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AHC A The Great Commandment Ord 30 - Hebrew Catholics

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The Great Commandment

Ordinary 30     Year A

A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
www.hebrewcatholic.org.nz

Click here for a printable copy of this paper

St. Matthew 22: 34 — 40

 

Introduction

Thinking back for a moment to a previous reading, when our Lord completed the parable of the Wedding Feast, the senior Pharisees He had been addressing retired to a private chamber in the Temple to plot His destruction. He had become, in their minds, a threat to their hold on power.

In verses 15 — 33, they sent their disciples, (trainee rabbis), together with some Herodians (unlikely allies at the best of times, due to their support of Herod and Roman rule), to listen to him, and trap him with his own words. They tried this concerning payment of the hated poll tax to the Emperor in Rome, but Jesus only impressed them with His incisive and matchless exposition.

When those disciples reported back to the elders who had sent them, the Sadducees, a completely different party who had no sympathy with the Pharisees, came and pitched their skills against the rabbi from Galilee (“of all places”). They asked Jesus an absurd, ridiculous question to which our Lord responded absolutely appropriately. They also came off “second best” and left the scene astonished (if not embarrassed) at our Lord’s astuteness.

Later, when the event in our reading occurred, a number of Pharisees heard that Jesus had dealt a decisive blow to the powerful Sadducees, and gathered around Jesus almost in an atmosphere of victorious celebration. They despised the arrogance of the Sadducees, but never seemed able to argue successfully against them. This group of admirers does not appear to contain any of the Pharisees plotting our Lord’s death. Those were off planning their next move. The ones now gathering around genuinely wanted to engage in rabbinic interaction. We have to remember that not all Pharisees were enemies of Jesus; some were neutral, and some even were discreet admirers. Many later became faithful followers, even leaders in local Church gatherings.

Pause

It should be noted that many commentators would describe the situation above somewhat differently. To begin with they hold that verse 34 “gathered together” — that this was to be antagonistic to Jesus and trap Him. It could have been the case. It needs to be remembered, however, that our Lord would have been challenged quite often in different parts of the country with the same, or similar question for debate. St. Matthew may well have taken St. Mark’s account relating to a different occasion and adjusted it to describe another encounter. The absolute and finite details are not available and we should be somewhat circumspect about accepting the statements of those who claim they are. This is critically important if one is to become an astute student of Sacred Scripture!
 
We have paused to make this comment because the cultural context in which each event occurred is not always entirely apparent in any single account of this type. Jesus, known in His day as Yeshua, was the much respected, (even feared) leader, that is, rabbi, of what was looked upon as a new sect in Judaism. He was despised by the largest sect (or section) — the Pharisees, because He seemed to cut across much of their complicated case law. Many people admired Him, however and some of these were “Scribes”, and therefore highly qualified in commenting on the text of the Torah — the Law of Moses. They were possibly similar to the later Karaite Jews who admired the ability of Jesus to restore the meaning and place of the written Scriptures in Jewish religious life.

Thus, when we examine Scriptures which involve participation by more than one “sect” (e.g. when the Gospels talk of the “Scribes and the Pharisees”) we need wisdom to walk “where angels fear to tread”. There were many factions ready to outclass the others, if they could.

Our passage from Matthew 22 is so important, we will not make assumptions which are so often bandied about by less cautious writers. We will try to narrate the story as it appears to have unfolded, in its cultural context.

So let’s now look in on a very beautiful moment in the ministry of Jesus, our Messiah.

Click here for a printable copy of our text

 

Some Reflections on our Text

Verse 34

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together,

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. News travels fast, especially when a new rabbi in town, in a few words, demonstrates that the Sadducees do not understand the Scriptures they like to quote and misuse.

Verses 35 and 36

and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking,

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

One of the group gathered together was not actually a Pharisee, but a Scribe, whom today some would call a Karaite, a literalist when it comes to examining the very fine details of the Torah — remembering that this is the Teaching given by God Himself for Moses to write down. Some say he spoke up on behalf of the Pharisees. We don’t actually know whether that was the case. It doesn’t really matter.

