God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)

St. Gregory Nazianzus: The 10 Commandments

God once inscribed these Ten Commandments on marble tablets

but You write them on my heart;

You shall not know another God, since you honor only one (Ex. 20.3; Deut. 5.7).

You shall not erect an empty facade, a lifeless image (Ex. 20.4-6; Deut. 5.8-10).

You shall never mention the lofty God in vain (Ex. 20.7; Deut. 5.11).

Observe every Sabbath; both the celestial and the shadowy (Ex. 20.12; Deut. 5.12-15)

Blessed are you if you do homage to your parents, as is right (Ex. 20.12; Deut. 5.16).

Flee the guilt of a murderous hand (Ex. 20.13; Deut. 5.17), and of another’s marriage bed (Ex. 20.14; Deut. 5.16), evil-minded theft (Ex. 20.15; Deut. 5.19), and false witness (Ex. 20.16; Deut. 5.20); and desire for what belongs to others (Ex. 20.17; Deut 5.21) is the spark of death.

(St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Poems on Scripture, p. 41)

If You Wish to Be Perfect

Within the Gospel lesson, Matthew 19:16-26 , Jesus challenges a man who thinks he is pretty close to being perfect in keeping all of God’s commandments with these words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 

Jesus tells the man that perfection cannot be found in the Commandments, in keeping Torah.  For that which leads to perfection is not commanded by the Torah or God at all.  Perfection lies in love, loving as God loves, in loving one’s neighbor while abandoning personal wealth and property, in following Christ.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza comments:

“The commandments were given to all Christians and it is understood that every Christian observes them; this is, as it were, the tribute appointed to be paid to the King. Anyone who says, ‘I will not pay tribute,’ will he escape punishment? There are, however, in the world great and illustrious men who not only pay the appointed tribute, but also offer gifts and they are thought worthy of great honor, great benefits and esteem.

So also the Holy Fathers not only kept the commandments but also offered gifts to God. These gifts are virginity and poverty.  These are not commanded but freely given. Nowhere is it written, you shall not take a wife or ‘Sell your property!’ He did not choose to do so when the lawyer approached him saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He replied, ‘You know the Commandments. Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, etc. When the answer came, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth,’ he added, ‘If you want to be perfect, sell your property and give the money to the poor,’ etc. See, he did not say ‘sell your property as a commandment, but as a counsel. This is clear from the condition imposed, ‘if you wish to be perfect.’ (Discourses & Sayings, p. 84).

What We Should Remember to Fear the Lord

Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.    (Psalm 1)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) reflects on what it takes to just keep the first of the Ten Commandments: fear the Lord.  Perhaps surprisingly, Peter doesn’t call to mind threats from God about punishment for sin.  Rather, he feels we need to call to mind all of the blessings which God bestows upon us, including God’s willlingness to suffer for us and for our salvation on the cross.  For Peter of Damascus what we should fear the most regarding God is sinning against the One who created us and who continually nurtures us and endeavors to save us.

“If, then, we wish to keep the first commandment – that is, to possess fear of the Lord – we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life already described and upon God’s measureless and unfathomable blessings. We should consider how much He has done and continues to do for our sake through things visible and invisible, through commandments and dogmas, threats and promises; how He guards, nourishes and provides for us, giving us life and saving us from enemies seen and unseen; how through the prayers and intercessions of His saints He cures the diseases caused by our own disarray; how He is always long-suffering over our sins, our irreverence, our delinquency-over all those things that we have done, are doing, and will do, from which His grace has saved us; how He is patient over our actions, words and thoughts that have provoked His anger, and how He not only suffers us, but even bestows greater blessings on us, acting directly, or through the angels, the Scriptures, through righteous men and prophets, apostles and martyrs, teachers and holy fathers.

Moreover, we should not only recall the sufferings and struggles of the saints and martyrs, but should also reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ, the way He lived in the world, His pure Passion, the Cross, His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the advent of the Holy Spirit, the indescribable miracles that are always occurring every day, paradise, the crowns of glory, the adoption to sonship that He has accorded us, and all the things contained in Holy Scripture and so much else.

