Vol. 6, No. 22
Daughters of Mary Instruction
7 February 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
In August of 1998, I entered graduate school to study the stories of the Bible. Having come to a deeper understanding of the role of Jesus Christ in my life earlier that year, I was dismayed to realize that while Jesus seemed to know a great deal about me, I really knew very little about him. Looking to the example set by my Protestant friends who knew every story in the Bible, and could cite chapter and verse to support any discussion you could name, I determined that I would return to school and learn everything I could learn about the life of Jesus Christ.
My first class was a study of the New Testament from the point of view of the Synoptic Gospels. My professor, Dr. Dale Younce, was a tremendous story-teller, and began every lecture by ‘setting the scene.’ As I attended his class, and compared the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke from a beginner’s perspective, I began to slowly understand that Holy Scripture was far more than a collection of stories set in a particular time about a particular man.
Half way through the semester, we began a quick study of the Sermon on the Mount. While the sermon itself was recorded only by Matthew and Luke, Matthew 5 was included in our study because of Jesus’ open criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees for their hypocritical leadership of the Jewish people. As a class, we were enthralled by Dr. Younce’s description of the words of Jesus and the likely reaction of the crowds. But at the end of the lecture, Dr. Younce uttered a warning to us that had a somewhat ominous ring. “The study of Bible history helps us to understand Jesus in a new way,” he said. “Jesus spoke harshly to the scribes and the Pharisees not because they did not know his Word, but because they took it upon themselves to understand it.” He continued, “And, that is exactly the danger to everyone taking a class like this. Do not confuse knowledge with understanding.”
On the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew tells us that Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of a false righteousness that would never allow anyone to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These words would have shocked Jesus’ listeners who regarded the scribes and the Pharisees as the religious, and to some extent, political leaders in the Hebrew community, and the authoritative teachers of the Mosaic Law. They modeled a behavior of excessive piety and observed the Mosaic Law according to burdensome traditions that scribes and Pharisees had developed for centuries as a way to make the Law easier to obey. By Jesus’ day, the Hebrew understanding of Law and righteousness was complex and full of legalistic behavior that fulfilled the requirements of the Law God delivered through Moses, but was devoid of the special love of God and neighbor that was the original heart of God’s chosen people.
It was not always this way. To really understand the roles of the scribes and the Pharisees, we must turn back to the years after exile when the Hebrew people began to return to their land, only to find a country lying fallow, and a city and temple in ruins. Judah was populated by a people of mixed ancestry, culture, and religion. The pagan peoples the Assryian conquerors had relocated into Samaria had intermarried with the impoverished Hebrews the Babylonians had left behind when they deported the rich, educated, and elite Hebrews to exile in Babylon. This Gentile people did not welcome the returning Hebrews and interfered with their efforts to reestablish the Mosaic way of life. Restoration was slow, and intermarriage was an issue of tremendous concern among the devout Hebrews. They appealed to the Persian King Artaxerxes to send someone, under the authority of the king, to help reinstate the Mosaic Law in the land. Artaxerxes sent Ezra, and the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles detail the story of his efforts to set the restoration of Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple aright.
Ezra was a scribe of the law, a highly educated member of an elite upper class whose profession was to copy religious, legal, and historical documents. At the time of the return from Babylon, scribes in the Hebrew community were closely associated with the Levitical priests, and had intimate knowledge of the details of the Mosaic Law. Because of this specialized understanding of the specifics of the teachings of Moses, they gradually gained the respect of their fellow Hebrews who began to regard the scribes as authoritative interpreters and teachers of the Mosaic Law.
But after the exile, leadership in Judah was always a problem. Denied the self-rule they had enjoyed during monarchy, the Hebrew people were forced to adjust to the cultural and religious inroads into the Mosaic lifestyle that accompanied a constantly changing political landscape. Desperate to retain their identity as God’s Chosen People, the Hebrews clung to the Mosaic Law and turned to a new, outspoken, conservative, leadership that insisted on stringent adherence to the Law as the way to combat the increasingly idolatrous culture that accompanied the spread of Greek influence throughout the eastern world. These leaders, godly, pious, and fiercely dedicated to the Law of Moses as God’s word, joined forces with the respected, interpretive skill of the scribes to develop a new tradition of oral law. By Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, self-ordained as authorities of the Law, enjoyed power and influence in the Hebrew community that were second only to that of the High Priests.
It is always easy for us to join Jesus in condemning the scribes and the Pharisees for their hypocritical religious leadership of a chosen people desperate to understand their God. Yet, as Dr. Younce warned us in class that day, we must beware. In our study of the history that lies behind Matthew’s account of Jesus’ sermon on that mountain, and our attempts to understand the importance of the Mosaic Law to a people whose only understanding of themselves was as a people chosen by their God, we also run the risk of reducing the Bible stories to a simple history of a people and their God. But, Bible history is not a simple story. Bible history is salvation history, and the Bible tells the ongoing story of a God and the people he chose to be his light to the world. Today, Sharon’s commentary reminds us that Jesus’ followers are called to live both the letter and the spirit of the Law. On the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus beckons to his disciples and explains that there is no true knowledge of his Law without understanding his Law. He is our God. We are his people. Let us listen to him.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, ‘The Gospel of Matthew,’ Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition
New American Bible, Revised Edition