2

Seat of Moses

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Matthew 23: 1-12

 

When Peter first met with Christ he told Him to leave him, because he was a sinful man.  Perhaps Peter had many sins on his soul, but I think it more likely that he simply was not a learned man and was unable to keep, or even be aware of, the myriad ritual purity laws of the Jews, and thus he regarded himself as sinful and unclean as a result.  Judaism had largely been reduced to a system of avoiding ritual impurity by the time of Jesus, and only a man, a Scribe or a  Pharisee, who devoted himself to the study of the Law, could possibly keep the hundreds of laws that Jews had to observe if they were to be kept free from ritual impurity “sin”.  The greatest of the Rabbis understood that mercy and justice were much more important to God than the observance of the endless minutiae of the Law governing ritual impurity, but as the general reaction of the Scribes and the Pharisees to Jesus indicates, their voices were in the minority.

Jesus acknowledges that the Scribes and the Pharisees were the leaders of the Jewish religion.  (As usual Jesus ignores the Sadducees who ran the Temple.  Presumably they were so far from God that it was not worth His time speaking against them.)  He bids the people to do what they say but not to follow their example.  By their works they demonstrated how far their hearts were from what Moses had taught, let alone Christ.  Christ respected the office held by the Pharisees, the seat of Moses that they had assumed, but constantly attacked them for failing to live up to that office.  Words of special meaning to Catholics in this year of grace 2017.

 

9

Christ and the Law

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
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.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22: 34-40

 

 

The first commandment recited by Christ is taken from the Shema, the prayer recited by the Jews morning and night.  All his Jewish listeners would have known it by heart and His choice of it should have been unsurprising to his interlocutors.  They would also have not been  surprised by  his addition of a second commandment which required loving your neighbor as yourself.  The commandment is taken from Leviticus 19: 18.  The great Rabbi Hillel, who died when Christ was a child, stated the commandment negatively:  What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.  Saint Paul, who doubtless was quite familiar with the teachings of Hillel, echoed this teaching:  For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Galatians 5: 14.

If the answers of Christ were fairly obvious, why was the question asked?  Probably to test His knowledge.  Did this small town carpenter know the teaching of Hillel?  Perhaps to find fodder to accuse Him of heresy.  Whatever was the motivation, Christ yet again revealed Himself as completely supportive of the heart of the Jewish Law.  Normally Christ opposed it  only in regard to the Jewish ritual purity laws, at least as they had been interpreted.  Where he differed with a Jewish teaching outside of ritual purity, normally He increased the severity of the Law, forbidding divorce for example, or proclaiming that a man who looked lustfully at a woman was guilty of adultery.  Christ would add to the Jewish law and shore it up, but He came not to do away with it, but rather to perfect it.

 

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

Matthew 5: 17

5

Who Are the Modern Day Pharisees?

 

John Bergsma at The Sacred Page has a brilliant post in which he accurately describes the relationship between Christ and the Pharisees in regard to their teachings:

 

Finally, let us reflect for a moment on the fact that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord consistently raised the moral requirements of true discipleship vis-à-vis the Pharisees and contemporary Jewish practice, rather than lowering them.

He says clearly: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

The Pharisees were content if one did not murder; Jesus forbids even unjust anger.

The Pharisees were content with avoidance of adultery; Jesus forbids even lustful glances.

The Pharisees were content if a certificate of divorce were legally issued; Jesus forbids divorce.

The Pharisees were content with keeping oaths; Jesus forbids oaths.

The Pharisees limited retaliation to the lex talionis; Jesus forbids personal retaliation.

The Pharisees were content with love of neighbor; Jesus advocates love of enemies.

The idea—which seems to be widespread—that Jesus’ morally teaching was somehow less demanding or more relaxed than that of the Pharisees is quite incorrect.  It is true that Jesus did not endorse the plethora of ritual washings and other purity regulations practiced by the Pharisees, but on matters of moral law he was more, not less, stringent. Continue Reading