If we bring all this to mind, we will be amazed at God’s compassion, and with trembling will marvel at His forbearance and patience. We will grieve because of what our nature has lost – angel-like dispassion, paradise and all the blessings which we have forfeited – and because of the evils into which we have fallen: demons, passions and sins. In this way our soul will be filled with contrition, thinking of all the ills that have been caused by our wickedness and the trickery of the demons.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26185-206)

The Wages of Sin

“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 6:18-23)

“Sin is one thing but instinctive reaction or passion is another. These are our reactions: pride, anger, sexual indulgence, hate greed and so on. The corresponding sins are the gratifications of these passions: when a man acts and brings into corporeal reality those works which were suggested to him by his innate desires. It is impossible to exist without natural desires arising, but not to give way to them is by no means impossible.

Therefore, The Man (God) gave us instructions, as I said, which purify our passion and those evil dispositions which come from our inner man. He instilled into man’s inner conscious the power to judge good and evil; he woke it from sleep; he showed the causes from which sins rise and he says to us, ‘The Law says “Do not commit adultery”, but I say to you, do not entertain desire. The Law says “Do no murder”, but I say, do not give way to anger. If you do entertain a fleshly desire today and you do not commit adultery, it does not cease inwardly troubling until it whips you into action. If you are irritated and stir up anger against your brother, then you strike him, speak evil against him, then plot against him and so go forward little by little and at last you come to murder him.’ Again the Law says, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, etc., but Our Lord admonishes us not only to bear patiently the blows of one who strikes us, but humbly to turn to him the other cheek. And so the object of the Law is to teach us not to do to others what we do not wish to suffer, and therefore it cuts away our wrong-doing through our fear of suffering. Now the object must be, as I am always saying, to cast away our hatred, our love of pleasure, our vainglory and the rest of our unruly desires.

I repeat that the aim of Christ, our Master, is precisely to teach us how we come to commit all our sins; how we fall into our all our evils…Finally he shows us how we come to despise and disobey the commandments of God and adds the medicine that all may be able to obey and be saved. What then is the medicine and what the cause of our contempt? Listen to what the Lord himself tells us: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest for your souls.’ There you have it in a nutshell: he has taught us the root and cause of all evils and also the remedy for it, leading to all good.”

(Dorotheos of Gaza in Discourses & Sayings: Desert Humor & Humility, pgs. 80-81)

Ancestral Sin and the Loss of Communion with God

This is the 21st blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Effects of the Ancestral Sin.

Contemplating Justice

A trend in traditional Western Christianity interprets the Fall in a mostly juridical sense of humans breaking God’s Law.  God’s response to humans disobeying His commandments in this view follows an emphasis on keeping justice in the universe, as if the Triune God of love, like the gods of Buddhism, of necessity must adhere to the justice of Karma in the universe.   Some Eastern Christian theologians however saw sin not as the cause of the human problem, but rather as a result of it: humans in their thinking because of their free will had first separated themselves from God and then proceeded to sin.  Thus the first cause was a human choice of will – to set aside the human relationship with God, and also the role/relationship God had created for the humans in the world, and to act autonomously, separated and alienated from the source of life and from life itself.

“The Fall was precisely the perversion of the interior relationship established by God.   …  The serpent insinuated: ‘God said, ‘You must not eat from all the trees of the garden’ (Genesis 3:1).  Now God had actually said exactly the opposite: ‘You can eat from all the trees of the garden’ (Gen 2:16), but with different consequences.  If St. Paul says: ‘Everything is permitted but not everything is useful (1 Cor 6:12), the serpent would say “Everything is forbidden but everything is useful.’ God thus is transformed into a law, into a prohibition.  But God did not say, ‘Do not eat of the fruit, otherwise you will be punished.’  Rather, he said, ‘Do not eat of the fruit, otherwise you will die.’  This is not an order but the announcement of a destiny freely chosen in one meaning or in another.  It has nothing at all to do with simple disobedience but with inattention to living communion with the Father, with the drying up of the thirst for his presence, for his love and truth which is life, in the absence of which there is only death.  At the moment of temptation we see God as an authority dictating order and demanding blind obedience.  Such a suggestion comes from Satan.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, pp 227-228)

Humans were created as relational beings – first having a relationship with God, then with each other, and together in relationship to the rest of the created order.  The loss of the primary relationship with God – the relationship with the source of life – resulted in death becoming part of the human condition.  Humans chose to separate themselves from the Giver of Life becoming mortal beings.  Thus the ancestral sin is one of broken Communion not merely breaking the law.

