Thirtieth Sunday In Ordinary Time
Last week’s comments on the Sunday gospel selection explained in some detail how the author of the Gospel of Matthew not only used the Gospel of Mark as a source, but frequently changed Mark’s version of a given episode. One trend of Matthew’s style is to disparage the Pharisees whenever possible by changing the story as he found it in the Gospel of Mark. It is clear from the gospels and other sources that the major opponents of Jesus and early Christianity were the chief priests and their clans. By the time Matthew composed his gospel in the mid-eighties, opposition from that quarter ceased to be, because the temple had been destroyed. With the temple went the organization and power of the chief priestly families. Temple and Torah (the Scriptures) were the pillars of Judaism.
Without the temple, only Torah and the traditions which had developed around Torah were left as guides for Judaism. To whom did the people look for guidance? Those with knowledge of the Scriptures (Torah). These were the learned scribes, interpreters and guardians of oral and written tradition. Most of these great scholars/teachers were of the Pharisee party. With some exceptions, they became the opposition to the Christian movement which Matthew was proclaiming in his gospel. His worst denunciation of them is found in Matthew 23:15, “Woe to you (a curse on you), scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. You travel over sea and land to make one proselyte (convert), and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are.” So much for the “ecumenical movement” of the first Christian century.
As noted above, one trend in Matthew’s use of material from the Gospel of Mark is to change Mark’s version to disparage the Pharisees. This Sunday’s gospel reading speaks of a discussion or debate about which is the greatest of all the commandments. Mark had written, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him….” Now Matthew’s changed version, “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law (a scribe) tested him by asking….” Inserting the Pharisees plus making the encounter a hostile test inflicted on Jesus changes the whole tone of the story. In Mark’s version, the encounter is a discussion among friends or colleagues which ends in the scribe paying a high compliment to Jesus and Jesus paying even higher tribute to the scribe, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This was too much for Matthew to bear. He deleted the whole courteous exchange between the unknown scribe and Jesus.
Now to the story. The scribe asks Jesus, testing (tempting) him, “Which commandment in the Torah (Law) is the greatest?” By the term, Law or Torah is meant primarily the first five books of the Old Testament. The scribes or scholars of the law, (called “lawyers” in Luke’s gospel), found a total of 613 laws in the Torah. Three hundred and sixty-five are negative, “Thou shalt not…,” and two hundred and forty-eight are positive, “Thou shalt….” They also divided the commandments into “light” and “heavy,” depending on the seriousness of the matter commanded. Discussion centered on which one of the 613 was “the heaviest.” Or phrased differently, “Which commandment sums up all the others? ” or “On which commandment do all the others hang?” Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with your whole mind.”
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, the basic profession of faith in ONE God recited by pious Jews. This profession of faith is called the Shemah, from the word with which the Hebrew version begins. An English translation, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God, etc.” After quoting the heart of the great profession of Jewish faith,
Jesus adds, “This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Then a surprise! Jesus dares to add a commandment to the greatest and the first. He introduces this other commandment with these words, “The second is like it.” Matthew does not teach that the two are the same or the second equal to the first, but “like” it, “similar” to it. And that second commandment is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoted from Leviticus 19:18. Matthew adds a final statement attributed to Jesus, “On these two commandments hang the Torah and the Prophets.” These are the two main divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures. By doing these two commandments one implicitly honors or observes all the other commandments, including the Big Ten.
It is true that by “neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18 is meant a fellow-Israelite (Jew), but even in the Old Testament the commandment of love of neighbor was extended to the stranger living among the Jews. (See Deuteronomy 10:18-19.) In the context of the Gospel of Matthew, however, the term “neighbor” has a universal meaning – no one excluded, not even one’s enemies, Matthew 5:43-46. Even that, difficult as it seems, is not impossible. How is the love of one’s enemies made easy, at least as a first step, by Jesus himself? Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that people do to you, so do to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets.” See also Galatians 5:14, commenting on Leviticus 19:18, “The whole Torah is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” The New Testament Letter of James 2:8, “If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well.”