In “Something Greater Than the Temple” we investigated the incident of the plucking of the grain on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-8; Mk. 2:23-28; Lk. 6:15). We saw that Jesus’ four-fold justification of the action of his disciples drew first from the experience of David and the holy bread (1 Sam. 21:1-6). He then deduced from contemporary opinions which reasoned that because of the relative importance of the Temple, restricted activities on the Sabbath could be set aside to perform the Temple service. Of particular significance was our discovery of this same opinion in the Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 31:13. As we shall see, in that same rabbinical passage we also find the parallel for Jesus’ final statement, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The joint appearance of these ideas both in the Mechilta and in the Gospels indicates the existence of an independent Jewish homily which focused on the purpose and role of the Sabbath.
Jesus’ statement that “something greater than the Temple is here” was not meant to point to himself, but to underscore his opinion of the intrinsic value of the human individual. If the needs of the Temple outweighed the importance of the Sabbath, so also did the basic needs of the human being — who was even greater than the Temple. Jesus embraced developing notions of first-century Jewish humanism, which placed value on fellow human beings precisely because humanity — uniquely among all creation — bears the image of God. Previously, we have noted that the first-century Jewish emphasis on the ethical requirements of Leviticus 19:18b, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” was founded on the coincidental occurrence in the latter part of the verse, “I am the Lord your God.” The Sages reasoned that this declaration (“I am the Lord”) was to remind the readers that they were to love their neighbor because their neighbor bore the image of God.
Jesus’ third reason in the defense of his disciples cites Hosea 6:6a: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt. 12:7). Often, Jesus’ partial citation of Old Testament verses is merely the rabbinical style of hinting at the full verse. However, on this occasion, I think Jesus quoted only the first portion of the verse because he wanted to give it emphasis. In Avot de-Rabbi Natan 4, the editor quotes the full verse, but for his purposes he emphasizes the content of the second half of the verse.
Simeon the Righteous was among the last of the men of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three pillars the world stands — on the Torah, on the Temple service, and on acts of loving-kindness [mercy]. On the Torah: how so? Lo, it says, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). Hence we see that the burnt offering is the most beloved of sacrifices, for the burnt offering is entirely consumed by the flames… But the study of Torah is more beloved by God than burnt offerings…. Hence, when a sage sits and expounds to the congregation, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had offered up fat and blood on the altar.
He passes over Hosea’s mention of “mercy and not sacrifice.” His purpose was to emphasize the importance of Torah study. Thus, he recites the second colon about “the knowledge of God,” which he identifies with the study of the Scripture.
Are the differing scriptural emphases given by the editor of Avot de-Rabbi Natan and Jesus a haphazard coincidence, or do they indicate something about their respective priorities? I personally think that the varying accentuation is no accident. I hope at a later point to give more full attention to what may be considered Jesus’ three pillars (or principles) of spirituality that are outlined in Matthew 6:1-18. At this juncture it is sufficient to state what they are: acts of loving-kindness (Mt. 6:1-4), prayer (Mt. 6:5-6), and repentance/fasting (Mt. 6:16-18).
The reader should take note that Simeon’s ordering of the three pillars assumes a prioritization. That is reinforced by the statement, “But the study of Torah is more beloved by God than burnt offerings [i. e., Temple service).” Should we assume that Jesus’ ordering of his own spiritual pillars in Matthew 6 likewise indicates a prioritization? If so, then acts of loving-kindness, or responsibility to one’s neighbor, was of the utmost importance to Jesus (cf. Lk. 10:25-28). The relative significance of the needs of the human individual also lies at the heart of Jesus’ justification of his disciples’ actions.
One final note before we continue to Jesus’ closing argument. On another occasion, a scribe who came to Jesus linked the command to “love one’s neighbor” and Hosea 6:6: “‘To love one’s neighbor as oneself’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12:33). This independent combination of the two biblical verses (Lev. 19:18 and Hos. 6:6) strengthens our contention that Jesus cites the Hebrew prophet to define his opinion concerning the importance with which God views human need. By the way, Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries’ employed Hosea 6:6 with a decidedly different understanding than that of later Christian writers (cf. Hebrews 10). These writers used the verse merely to support their claim that the Temple was obsolete. No such idea can be heard on the lips of Jesus, whose final meal was an act of full participation in the Temple service.
Check back on Friday for Part 2
See also Jerusalem Perspective