Third Week of Lent, Wednesday
Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9; Matthew 5:17-19
Now therefore, Israel, hear the statutes and ordinances I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I am commanding you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.Deuteronomy 4:1-2
The two stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai contained everything humankind needed to live a holy and blessed life. Rabbis, scholars, and faithful Jews down the centuries meditated on the law “day and night… like a tree planted near streams of water” (Psalm 1:2-3).
The Ten Commandments are profoundly relational in essence. The rabbinic tradition teaches that the “first tablet” concerns our relationship with our creators, both divine and human (worship of God and honor of parents, who are co-creators), and the “second tablet” concerns our relationship with our neighbors. Ethics and social justice (horizontal relationships) flow from metaphysics (the vertical relationship of Creator and creation, mirrored in the parent-child relationship). The foundation for fraternal justice, human rights, and dignity is the imago dei: human persons are made in the image of God.1
The Decalogue contains the first ten commandments of the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people. According to Hebrew scholars, all 613 are reducible to the Ten Commandments, and the Decalogue itself is reducible to a single precept.
A Gentile asked Rabbi Hillel (c. 110 B.C. to A.D. 10) to teach him the entire Torah while he, the inquirer, stood on one foot. The rabbi answered, “What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary.”
Rabbi Akiva (c. A.D. 50-135) summarized the Torah with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus proved himself to be a first-rate rabbi in a conversation with a kindred scribe:
One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘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 neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”Mark 12:28-33
Love of God and neighbor are two sides of a single coin (the dime of the Decalogue). The imperishable law (Psalm 119:89) is “sweeter than honey” and a life-giving balm (Psalm 119:103). To become a walking, living Torah was the aspiration of a true son or daughter of Abraham.
Jesus, who grew up hearing and chanting the Torah of his beloved people, had the utmost reverence for the law and the prophets.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.Matthew 5:17-18
In the Sermon on the Mount, the new Moses delivered the heart and kernel of the Mosaic law, summed up in the Golden Rule:
Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.Matthew 7:12
In the Mosaic tradition, law keepers are children of God. Conformity to the law is love of God and neighbor. Jesus raised the bar higher than any teacher before him. No rabbi had ever said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Rabbi Jesus said, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” or in Luke’s version, “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful” (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36).
The nation of Israel produced some of the wisest sages the world has ever known. Kings and queens of foreign nations flocked to Solomon’s temple and palace to hear the wisdom of Israel as Moses predicted:
Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, “This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people.”Deuteronomy 4:6
Yet Jesus baffled his audience with a new vision of “righteousness” beyond that of their most illustrious members:
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:20
Jesus baffled and eluded the world right up to the Cross and even to the present day. Without the Holy Spirit, who can understand him or even say, “Jesus is Lord”? (1 Corinthians 12:3)
The Golden Rule engraved on tablets of stone
Revived in the valley as a breathing bone.2
1 The Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions have different enumerations of the commandments given in Exodus 20:1-17. See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnotes. The rabbinic tradition, of which Jesus was a part, gives the following order:
- I am the Lord your God
- No idolatry
- Do not take God’s name in vain
- Honor the Sabbath
- Honor your father and mother
- Do not murder
- No adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false witness
- Do not covet