This Scribe addresses Jesus in a way which indicates he respects our Lord, though very young, as a gifted and esteemed Teacher of Torah. He says, literally:

“Which is the great Commandment in the Law?”

The question seems fairly straight forward but there is much more packed into it than first appears. The question was much debated in Judaism by the leading rabbis to sharpen their understanding and ability to teach.

To begin with, we need to understand what the question asked for. We tend to think of the commandment as numbering ten. But to our forefathers, “commandments” meant the “Will” of God — His Divine Teaching. The scholars therefore identified many more occasions in the Scriptures where God intimated He was commanding some form of observance. These therefore came to symbolise the totality of God’s Will. To obey God and abandon one’s own will to His, meant obeying, (or more correctly observing), carefully all these Teachings.

The various commandments were divided into two major divisions, the “light”, and “grave”. These each had two sub-divisions, “small” and “great”. This was not “legalism”, as some hasten to judge. It was the sincere attempt of the People of Israel to listen to every single word of God’s Divine Will, and to carry it out faithfully.

The people gathered around our Lord, hearing the question asked, would not have interpreted it as meaning:

“Which commandment is more important than the others?”
              (They were all important).

That matter too, was discussed, but it is not the precise question here. The whole cultural context in which the question was put to our Lord could be expressed by the following:

“Most esteemed Teacher of the Torah:  Our fathers of old, desiring
to keep ever before them the slightest intimation from God towards
us in the Scriptures, carefully listed every commandment He gave. 
This is indeed a very great number. (See Appendix). As part of our
practice to keep these in our mind and heart, we love to hear the
Doctors of the Law explain, in their view, if there is one of the
commandments which precedes the others, as well as leads to
them. We would be honoured to hear your view, if you would share
your very great knowledge with us.”

An example of typical rabbinical commentary is contained in the
writings of the great Jewish scholar Philo, who was a contemporary
of our Lord:

“To speak briefly, of the innumerable detailed exhortations and
commandments, the two which in the most general manner sum up
the whole, are the duties of piety and holiness towards God, and of
lovingkindness and justice towards man. Each of these is subdivided
into various special duties, all of them praiseworthy.”

The question therefore asks for an opinion as to the one which links all of the others to the Divine Will for His People; which one has precedence; which one is the ultimate foundation as well as summit?

Some read into this, a trap for Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget that “argument” in the good and literal sense of the word, is a very Hebraic method of close personal encounter. The Scribe asking Jesus would have been well qualified to enter into a full debate with Him if the situation warranted it.

Verses 37 and 38

Jesus replied:

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all
your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

This is the greatest and the first commandment.

Before looking at this in detail, just as an aside, we note that in quoting Deuteronomy 6: 4—5 our Lord went straight to the cornerstone of Jewish Faith. Everyone in His company knew that this opened in the preceding verse with the call from God:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Here there was no need to repeat it — He went straight to the great Commandment. We also need to note that the three categories of heart, soul, and strength, were not always distinct in Hebrew culture, and tended to overlap, as it were. He is saying is effect:

“God calls you to love him with every part of your being. That
commandment precedes all others because it has the greatest
(i.e. most widespread) flow-on effect through all revealed Scripture.”

So “greatest” in this sense means having the widest, most detailed application. Let us now list some of the key points arising from the text as we have it.

•    If there is any intention of ensnaring Jesus, (and we doubt any
such motive here), our Lord avoids that by choosing to focus on the
foundation which the moral Law provides in support of all religious
practice, especially external observance. No one (then, or even today,
for that matter) could possibly object to that.

•    The word “love” is used widely in Christianity, for the Greek text
word “agape”, which means “love of esteem, rather than the love of
affection”.                                         (P. Antonio Maas, S. J. 1897)

This is especially important in applying what Jesus gives as the
“Second” commandment.

•    Our Lord is emphasising that when we love with our whole,
i.e. total selves: heart, soul and mind, in obedience to all His
Commandments, we are loving God in the highest degree.
This is, to use a Greek word, “agape”.

•    Why is this the Great and First Commandment?

