The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Shutting Down the Smart Kids?

Jesus’ intellectual smackdown. 

by Danielle Shroyer

Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:34-46

For Sunday, October 23, 2011:  Year A—Ordinary 30

Jesus is the master of responding to questions with another question. In this section of Matthew, he’s already two for two. But this third scenario shows a Jesus who’s ready to end this game once and for all with an intellectual smack down.

Turning the Tables

Of course we are not surprised to see Matthew showing us a story of Pharisees plotting to trick Jesus with a difficult question. But we may be a bit surprised at the question, which frankly seems like low-hanging fruit after that Sadducee’s zinger about spouses at the resurrection and the hardball political quandary about paying taxes to Caesar.

They may as well have asked Jesus to recite the Hebrew alphabet. Without breaking a sweat, he answers with the textbook Shema (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength”) and then throws in the “Golden Rule” for good measure. So far so good. But then Jesus does something rather unexpected. He lobs a riddle right back at them.

Columbo Jesus

“So what do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Jesus asks. And, following suit, the Pharisees respond with another textbook answer.  “The son of David,” they say, ready for their gold star. And then like Columbo, it’s as if Jesus whirls around and says, “Just one more thing…how could David call the Messiah Lord if the Lord is David’s son?”


If the Pharisees are the Bible’s brown-nosing, teacher’s pet, condescending honor roll students, did Jesus just take the role of the fellow student who finally strikes back? Did Jesus just shut down the smart kids in class?

Quantum Physics of the Family Tree

It’s almost comical when Matthew tells us nobody knew how to answer the question, and after that they didn’t dare ask him anything further. They were probably staring into space trying to wrap their minds around things we pretend to know about like ideas about quantum dimensions and the Trinity. Apparently his intellectual smack down worked.

Still, it seems this should have been a question someone considered before. How was David supposed to be the ancestor of the Messiah while at the same time offering his allegiance to the Messiah as his Lord? Can you be both before something (in lineage and time) as well as after the same thing (in lineage and time)?  Maybe we all should have seen that quagmire coming.  Hmmmm.

The Hardest Question

Does Jesus here seem to revel (even more than usual) in pointing out the mysterious logic of faith?

Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. some good stuff there…thank you….but…do we really care much about the ancient family tree in our congregations these days….some folks are faxcinated by their own family trees…and..some have no interest at all….i really don’t see why this shut up the pharisees any more than anything else ‘JJesus said….but…i still have 5 days to think of something…thanks…charlie

  2. That’s a fair question Charlie. I think in Matthew’s opinion, this apparently was a big deal, or at least he wants the readers to think Jesus’ answer is a real stumper. However I see Tony and Russell’s point in the video- it’s not really very problematic for us today, nor, as you pointed out, that important. I’m guessing lineage and order (which must include some finite sense of chronology) was a strong cultural value that Jesus was overturning, and Matthew wanted to point it out as a zinger. Maybe the more interesting angle is seeing this side of Jesus that’s a little edgier, similar to overturning the tables or calling the Pharisees a name. It’s an underdeveloped part of the way we talk about him, for sure.

  3. Simon Carver says:

    Thanks to Danielle and to Tony and Russell. I think both responses to this passage can be held together. It’s good to question the text as Tony and Russell have done – although easier in the study than in the pulpit. It also seems to be true that as Matthew presents this question as one that stumped it worked better then than it does now. I guess stuff always matters to one generation more than it does to another. Our ‘hard job’ as preachers is to contextualise for our people without cutting all ties to the passage. Any way, back to preparing a theological reflection on Terminator 2 for Sunday night.

  4. Connie Spitzack says:

    I look forward to trying to put together the greatest command with Jesus’ question. I agree everyone will preach on the great command. I think Jesus is trying to push them to think beyond what they have always thought about the king and go back to the good ole days when God used to be the king of the Israelites before the days of King David. He’s pushing them to image a king beyond what they have known, beyond their (and our)imagination or expectation. A king that will rule from a cross and move beyond death to life. People don’t think about kings these days or what it means to have a LORD, a ruler over them. We are our own kings and queens.


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