This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 8, 2015.
In my mind, I see a set of paintings hanging in a gallery. In the foreground of the picture on the left, there appear two distinguished Jewish rabbis with long beards and beautiful white prayer shawls covering their heads. These proud and confident men are engrossed in a conversation that is surely about deep matters of the law. Their absorption is so complete that they have failed to notice an old widow lying prostrate in front of a house begging for help.
The picture to the right is in many ways a counterpoint to the first image. This time the figures are reversed so that we see in the foreground an old widow bathed in a soft white light. She is walking out of a temple with the faintest glimmer of a smile on her wrinkled face. Off to the right in the background and bathed in shadow stand two Jewish rabbis again clothed in finery. This time, however, they appear with hunched shoulders as they slink off in shame through another gate.
This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on August 30, 2015.
When considering a text such as this one, it is perilously easy for us to “get up on our high horses” and begin with thoughtless critique and dismissal of the “dead legalism” of the Jewish leaders portrayed in this encounter. There is much to be learned and appreciated by trying to understand their perspective before looking at how Jesus reframed it.
After the exile, the religious leaders of the Jews said to themselves, “Never again will we allow our people to so disregard God’s Law that cataclysmic judgment falls on our nation. In order to prevent the people’s breaking of ‘the Big Laws,’ we’ll set up a hedge or a fence of smaller guidelines that will keep people far away from such transgression.” These guidelines began to accumulate as “the tradition of the elders” (7:3), and were eventually written down in the third century A.D. as the Mishnah. Various commentators include samples of these traditions in their expositions of this text.