The answer to this question lies partly in the next verse, but it is
helpful to recall that this commandment was engraved on human
nature at the time of creation. Thus Jesus declares His
commitment to true restoration.

•    When the command was given to Moses, the People Israel were
to accept it without question, regardless of whether other races lived
by such a standard or not. It was addressed to Israel and not all
humanity.

Thus God’s people then, (and now) cannot use other people’s lack
of religious faith as an excuse for weak adherence to any of His Laws.
(E.g. “How can we be expected to live like that when no one else does?)

Verse 39

The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The first quotation (Deuteronomy 6: 4 — 5) referred to by Jesus, is the main verse in the whole Torah (the Five Books of Moses”).

This did not really surprise our Lord’s listeners as they had already ascertained that He had a very extensive knowledge of Sacred Scripture. What followed, however, did surprise them, because He immediately added:

The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

(Note: Both of the O.T. quotations by Jesus are rather free
translations, not of the Hebrew, but of the Greek Old Testament.
This was the translation used throughout the early Church.)

This quotation here is from Leviticus 19: 18. Many rabbis linked the two commandments in their teaching, but Jesus surprised them by linking both formally — especially when He had not been asked to state what He believed was second in importance. Clearly, He was being emphatic by insisting they must be examined together.

A few points will help us see what He was actually teaching by doing this.

•    The rabbis of our Lord’s time linked the two commandments, as we
have read. Although they did not conjoin them as did Jesus, we should
acknowledge that they did teach something He took up — the fact that
one precedes the other, but neither should be raised above the other.

•    Again Jesus takes us back to Creation. Men and women were
created in the image of God. Therefore others must be loved because
of this.
 
•    Thus, as far as the image and likeness of God extends, so must our
love of neighbour similarly reach out.

•    This love for others, like us, bearing the image and likeness of God,
is the super-natural overflow of our love (agape) of God. We are
therefore to love them, literally, for “God’s sake”. We may, in practice,
not “like” them as people, but we ar e commanded to love them for the
sake of our Creator.

•    The flow-on effect of that, of course, is that we must desire for our
neighbour the same kind of good as we wish for ourselves.

•    This is a radical restoration of God’s written Law, revealing as it
does, the Divine Will in Creation.

Elsewhere Jesus amplifies this teaching with His declaration of who
we are to consider our “neighbour”!

•    The more intensively we obey our Lord’s version of the Great
Commandment, the more extensively we proclaim the presence and
the love of God. This is our banner!

Verse 40

Only then did Jesus round off his answer meeting the requirements of the original question:

The whole law and the prophets depend on these two
commandments.”

The use of the word “depend” or “hang” is in the sense of a family tree chart in which what precedes gives rise to what follows. He has answered the challenge. All of the commandments can, in a sense, only be obeyed when these two commandments are faithfully observed. All others “depend” on them in that they require love as a component so that God’s Plan can be fulfilled. There are some important implications.

•    Several times Jesus reaffirmed, publicly, the Mosaic Law. In doing
it the way He did, coupling love of God and humanity together, He
restored it to its original purpose in God’s Plan. We, in our Fellowship |
repeat it often in our notes. This is because we recommend our
members pray three times daily in the tradition of Jesus and the
ancient Patriarchs: morning, afternoon / evening, and at night. And
when they do so, to repeat this Great Commandment of Divine Love.
(Together, incidentally, with the Lord’s Prayer, which was likewise
commanded of His followers.)

•    It is the core of our Lord’s teaching and the basis of all service to
our fellow human beings.

 

Foundation of the Teaching of Jesus

Jesus said,

The first Commandment is:  

‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, is LORD alone!    

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with
all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’.
     
     
The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
The whole
law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

(Deuteronomy 6: 4.)   (Leviticus 19: 18.)   (Matthew 22: 39 — 41)   (Mark 12: 29 — 31)

 

•    Jesus did not seek to destroy anything of the Torah: rather He
wanted to see it fulfilled to perfection in His own life, and in ours.

•    Two great commandments, in the Biblical sense of extensiveness,
thus became for the followers of Jesus, the Great Commandment.
This dogmatic ruling of our Lord does not dispense with other
commandments, but rather supports and reinforces their role in
declaring God’s loving Will for His creatures.