“This is the famous story of the forbidden fruit, which man ate secretly apart from God, in order to become like God.  The meaning of this account is simple: man believed that from food alone, that by pure reliance on its consumption, he could receive that which is actually possible to receive only from God.  By way of food he sought liberation from God, which only led him to slavery and dependence on food; man became a slave of the world.  But this also means a slave of death, for the food which gives him his physical life cannot give him that freedom from the world and death, which can only come from God.  Food, the symbol and source of life, became the symbol of death.  For if a man does not eat he dies.  But if he eats he still dies, for food itself is a communion with that which has died and therefore with death.  And so, finally, salvation, and recreation and forgiveness, and resurrection itself are linked also in the Gospel with food.” (Alexander Schmemann, OUR FATHER, pp 58-59)

God in dealing with Fallen human beings deals not just with beings who violate rules (a justice issue), but beings who have broken relationships and have thus become something less than full human beings (an issue of love).  We have become dehumanized and inhuman.  Christ comes into the world to make us fully human again.  He descends into Hades to rescue us from the power of death and to destroy Satan who has the power of death.  Salvation is thus not fully understood when it is interpreted only in juridical terms because this thinking fails to fully appreciate what it means to be human.  Salvation is about the restoring of relationships – of reconciling God to humanity, and of restoring the relationship of the dead to their loved ones.  Resurrection is thus the needed tool of salvation to fully restore all of those relationships which have been broken by sin and by its wages, death.

Next:   Adam, Being Human and Biblical Scholarship (A)

The (Self-righteous) Walk with God

Luke 18:18-27

 Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.  You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”  But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

 Fr. Alexander Men in writing about self-righteousness, describes the Pharisess at the time of Jesus:

 The idea that there is some “list of deeds” by performance of which it is possible to gain absolute righteousness gave these lawyers no peace.  They competed with one another in striving for the punctual observance of all customs sanctified by the centuries.  And thus, as has often happened in the history of religion, piety became a gloomy grotesque.

The people called some of the Pharisees shikma—“strong-shouldered” because they always walked around hunched over, showing what an enormous weight of soul-saving feats they had to bear.  Entering the temple Jesus could see that the Pharisees were gathering across the square, constantly stumbling into passersby.  They were afraid to lift their eyes lest they should accidently look upon a woman.  They were called in jest Khitsay, “don’t-hit-your-head.”

It is natural that Christ’s freedom should have irritated and frightened such people; they saw in it temptation and threat to their good morals.  In that era, according to the commentary of a Hebrew historian, the Pharisee-Shammaites steadfastly preached a flight from the world and asceticism.  To say, for example, on looking up from a theological treatise, “What a beautiful tree!” was considered a mortal sin.  The Pharisees also reserved a large place for fasting.  Jesus, although He recognized these external exhibitions of faith, did not make them the center of religious life.    (Fr Alexander Men, Son of Man, pgs 93-94)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:3-4 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 9:3-4 (a)

Genesis 9:3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

“…lifeblood…”    Right after Abel made his animal sacrifice; he is murdered by his brother Cain.  Here after Noah’s animal sacrifice God speaks to Noah about the sacredness of blood, each person’s blood – life is sacred.   This law for all mankind demands an absolute adherence to the sanctity of human life.   God lays down a rule that if anyone or even if any animal sheds a man’s life, the murderer shall be put to death.  God does not want Cain’s sin to be down played or accepted.  Murder is punishable by death.  But this certainly reflects the fact that everything has changed on earth and none can live together in peace.  God has accepted that the human heart apparently cannot be washed clean of its wickedness, but now He lays down a law forbidding murder.   God does not prevent murder from happening (and His Son will suffer the consequence of His decision!), but His law demands that humans must control themselves.  And if a human can’t control himself and kills another human, the rest of the humans by God’s command are to deal with the killer.   This will become the foundation for Old Covenantal civil society.   God does not offer nor promise to deal with human wickedness such as murder.   Humans are to practice self-control.  But if they can’t control themselves, then humans must band together and take control of the person who refuses to practice self-control.  This is God’s expectation of humanity – humans must begin to police themselves because God has ordered it.   In the New Covenant, in the new order, in the new world instituted by Jesus Christ however, on the cross He does not demand Old Covenantal justice, rather He prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  He inaugurates a new Kingdom not of this world, nor of its values, not even of the ones from the Torah.

“Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”     God forbids the eating of flesh with blood still in it even before Moses exists and he is given the law from God to teach to the people.   Genesis puts this law as one of the first laid down by God for all people – not just for observant Jews, for the law is given before Abraham or Moses lived.  It is interesting that in Acts 15 when the Apostles are considering what religious laws Gentile converts to Christianity must keep, they adopt only three rules mandatory for all Christians and one of them is the Genesis 9:4 prohibition against eating meat with blood still in it:  “abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20).   They do not require all 613 laws of the Torah, nor even the Ten Commandments!   This same set of rules is repeated in Acts 21:25.   To be a Christian, you do not need to be an observant Jew – no requirements for keeping Torah nor kosher.   But Gentile Christians were expected to recognize the universality of certain moral laws.

“Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”    One lesson God may have wanted to convey to the survivors of the flood is that life is still sacred.  They get out of the ark and witness the mass devastation which has taken place – all flesh has been destroyed.  But God doesn’t want the survivors to misunderstand the events.  All flesh was destroyed because of the distortions brought about by wickedness.  The destruction of all flesh was not a pronouncement that life has no value, nor that God favors ethnic cleansing or endorses mass murder.  God affirms the value, the sanctity of life by telling the humans the blood is holy, life is sacred.  God wanted the survivors of the flood, and all who read their story to learn that sacredness is still part of creation.  They may no longer be living in the Holy Paradise of Eden.  They may no longer be residing in the antediluvian world of Noah’s forefathers.  This however has not changed the holiness of life itself.  Meat eating is allowed, but humans must recognize the sacredness of all life and the sanctity of every human life.  God wants the humans He has saved to understand this most significant lesson.  The significance of the story is not that there is now law governing human behavior; the importance of the story is that life is holy, and in the face of the destruction of all life by the flood, humans must be told that God still sees life as sacred and He expects His chosen humans to do the same.  God will say that He will never again destroy all human life to rid the world of evil and sin; nor does He command His humans to try this method to perfect their world.

Already in this Genesis text we seen an understanding that a price to be paid for human holiness and perfection is human blood.   The rest died that the righteous might survive.  This idea is repeated in the Passover Story of Exodus where too some die in order that others may live.  The theme finds its fullness and complete meaning in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, where again a death was necessary for holiness and perfection of humanity to be attained.  In the New Covenant however, it is God who dies rather than God who purifies humanity through the death of some ungodly humans.  The death of the ungodly cannot perfect humanity, whereas the death of the perfect God-man reveals the purity of humanity.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 9:5-7

God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (d)

See:  God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (c)

There is always a temptation when reading Scriptures to try to explain away problems and difficulties to ease our doubts.  But in so doing we often have to discard what the text actually says in favor of some explanation of the text.   Then the explanation becomes the Scripture and the Scripture becomes simply that on which the inspired writing comments.  Orthodox scripture readers will sometimes gloss over the actual Scripture and rush to the footnotes in the ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE as if the footnotes are the inspired part and the Scriptures are the stumbling block which slow our race to the get to the truth.       As one commentator on the Old Testament wrote, “There is tremendous interpretive pressure to raise the valleys and lower the hills, to make the way straight and level before the reader.  But a reading faithful to this book, at least, should try to describe the territory with all its bumps and clefts, for they are not merely flaws, but the essence of the landscape” (M. Fox, QOHELET AND HIS CONTRADICTIONS).   Source Theory at least takes every word of the Scriptures seriously and looks to discover their meaning without trying to gloss over inconsistencies and contradictions.  It makes us read the Scriptures as they are in the received text rather than using mental gymnastics to try to make the text say something that refutes the very words of the text. 

As a final note to give us a little more comfort with ambiguity when reading the Scriptures, and to challenge our tendency to drift into literalism, consider the following fact about the Ten Commandments.  Even Christians who know little about the Bible have heard of the Ten Commandments.  We often think they are ten clear laws which no one can tamper with and which no one would be willing to debate what they are.  The reality is that if you compare what modern Judaism claims are the Ten Commandments with what the Church Fathers believed and what modern Catholics and Lutherans believe, you would discover that although all talk about the Ten Commandments, the groups do not agree on what the 10 commandments actually are.  The first commandment for the Church Fathers was that you shall have no other gods before the Lord.  In Judaism the first commandment simply is “I am the Lord your God” – it is a reaffirmation of monotheism.  For Catholics/Lutherans the first commandment is that we are not to put other gods before the Lord nor are we to have images of any kind.  In Judaism the 2nd Commandment is not to have other gods before the Lord and not to have images of God.  For the Church Fathers the 2nd Commandment concerns no false images, and for Catholics/Lutherans the 2nd commandment is about false oaths.  The 3rd commandment for the Church Fathers and modern Jews forbids false oaths, while for Catholics/Lutherans it is to keep the Sabbath holy.  For the rest of the commandments Modern Judaism agrees with the list of the Church Fathers, while Catholics and Protestants have a different numbering system.   So before we get too upset with the various interpretations of the scriptures, note that in something as fundamental as the Ten Commandments Jews, early Christians and modern Catholics/Lutherans do not all agree on how to number the 10 commandments.  This doesn’t alter the text which is relied on, nor does it discredit the revelation.  It only tells us that interpretation plays a role in how various religious groups interpret the basics of the faith.

