Monday, October 23, 2017

Which Law Is The Greatest?


Yesterday, we heard Jesus silence the Pharisees with his clever and revealing response to their question about taxes. When he said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's," they were amazed, which is to say awestruck or dumbfounded. They had nothing to say. Our lectionary skips over the Sadducees' attempt to test Jesus by asking him a complicated hypothetical question about the resurrection and Jesus' successful retort. This week, the Pharisees again will pick up the cause and try to humiliate Jesus (Matt 22:34-46). Remember, Matthew 21 and 22 recall Jesus' triumphal and controversial entry into Jerusalem and the upheaval it caused. All of the religious authorities have been trying to show the crowds that Jesus is merely a pretended. Their questions about authority and their legalistic traps have been attempts to get him to misstep.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, the Pharisees will ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest, and his reply is particularly familiar to those of us who regularly worship in a Rite I service. It's love God with everything you've got and love your neighbor as yourself. I take that answer for granted. I've been taught this two-fold summary of the Law since I was a kid. Today, however, I wonder what the audience would have expected him to say. I wonder why they were so amazed at what has become for us such a familiar distillation of the Mosaic Law.

It's Monday morning, and I haven't checked any commentaries yet, but I recall someone writing that this two-part summary wasn't something Jesus invented. It's insightful for sure, but ever since the Deuteronomistic Historian compiled his work after the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scholars have taught us to look at the Law from a 50,000-foot elevation. This was the trend in Jewish scholarship that focused less on the minutia and more on the spirit behind the laws. This leads to the two-tablet summary of the Ten Commandments: #s 1-4 have to do with God and #s 5-10 have to do with each other. Often in stained-glass windows, you can see Moses holding tablets that group them like this. (Occasionally, #4 on observing the sabbath gets lumped in with 5-10. Also, some artists prefer to divide them up evenly instead of theologically.)

So where's the debate? What sort of trap were the Pharisees setting for Jesus? What is the trick behind this lawyer's question? If we assume that most rabbis would have been familiar with this two-part summary of the law, what sort of answer did they think Jesus would give?

Partly, I wonder whether they were expecting him to take this opportunity to declare that some of the laws weren't important. He had already confronted the religious authorities about the importance of fasting in Matthew 11. He had demonstrated his willingness to come into contact with lepers and other unclean individuals (e.g. Matt. 8). He had repeatedly violated society's understanding of sabbath requirements (e.g. Matt 12). Maybe his opponents expected him to say, "Well, since you asked, we can surely disregard this part and that part." But, of course, he didn't say that.

Maybe Matthew is making the point that Jesus was obedient to the law in ways that the Pharisees never considered. Maybe the point isn't really the trap that they supposedly set for him but the opportunity to demonstrate his spiritually significant approach to the law. Or maybe the Pharisees did expect Jesus to struggle to find an answer. Maybe the two-fold summary wasn't as popular as I think it was. Maybe they were waiting for him to say, "You shall have no other gods but me," so that they could reply, "What about all the rest, you law-breaking trouble-maker!" But that doesn't seem right to me.

This week, as I consider what God is saying to God's people, I find myself wanting to go beyond the trap that the Pharisees set and ask why Jesus' attitude toward the law remains central to our relationship with God. Why do we summarize the law this way every Sunday in our Rite I worship? Why do we need to be reminded that the life God invites us to embrace is one of loving God and loving our neighbor? How is that the place where abundant life is to be found?

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