 

Conclusion

Jesus did not comment further on His answer; nor did His listeners. It was accepted without question by them as it should be by us. The challenge to us is to put it into action!

 

Shalom!

 

Further Reading

For those who would like a detailed study resource on the
readings for Sunday, please visit:

Agape Bible Study — 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

If you require only the section on the Gospel reading,
just scroll down the page.
 
To view all the material on the Agape website please visit:

www.agapebiblestudy.com

 This website is highly recommended:

 

Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature

(Mark 16: 15)

The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!

Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
so, remain close to Him. The following are only examples illustrating
how you can note the gems the Holy Spirit highlights for your on-going
reflection.

     The Great Commandment

Ordinary 30   Year A                            St. Matthew 22: 34 to 40

1.    Many would agree, that it is easy to read these seven verses and simply
say, “Lovely” and leave it at that; meaning, “Well, what more is there to say?”
In modern Western society, Christianity has shrunk to a fraction of its former
size, and appears to on-lookers as “wound-down”. A first step in reversing
this tragic situation would be to revive our love of studying and meditating on
the Scriptures — especially the Gospels. We may then discover the radical
restoration Jesus Messiah was always aiming at. By involving ourselves in
reflection on the teaching of Jesus, and putting it into practice we become
part of His on-going building of the Kingdom of God. This week’s Gospel
reading, in particular, requires a little extra study but it will be well worthwhile.

2.    Love of God and fellow human beings is not about feelings so much as
about action: doing. But doing what? Jesus elsewhere teaches that His
disciples — no matter where they are, or what their situation — all should be
asking:

•    To whom can I be helpful?

•    What can I reasonably give?

       And to acknowledge the image and likeness of God in all people, and
treat them accordingly.

3.    St. Paul wrote (in Romans 13: 10):

  “Love is the fulfilment of the Law.”

       So let’s not hide behind clichés, or part truths. Love in this sense means observance! We are called to obey God and all that He has commanded. Yes,
that involves faith, as it does grace, good deeds, confession of sin to God, and
so on. Jesus highlighted for us the kernel of His Teaching, His Torah. We
encourage you to say it prayerfully from time to time.

 

  Foundation of the Teaching of Jesus

 Jesus said,

The first Commandment is:  

‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, is LORD alone!    

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your
soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’.
     
     
The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
The whole
law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
                                                    

(Deuteronomy 6: 4.)   (Leviticus 19: 18.)   (Matthew 22: 39 — 41)   (Mark 12: 29 — 31)

Let us pray for one another that we will take steps to keep the Great Commandment
at the forefront of our religious life and, in the Biblical tradition, recite it often, meditating on how it underpins the whole of our Faith.

Shalom!

 Click here for a printable copy of this Reflection

 

Matthew 22: 34 — 40

Ordinary 30     Year A

NEW AMERICAN BIBLE

34     19 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the
         Sadducees,
they gathered together,

35    and one of them [a scholar of the law] 20 tested him
         by asking,

36     “Teacher, 21 which commandment in the law is the
         greatest?”

37     He said to him, 22 “You shall love the Lord, your God,
         with all
your heart, with all your soul, and with all your
         mind.

38     This is the greatest and the first commandment.

39     The second is like it: 23 You shall love your neighbor
         as yourself.

40     24 The whole law and the prophets depend on these
         two
commandments.”

19 [34-40] The Marcan parallel (⇒ Mark 12:28-34) is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe who is impressed by the way in which Jesus has conducted himself in the previous controversy (⇒ Mark 12:28), who compliments him for the answer he gives him (⇒ Mark 12:32), and who is said by Jesus to be “not far from the kingdom of God” (⇒ Mark 12:34). Matthew has sharpened that scene. The questioner, as the representative of other Pharisees, tests Jesus by his question (⇒ Matthew 22:34-35), and both his reaction to Jesus’ reply and Jesus’ commendation of him are lacking.

