Sunday, February 13, 2011

Jesus, the Divine Law-Giver: Thoughts on the Lectionary for the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

In the Gospel Reading for today’s Mass (Feb. 13), we continue to read from the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:17-37):

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill....

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment ....

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart....

It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife - unless the marriage is unlawful -
causes her to commit adultery....

“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
But I say to you, do not swear at all....

In this Gospel Reading, Jesus “dares” to correct not only the common interpretations of the Law of Moses, but even (in places) the Law of Moses itself!
As Brant Pitre has pointed out, in the Judaism of Jesus day, Moses was highly exalted—indeed, a divine man (this is evident in Philo’s Life of Moses, for example).

By taking it upon himself to correct Moses, Jesus is placing himself above Moses—and in Judaism, there was no one above Moses but God!

The Pope points out the implications of this fact in his book Jesus of Nazareth, which everyone should buy and read if they haven’t already.

In the course of his book, the Pope undertakes to combat a widespread notion in academic circles that Jesus is not presented as divine in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but rather that Jesus is first portrayed as fully divine in the Gospel of John, which was written long after the other Gospels.

Rather than attacking this notion directly, the Pope lets someone else do the arguing for him: none other than Rabbi Jacob Neusner, one of the most prolific and widely-read American scholars of Judaism.

The Pope quotes extensively from Neusner’s book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, in which Neusner explains why he, as a Jew, cannot finally accept the Jesus of the New Testament. 

Why not?  Surprisingly, it is not because of any of Jesus’ teachings.  All of Jesus’ moral teachings can be derived from Judaism, and are, indeed, admirable from a rabbinic perspective.

No, what bothers Neusner is Jesus’ explicit and implicit claims about himself.

For example, Moses tacitly permits divorce (Deut 24:1-4), but Jesus rules out divorce for any lawful marriage (Matt 5:32).  By correcting Moses, Jesus is making an implicit claim of divinity.

In an imagined dialogue between a Jew and a disciple of Jesus in his book, Neusner asks the disciple, “Who does your master think he is, God?”

Precisely.  The Jesus of the Synoptics is divine.  So is the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel.

Incidentally, the notion that there were imperfections in the Law of Moses is not a Christian innovation.  Already in the OT prophets, there is a realization that some of the Mosaic laws were a condescension to the low moral state of the people of Israel at the time (what Jesus will call, the “hardness of your hearts”): see Ezekiel 20:25, about which Dr. Scott Hahn and I have published an article.

This understanding of the divine condescension is present in both Jewish and Christian traditions.  See, for example, Stephen Benin’s classic book on the subject.

By the way, we'll be visiting the Mount of Beatitudes, where (according to tradition) Jesus delivered today's Gospel, during the pilgrimage I'm helping to lead with Fr. Dan Scheidt (May 9-18).  The early registration discount has been extended to the end of February.  Sign up here!


Unknown said...

Dr. Bergsma,Thank you so much.You are such a blessing to us cradle Catholics with your clear explanations of Holy Scripture.

Moonshadow said...

I was struck by the first verse of the first reading today, especially when I saw that the NAB translates it differently than the lectionary. Other English versions are also different.

What does this mean? -

"If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;" (Sir. 15:15)

Sorry to be a bit off-topic but then I sort of thought this verse might tie into the Gospel reading in which Jesus fulfills (or "keeps") the law (or "commandments"). In other words, Jesus is whom ben Sirach had in mind when he wrote the verse under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

What do you think? Does the Sirach verse mean that we also can keep the commandments, with God's help?

Bruce Killian said...

The reason Jesus corrects Moses is because He is cleaning the leaven out of bad teaching. Matthew is the most chronological of the synoptics, he was there. Every time Jesus speaks clearly to the crowds He is exposing bad teaching. The rest of the time He speaks in parables. Every occasion of clear teaching is associated with the first or second passover of either the solar or lunar solar date. On every one He cleans out leaven by either driving out theives from His Father house, driving out unclean spirits, curing lepers, or answering questions such as should one pay taxes. Usually He does several things.
On which hill to visit on your trip, since this sermon was given on a Sabbath (the people brought the sick after sundown) and Jesus returned to Peter's house, the hill for the Sermon on the Mount must be the hill immediately north of Capernaum within a Sabbath days walk of town.
Grace and peace,

John Bergsma said...

@Bruce: Intriguing comments, thanks.
@Moonshadow: Thanks for the observation. I'll share my 1.5 cents on that when I have the chance.