The Majestic Wisdom of Christ in Answering the Pharisees

Our Lord took the Pharisees to task many times over their application of the law to particular circumstances. For example, He criticised them for ruling that if someone sets aside the money that should they should have spent on their parents in need, and promises it to the Temple treasury, they no longer have an obligation to support their parents. He says that they have effectively broken the solemn duty that the owe to their parents before God. (Matt 15:3-6)

Our Lord explicitly goes further than correcting the Pharisaical interpretation of the law. In the sermon on the mount He claims to have authority over the law itself when He says, “You have heard it said of old … But I say to you.” Our Lord does this because He is the Word made flesh. The Word can also stand for the Torah, the law given by God in His infinite wisdom. Our Lord is the Torah made flesh.

When God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was a terrifying spectacle:

“When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much farther away and said to Moses, You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not the Lord speak to us, or we shall die.” (Ex 20:18-19)

The Israelites dared not to approach the holy mountain. St Paul recalls this in his letter to the Hebrews and says that,

"You are come to mount Sion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels, and to the church of the firstborn, who are written in the heavens, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new testament, and to the sprinkling of blood which speaketh better than that of Abel." (Heb 12:22-24)

We come to all this when we come to Mass. In his mercy, Christ allows us and invites us to approach Him, but the proper attitude is one of holy fear and adoration.

In chapter 22 of St Matthew’s gospel, (Matt 22:36-46) Our Lord gives an even deeper correction to the Pharisees. An expert lawyer "tempting Him" or we might say, "trying to trip Him up", asks Him, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Our Lord's answer seems very simple: He says that the first is to love the Lord your God, and the second is to love your neighbour. 

We might wonder why the expert lawyer was said to be laying a snare. St John Chrysostom explains that the Pharisees had already complained that Our Lord, being a man, made Himself equal to God. They were hoping that He would make an addition or change to the first commandment and cause even more fury and scandal.

Our Lord doesn’t take the bait, but crushes them with a further question of His own. He asked whose Son the Christ (or Messiah) was. They gave the traditional answer, that the Christ was the Son of David. Our Lord points out that in the psalm 109, which is a messianic prophecy, the Christ is clearly also Lord, truly God. They dared not ask Him any more questions because they were unable to answer how the Messiah, whom they believed to be a man, could be begotten before the daystar, before creation, how he could be the eternal priest, the judge of the nations, as the psalm goes on to describe him.

An awe-inspiring and fearful vision opens up before them. If Our Lord is right, they are confronted with the hitherto unimaginable truth that the infinite majesty of God could be made flesh, born a man, and dwell among them. Faced with this, they did not dare to ask Him any further questions.

When we even begin to glimpse the brilliance and majesty of the answers of Our Lord, we also should stand in fear before the sheer greatness of His Mind, His Wisdom. If we know a little theology, we should always remember that if we saw the fullness of what we believe, it would crush us, were it not for the grace of God, and His goodness in allowing us even a glimpse of His greatness.

St Thomas was granted such a vision late in his life, after which he would write no more. He did not finish the Summa Theologica because, as he told his brother, all that he had written seemed like straw. It is a good lesson for us lesser mortals.


PICTURE CREDIT: Wikimedia. Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. Cathedral of Cefalù. Photographed by: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.


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