20 [35] [A scholar of the law]: meaning “scribe.” Although this reading is supported by the vast majority of textual witnesses, it is the only time that the Greek word so translated occurs in Matthew. It is relatively frequent in Luke, and there is reason to think that it may have been added here by a copyist since it occurs in the Lucan parallel (⇒ Luke 10:25-28). Tested: see the note on ⇒ Matthew 19:3.

21 [36] For the devout Jew all the commandments were to be kept with equal care, but there is evidence of preoccupation in Jewish sources with the question put to Jesus.

22 [37-38] Cf ⇒ Deut 6:5. Matthew omits the first part of Mark’s fuller quotation (⇒ Mark 12:29; ⇒ Deut 6:4-5), probably because he considered its monotheistic emphasis needless for his church. The love of God must engage the total person (heart, soul, mind).

23 [39] Jesus goes beyond the extent of the question put to him and joins to the greatest and the first commandment a second, that of love of neighbor, ⇒ Lev 19:18; see the note on ⇒ Matthew 19:18-19. This combination of the two commandments may already have been made in Judaism.

24 [40] The double commandment is the source from which the whole law and the prophets are derived.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
revised edition (c) 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian
Doctrine, Washington D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright
owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may
be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the
copyright owner.

 

 

Appendix:    A Very Great Number

We will often hear people preaching on the number of Commandments as upheld in our Lord’s day. Usually they talk of 613 in number and, it has to be said, they regularly trivialise the fact that:

•    Some cannot be carried out unless one is physically in Israel;

•    Some cannot be put into practice because the Temple was
     destroyed;

•    Some appear to be for extremely small, unimportant matters
     compared with the greater, more significant.

As a relevant matter of fact, the number 613 was not referred to until centuries after our Lord’s life on earth. In fact, it only became regular teaching through the work of Moses Maimonides, over a millenium after the Ascension of Jesus. Another point to note, before continuing, is to observe that the talith (prayer-shawl) is done in a way so as to symbolically represent 613. This in turn reminded the wearer to listen to and apply God’s every Word, with every bone in the body, every day of the year!

It is true some of the commandments identified require physical location in Israel, and some ceased to be applicable when the Temple was destroyed. It is also true, some seem to relate to the most minute details possible. And this point is especially important.

It is often assumed that the Jews were, and are preoccupied with gaining salvation by mere ritual compliance with written law above all else. This is simply not true, and indicates very simplistic and shallow study of the Scriptures in the culture which produced them. It also betrays deep-seated error or at least distortion of the facts, which can lead to bigotry.

The whole point of listing to even infinitesimally small expressions of what God expected of His People, was to honour Him. It was to show heart and mind, united, eagerly listening for the faintest intimation from God as to what He would have them be and do. It was to lead each person to consecrate themselves entirely to the Divine Will.

Jesus never complained about this practice. What He exposed was the hypocrisy of people who did two things He despised:

•    parading one’s virtue in public by letting it be seen they were
     very energetic in carrying out the minutest details of the Law
     (especially when they secretly ignored the greater ones);

•    oppressing the working class Jew with impossible obligations
     and not giving any assistance to help them carry these out
     whilst they struggled to make a living.

Our Lord never “made a scene” by denying the validity of any aspect of the Law, the Torah as He called it. He did not say simplistically, there is only one Commandment: “to love”. He restored the obligation to be totally consecrated to God by loving Him with every part of our being, and to love every person made in the image and likeness of God. He was not outsmarting anyone challenging Him. He did what He always did — that is, to teach the simple truth about what it is to belong to God, and thus, how to live accordingly: how to carry out everything God commands of us, with an attitude of loving Him as our Father in Heaven, and loving our fellow creatures whose very life depends also on His lovingkindness.
 
Whilst we may have very reasonable grounds for disliking someone for outrageous crimes and suffering they may have caused others, we do not have to feel guilty because we cannot arouse affection for them. The love Jesus commands is “agape”: i.e. esteem rather than affection. The Scriptures, as Jesus affirms, require us to love God and our fellow creatures with this very special gift from our Creator.

Shalom!

 Click here for a printable copy of this Appendix

 

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