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046  The Second Greatest Commandment

It's been about 3 months since I wrote an RfMemo. The last time I tried to write one, I came up dry for a week. Since then I've been teaching a Sunday School class and writing a book based on the material for the class, and I was focused on those things. I apologize for not communicating with you all. It was rude of me.

The subject of the class is the Jewish roots of the Sermon on the Mount. By God's grace and direction I've been investigating how Judaism of the first century CE (CE for "common era", that is, after Jesus' birth) affected the New Testament. What I've been discovering is that it explains many things that interpreters have missed about the gospel accounts for the last 2000 years, making a lot of odd things come clear.

The rest of this newsletter will give an example of how first century Judaism explains the gospels. There will be others in the next several memos since that's what I'm up to.

Have you ever noticed how many times "lawyers" or "scribes" came up to Jesus and asked him some question about what was the greatest commandment? Did you ever wonder why they did that? In some places it says they "tested" Jesus; were they arrogant punks trying to show him up?

It turns out that that was a major issue in Judaism of the day (and of all days, actually), and what they were doing was probing where Rabbi Jesus stood on that crucial issue. It was an honest question and most of the time Jesus did not mind being asked.

Luke 10:25-37 records one of those instances. In it, a "lawyer" tested Jesus like this: "Rabbi, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered as Rabbis were prone to answer, with a question: "What's in the Law? How do you read it?" (By the way, a "lawyer" was not a 21st century attorney, he was a disciple of one of the great Rabbis. They were "lawyers" in that they spent their time studying and teaching the Law of Moses.)

The man's answer combined two quotes from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength" is from a prayer called the Shema, which appears in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Every Jew will agree that that is the greatest commandment in the Torah. It begins, "Hear, O Israel! YHWH is your God, YHWH alone!" (my translation) and it continues to explain the full-hearted devotion that God requires. (Only, Jews won't say the name "YHWH". They reason that if they don't say it they'll never take it in vain. They say "Adonai" instead, which means "Sir" or "Lord", or they'll use some other shorthand to indicate "you know, that name.")

It was on the subject of the second most important commandment that Jews disagreed with each other. This man answered "Love your neighbor as yourself," which appears in Leviticus 19:18. Jesus agreed that, yes, that was the second most important commandment.

Here's why that was important: 

Notice what question the "lawyer" asked: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Notice, now, what question he answered when Jesus turned the question back onto him: "Which is the greatest commandment, and which is the second greatest?" 

Clearly, to this lawyer, the answer to that question was the key to inheriting eternal life. It was an eternity-determining question.

You see, sometimes the laws in the Torah collide. For example, if your neighbor has a donkey and it falls into a pit, if you love your neighbor as yourself you'll help him get it out of the pit (not to mention that the Law spells this out in Deuteronomy 22:4). Also, if you love God, you will keep the Sabbath; that's in the 10 commandments, in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15. But if your neighbor's donkey falls into a pit on the Sabbath, you've got a problem. You're going to violate one of the commands in order to keep the other one: either you will fail to help your neighbor because of the Sabbath, or you will violate the Sabbath to help your neighbor. 

The example should sound familiar. Jesus used it in Luke 13:15 and Luke 14:5. But it's not original to Jesus, it was in the discussions of the Rabbis of His day.

The Israelites had suffered an enormous national calamity for failing to keep the Law, a calamity many times worse than 9/11. They very badly wanted to know which violations of the Law God would forgive because they were obeying a more important law. They believed that eternity rested on pleasing Him in this manner. They had good reasons to think so, or at least, reasons that seemed good to them.

In the discussions of the Rabbis from Jesus' day, the position that Jesus took shows up in the teachings of a famous Rabbi named Hillel. Hillel taught that "Love your neighbor" was the second greatest commandment. The opposing position was taken by another famous Rabbi named Shammai. He argued that keeping the Sabbath was the higher law, and that even if you stood over the pit heartbroken and weeping for your neighbor's misfortune you must not violate the Sabbath.

They were not heartless. They really did think that that's what God wanted. It sounds strange to us, but that's because we've had 2000 years of agreeing with Rabbi Hillel by way of Rabbi Jesus.

There's a famous story about Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai that sheds some light on this topic. In this story, a Gentile approached Shammai and said that he would become a Jew if Rabbi Shammai could explain the Law to him simply enough. He put it this way: "Explain the Law to me while standing on one foot." Shammai dismissed him as a mocker.

Then the man approached Rabbi Hillel with the same question. Hillel also recognized that the man was a mocker, but he accepted the challenge. He picked up one foot and said to him, "What your neighbor does that you hate, don't do that to him. Everything else in the Torah explains this. Go and learn." And he put his foot down--and the man became a Jew.

(This is likely apocryphal and is meant to show where the followers of these Rabbis stood (on one foot!). As near as we can tell, Hillel was about 60 years old when Shammai was born. And just so you know, Shammai was about 30 when Jesus was born.)

Hillel's explanation should sound familiar. You'll find versions of it in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31. Jesus was quoting Hillel--and this is not the only place that He does that. (He also disputes Hillel in one place.)

If you think that it's strange to believe that a legal question like that could be the key to inheriting eternal life, consider that there are plenty of Protestant believers out there who insist, sometimes with violent intensity, that Catholics will not inherit eternal life because they won't say that they are justified by faith alone. Personally and biblically, I don't think that God is such a stickler as that. I think that He will honor whatever devotion is given willingly to His Son even from those whose theology needs some tweaking (see Matthew 10:41 just for starters). And I don't necessarily mean that it's the Catholics who need tweaking, though they're included too. Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is not about systematic theology, it's about a righteous and good heart.

Next time I'll explain more about how Jewish thought affects how we read that passage from Luke 10, which contains the story that we call The Good Samaritan. It's a powerful story, and I'll bet that you've never heard it the way it was meant. But at some point I'll also have to tell you where we find these stories about the Rabbis of Jesus' day and why we have heard so little about them. I'll bet you've never heard that story, either. It's a sad one, but we need to hear it.

God bless you all.


Phil Weingart


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