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Jewish commentary on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent

KUL Heschel Center / 27.11.2022
PhotoCredit: KUL Heschel Center
PhotoCredit: KUL Heschel Center

Why does Jesus use the comparison to a thief?” asks Dr. Faydra Shapiro, director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin. The key is the Law of Moses relating to theft. This context provides a deeper understanding of the comparison in Matthew 24:37-44.

At first glance, this reading is a bit alarming. Isn’t comparing Jesus to a thief a little…problematic?

It’s not about the thief, but the timing

It’s not like the New Testament doesn’t understand that stealing is forbidden and that thieves are doing something bad. There are plenty of verses in the New Testament that make it clear that stealing and thieves are negative. So it’s a bit shocking to see this image used here, that the Son of Man will come “like a thief”.

However, read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, we can see that the essence here is not “the thief” (who takes what is not his to take) but rather the thief “that comes in the night”. Why?

Moses’ law of theft

Parshat Mishpatim covers Exodus 21-24 and we usually get to read it in synagogues sometime in February according to our liturgical calendar. It is an assortment of laws given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai and follows right after the Ten Commandments. Stealing and its consequences are one of the matters addressed. What kind of punishment can a thief expect?

Exodus 22:2-3 presents us with a strange case: if a thief comes to a home in the night and is killed, it is not murder. But a homeowner who catches and kills a thief in broad daylight – “if the sun has risen upon him” – is guilty of murder. Or in other words, a thief that breaks into a home during the day is qualitatively different from a thief that comes at night according to Jewish law.

Why? I mean really, does it make sense that timing determines whether something is homicide or justifiable self-defense?

Thief or killer?

The difference according to Jewish commentators has to do with intention. And that timing, day or night, can tell us something about the thief’s intention. During the day, it is presumed that the homeowner can clearly assess the intention of a thief as one coming to steal property. And it is prohibited to kill in order to preserve property. However, a thief that comes in the night is a frightening, confusing, unclear occurrence when the homeowner woken from his sleep cannot clearly assess whether this thief is just a thief, or if he comes willing to kill the homeowner.

The unpredictability of the coming of the Son of Man

So the image in Matthew’s gospel is one clearly informed by the Hebrew Bible, an image of uncertainty and unpredictability, of special vulnerability in the night. Of course, the solution of “staying awake” in order to be prepared is not a viable or healthy solution to real, physical threats of house break ins! But the image used in the gospel becomes even more powerful when read against the background of the real, physical dilemma of the homeowner confronted by a thief in the night provided by Exodus.

About the author

Dr. Shapiro is a specialist in contemporary Jewish-Christian relations and is the Director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. She received the National Jewish Book Award for her firs publication (2006). Her most recent book, together with Gavin d’Costa is Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, Land and State of Israel. Dr. Shapiro is also a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project  and a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religions at Tel Hai College in Israel.

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2024-04-19 23:15:12