The Bible contains some vivid scenes of antagonism and opposition. Shepherd boy David versus warrior giant Goliath. Elijah's spiritual contest with the false prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Daniel in the lions' den. Paul on trial before Agrippa. To this list we must add Matthew 22 with Jesus questioned at the Temple.
Groups of Jesus' opponents line up to take their best shot at the presumptive prophet. The Herodians, those politically-connected wily collaborators with Rome. The Sadducees, the religious establishment that trusts in the security of the Temple rather than the promises of God. The Pharisees, smug in their own self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Each school has an explosive question to lob at Jesus, confident that it will de-rail the growing support of this so-called Savior. It's time for a little game of "Stump the Messiah!"
Taxes have never been popular. Even in America, where we enjoy taxation with representation, taxes are heaped with scorn. Imagine how the Judeans felt having to pay taxes to their hated oppressors, the occupying Romans! The Herodians slyly ask Jesus about the propriety of paying such taxes. If Jesus says to pay the taxes, He dared looking like a weak stooge of Rome, Israel's enemy. If Jesus stood up for the people and protested the tax, however, He risked being arrested as an agitator and revolutionary.
Jesus slips the bonds by threading the needle. Pay to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's.
The Sadducees step up to give it a try next. Their question is more riddle or brain-teaser than authentic spiritual searching. They want to know what happens to a hypothetical woman who marries seven brothers in succession. If there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Their question has always struck me as one more about possession rather than relationship. They are concerned which brother gets to claim the woman.
Jesus waves them off. The rules and rituals of human life on earth are not the same as we should expect to find in heaven. Because that's probably as much as we could hope to understand about heavenly relationships, Jesus stops there. But He does quite clearly insist on the reality of resurrection.
Jesus' opponents have struck out twice, but now the heavy-hitting Pharisees come to bat. They would love to get Jesus involved in an argument with the Law itself. So their question is, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" The risk to Jesus is that virtually any answer He offers could be attacked as denigrating another area of the Law. (It's like in Junior High when someone asks you, "What do you like best about me?" and you offer an answer, and then they're all like, "Oh, so you don't like x, y, and z about me then, hmm?")
Jesus, however, doesn't dodge or shirk the Pharisees' question. He goes straight for the backbone of the Law, the basic constitution behind all the laws. He says: "Love God, and love your neighbor. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Jesus was asked for the greatest command, and He replied with two essential, irreplaceable laws. He replied with two because neither one, by itself, is enough. They both need each other, and we need to practice and follow both of them in order to have a whole-hearted faith, full of love for God and others.
Despite their best efforts, the Messiah was not stumped that day!