Next blog: Reading Noah and the Flood Through the Source Theory Lens (a)

You can also find Reading Noah and the Flood Through the Source Theory Lens as one PDF document.

 You can also read The Story of the Flood as a PDF document

The Commandments? Which Ones? (Part 2)

10commadmentsThis is the 2nd blog in the series which began with The Commandments?  Which Ones?   I began by considering the following Gospel Lesson:

At that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 19:16-26)

One issue to remember about why Jesus Himself does not mention the “Ten Commandments” nor list all 10 commandments in His answer to the man’s question:  the Jews considered the Ten Commandments as part of the Torah and the 613 laws of the Torah.  They specifically did not want their fellow Jews to reduce the Law to the Ten Commandments (as some modern Christians seem to want to do):  

But there is an additional aspect of this controversy that is of concern from a Jewish perspective. In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision to exclude daily recitation of the Aseret ha-Dibrot from the liturgy because excessive emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe that these were the only mitzvot or the most important mitzvot, and neglect the other 603 (Talmud Berakhot 12a). By posting these words prominently and referring to them as “The Ten Commandments,” (as if there weren’t any others, which is what many people think) schools and public buildings may be teaching a message that Judaism specifically and consciously rejected.  (from Judaism 101: The Ten Commandments)

St. Paul
St. Paul

So when the man asks the question about which commandments he is to follow, he may in fact be reflecting a controversy of his own day about the commandments and whether all 613 were obligatory for Jews.  He wants to know where Jesus stands on the issue.

Interestingly St. Paul in Romans 13:8-10 also speaks about “the commandments” and like Jesus he does not list the Ten Commandments.   Paul lists only four against adultery, killing, stealing and coveting (the first three are in the lists of all three Evangelists, Paul’s variation is to include the prohibition against coveting but not the one against bearing false witness.   Paul says these commandments are summed up in the Leviticus command to love your neighbor as yourself.  In this Paul’s list is most similar to the list from the commandments found in Matthew 19:16-26) (rather that to the parallel lists found in Mark 10 and Luke 18).   One can only wonder if the list that Paul uses regarding the commandments is somehow reflective of what Christ Himself taught (as in Matthew 19) or whether at least both Paul and the evangelists reflect then contemporary attitudes about the commandments:  Christians are not under obligation to follow all the details of the Law.

On a comparative note in Acts 15  the apostles take up the question as to whether it is obligatory for Gentile converts to Christianity to become Jews first in order to be Christians – whether they must observe all 613 Mitzvot to be counted as believers.   The apostles do not in their deliberations require the Gentiles to keep Torah and its 613 laws, nor even do they require observance of the Ten Commandments, rather the only obligation for Gentile converts to Christianity are “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:29 RSV)     The list of required commandments is much closer to the Seven Noahide Laws than to the Ten Commandments.

christ3We must also note that the Ten Commandments themselves are recorded in two separate places in the Old Testament Torah:  Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and Exodus 20:1-17 (a link which compares the two lists of the Ten Commandments in the Torah).   While for the most part the lists are identical, there are some variations in the wording which might lead to one person asking Jesus to clarify which list of commandments He holds to first.  Finally, as is well known, Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews list and count the Ten Commandments slightly differently  (compare to an Orthodox list of the Ten Commandments), so one might want to know in asking which commandments – whose list are you going by?

The question of the man who wants to know “which commandments” he is to follow reveals a complicated history beneath the surface of the question.   Debates about “the commandments” of God and which were obligatory and how to number them have existed since before the time of Christ.  Not all Jews felt all 613 Mitzvot were equally important and many Jewish sects at the time of Christ were particularly negative about the Temple and observing Temple Law.  Several groups, though not Jesus and His disciples, had withdrawn from the Temple and determined that holiness could only be lived by avoiding the Temple and its ritual requirements.  Christians came to see the Law as serving a particular function which Christ fulfilled because He was faithful to His Father.  We are to live says St. Paul by this faith of Christ Himself.