.
These different ‘parties’ among the leaders of Israel have different concerns. The Sadducees have just appeared in the story, and for a reason – they weren’t really that bothered about Jesus until he came to Jerusalem and took on the Temple authorities. The Sadducees had control of the High Priesthood, and had a very narrow view of religion. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible as true Scripture, and so they were able to ignore all the prophets had said against temple-based religion without justice and discipleship. They also denied any idea of resurrection and eternal life – after all, it does appear in the Old Testament, but not clearly in the first five books. That led to their trick question in 22:23-33, trying to show how ridiculous the whole idea of resurrection is. While they resented the Romans, they managed a kind of uneasy truce so long as they were allowed to run the Temple as they wanted.
Jesus had already come up against the Pharisees, on the other hand. Unlike the Sadducees, they cared passionately about how ordinary people of Israel lived every part of their lives. They weren’t usually priests, but were usually educated men who would work as rabbis, lawyers and teachers in villages and towns, ensuring that people kept God’s law and often serving as rabbis. That meant that they had to react quickly to Jesus while he was still in Galilee, not yet on the radar of the Sadducees. They accepted the whole of our Old Testament as Scripture, and wrote vast libraries of texts to explain and ‘clarify’ what God meant. At the heart of a Pharisee’s view of the world was a map with clear boundaries of ‘in’ and ‘out’, black and white, right and wrong on every detail of life. Unfortunately those lines were so clear and so many that there was only really room for the Pharisees inside them. They believed passionately in the resurrection of the dead – to paradise or to judgement according to how they had lived. Most of them probably didn’t expect paradise to be very crowded.
In most respects of theology, Jesus (and certainly Paul, later) were much closer to the Pharisees than to the Sadducees. But that masks the fact that, as we see here, Jesus is taking that theology in the opposite direction. To Jesus, religion is not about details of debate, and not about who’s in and who’s out. Where the Pharisees were ready to denounce sinners of every kind, and saw sin everywhere, Jesus saves his denouncing for them – blind guides, who refuse to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and try to stop anyone else from going in either.
So Jesus seems to see the deepest and most troubling sin not as anything we’d class as ‘immoral’ but as taking religious authority and knowledge, and using it to build walls rather than bridges between people and God.
When the Pharisee asks Jesus which of God’s laws is most important, he was asking a familiar question in debates between rabbis. But he wasn’t asking so that he could live more fully in God’s way. He was asking so that he could pigeonhole Jesus as agreeing with Rabbi A or Rabbi B – or perhaps in the hope that Jesus would say something that could be used against him in a later argument.
Jesus, as with the other questions, doesn’t get drawn into the debate. Unusually, though, he does give a direct answer. Love God, love your neighbour. That, he says, is the foundation of the Law and the Prophets.
It’s simple, easy to remember. It’s also hard to do. But it’s what gives meaning to everything else we call ‘religion’. It’s not about boundaries, getting it right or getting it wrong. It’s about love, love which frees us to be ourselves and in the words of Tim Challies, to direct our lives to ‘Bring glory to God by doing good to others’.
Everything else is details.