Are Christ’s teachings simply a matter for discussion or are his words truly life-giving

Father John A. Kiley

The city of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, in fact, the whole of Judea and Galilee at the end of the Jewish era teemed with various Jewish factions. The Pharisees were the doctors of the Law, the teachers in Israel, whose status was somewhat akin to that of a rabbi in today’s world. The Sadducees were the priestly class, descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and were charged with the Temple liturgies, the sacrifices, the offerings, and the hours of prayer at Judaism’s central house of worship. And there were also the Herodians, a sect of Hellenistic, that is, Greek-minded Jews with more of a political than a religious bent who were the supporters of King Herod the Great’s dynasty. The Pharisees were constantly at odds with Jesus and would occasionally be joined by the Herodians in public attempts to discredit Jesus before the admiring crowds. The Sadducees reserved most, but not all, of their fire power for Jesus’ final days, ultimately handing Christ over to Pilate for a death sentence.
The synoptic Gospel accounts all recall five public deliberations between Jesus and these assorted Jewish leaders. All five are recorded in all three synoptic Gospel accounts which is unusual in itself, considering their varied places of origin. The first question posed by both priests and elders was, “By what authority are you doing these things.” Jesus threw this question back at them by asking if the Baptist’s authority came from a heavenly or human source. They dared not answer for fear of alienating the crowds who respected John or offending Rome whose earthly power was supreme. Next, the Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” To which Jesus, after a brief discussion, uttered the solemn words, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
Then the Pharisees along with some Herodians make this demand of Jesus: “Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Obviously wanting to force Jesus into some civil disobedience, a political question is raised. Again Jesus cleverly and memorably responds, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The Sadducees then raise the controverted issue of the resurrection of the dead. They conjure up a tale of a woman who has been married to seven different men. Then they shrewdly ask Jesus, “Now at the resurrection of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” Jesus insightfully raises the question of life after death to a whole new level: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” The authentic believer will not confuse the material world with the spiritual world.
SS. Matthew and Mark follow Christ’s rout of the Sadducees with the controversy on the greatest law. St. Luke had put this same debate much earlier in Christ’s ministry. Pleased that Christ had embarrassed the Sadducees, the Pharisees now ask Jesus a question that Jewish nation had argued over for centuries. “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There were so many opinions and estimations on this question that the ordinary preacher would certainly offend some group no matter what the response. Jesus bravely cites the heart of the matter: “You shall love the Lord, your God” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he silences all opposition by stating,
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” End of discussion.
Not to be outdone, Jesus finally puts the Pharisees on the spot by asking, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” The teachers respond, “David’s son.” Then Jesus cleverly inquires how David in the psalms can refer to the Messiah as his Lord when he is actually his son. St. Matthew then, no doubt with great satisfaction, records, “No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
Readers might leave this survey impressed with Jesus’ cleverness and also saddened at the Jewish leaders’ hardness of heart. A more beneficial response would be a self-examination on how deeply today’s believer ponders the depths of Christ’s teaching. Are Christ’s teachings simply a matter for discussion, pro or con, or are his words truly life-giving, meant to be pondered in the depth of the soul. The Jewish authorities missed the time of their visitation. The same should not be said of Christian believers today.