I recently received a question about Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” as they relate to the importance of studying together rather than alone. In my book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, on page 72, I read this line about the importance of community in general.
One reader pointed out that the context of this verse is within Jesus’ teaching about making a decision regarding a sinner. Is it OK to apply it more broadly, or should we stick to a narrow interpretation?
My answer was that several Jewish sayings of this type apply to study, and sometimes when judicial verdicts are given. Rendering judgment requires a type of study, because rabbis were often asked to interpret the Torah in order to decide whether it had been broken or not.
“When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” Mishnah Avot 3:3
“When three eat at one table and speak the words of Torah there, it is as though they have eaten from the table of God.” Mishnah Avot 3:4
“When three sit as judges, the Shekinah is with them,” Talmud Berachot 6
“Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekinah rests.” Talmud Sanhedrin 39
There’s also a teaching about how many people it takes for God’s presence to be among them:
Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa used to say: ‘If ten men sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them, as it is written (Psalm 82:1) “God has taken his place in the divine council.” And from where do we learn that this applies even to five? Because it is written (Amos 9:6) “And founds his vault upon the earth.” And how do we learn that this applies even to three? Because it is written (Psalm 82:1) “In the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” And from where can it be shown that the same applies even to two? Because it is written (Malachi 3:16) “Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened.” And from where even of one? Because it is written (Exodus 20:24) “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.” Mishnah, Avot 3:4-7
This last discussion may be related to the fact that 10 adults (a “minyan”) were required for communal prayers to be prayed. The rabbi seems to be saying that this doesn’t necessarily mean that God is only present when ten people come together. Notice that this passage mentions both Torah study and rendering judgment, because they were seen as related activities.
One thing to note – these statements were not meant to be hard-edged theological proofs about where God is and where he’s not. They are sermonic exhortations to study, pray and decide matters of Bible interpretation in the presence of others.
These quotations are all from slightly after the time of Christ, but it’s hard to not hear Jesus’ words in light of them. So my broadening of Jesus’ words about “two or three being gathered” is coming from my knowledge of rabbinic thought, not from Matthew 18:20 alone.
To me, what is most significant about Jesus’ words is that he says that “I will be among you.” This sounds like a powerful claim to be Son of God, as well as a promise to be near to reveal his will when we gather and earnestly seek him out.