A reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A. The readings are Exodus 22:20-26, Psalm 18, Thessalonians 1:5c-10 and Matthew 22:34-40.
Which is the greatest commandment of the Law? This was a real question at the time of Jesus. People would gather around the water cooler at work and talk about which commandment was the most important. It’s like today, everyone talking about whether we need more security at the Parliament or people talking about which diet is better or what we need to do to be happy. That was a question that a journalist once asked Pope Francis: What is the secret to happiness; the secret to having joy in your life.
The scholar of the law in today’s Gospel reading is not just trying to trick Jesus – he’s actually asking him a real, valid question that people had at the time – like the journalist asking Pope Francis what’s the secret to being joyful.
Let me give you a little background. Today, in post-Temple Judaism, which we call rabbinic Judaism (maybe some of my Jewish readers can correct me if I get this wrong) – we commonly accept that there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. This does not include the 10 commandments. We’re talking about all the other commandments contained in all the 5 books of Moses. These are called the Mitzvot (mitzvah means law; mitzvot is plural). Many of these laws have to do with priestly service. The Levites were the priests and they had very specific laws as to how to do their job and how to offer sacrifice and serve at the Temple. These are the levitical laws and most of them are in the Book of Leviticus. There are also laws about food; what to eat, what not to eat and how to eat (like not to eat worms found in fruit, Lev 11:41 or not to eat the limb removed from a living beast, Deut. 12:23, or not to slaughter an animal and its young on the same day, Lev 22:28).
There are laws about offering sacrifice and about ritual purity and impurity (what makes one pure or impure); laws about marriage (like marrying a widow of a brother who has died childless, Deut 22:5), about clothing (like a man shall not wear women’s clothing or a woman not wearing men’s clothing, Deut. 22:5); about agriculture and how to breed your animals (like not to sow grain or herbs in a vineyard, Deut 22:9 and not to cross-breed cattle of different species, Lev. 19:19); about idolatry (like not to tattoo the body, Lev 19:28, or plant a tree for worship, Deut 14:1). There are also criminal laws and laws about judicial procedure and punishment; laws about property (like never to settle in the land of Egypt, Deut 17:16). There are laws about employment and how to treat your slaves; laws about how to conduct business; laws about how to treat the stranger and the foreigners (like in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus), how to treat the poor and unfortunate; laws about prayer and blessings; laws about signs and symbols (like every male offspring must be circumcised, Lev 12:3) and of course, laws about God. A good Jew knew about all these laws. Pharisees were strict with all these laws and a scholar of the law, was, well, an expert in all this Law.
So when this scholar asks Jesus the question, he may have been trying to trick Jesus, but he’s asking a very real question that people had at the time. And Jesus responds well. He responds with a prayer that every Jewish person at the time knew and very Jewish person today knows very well, the “Shema”: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-6). This is the prayer that every Jewish person prays first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I imagine the scholar and the people accepting the answer and beginning to walk away and then Jesus saying, “wait, I’m not done. There’s another part. This is the greatest and first commandment, but there is a second, which is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” These were two separate commandments, one from Deuteronomy 6 and the other from Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Again, every Jew would be familiar with that scripture passage, but no one would have thought to put the two together. Love God and love neighbour. Jesus says they’re the two greatest commandments.
And that makes perfect sense. We cannot pretend to love God if we do not love our neighbour. And all those who love their neighbour, are loving God. The Vatican II Document, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium -#16) says that those who through no fault of their own have not come to know God, but strive to live a good life, can achieve salvation. I think that means that those who love neighbour, can find eternal life, even if they do not know or think they do not know God, because in truly loving our neighbour, we love God.
What doesn’t make sense to me is that it is a commandment. We do not love because we are commanded to love. I do not love my wife or my family because the law says I have to love them – I love them… well… because I love them. God is love. God has loved us first. He loves us into creation and we, in turn, love him as a response to his everlasting, perfect, total love. If today you feel you have not experienced the perfect love of God, ask him, as you receive the Eucharist, to open your heart to receive His love. Ask Him to let you feel His love. He gives himself totally in love in the Eucharist. Open your heart to receive him love. Respond to His love the way the beloved responds to the love of the lover.
Our love our neighbour, is also a response to God’s love. Our love of neighbour flows out of the loving response to the love of the Father. That is why the Mass is not just about coming here to receive God’s love and keep it to myself. At the end of Mass we are sent on a mission: Ite, missa est. Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. Take this love you have received and go love your neighbour and make disciples of all nations.
And do you notice that there is actually a third commandment that is implicit in those two? Love God; love neighbour and love yourself: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It implies that we must love ourselves. Again, it makes sense. You cannot love God or neighbour if you do not love yourself and if you love God, then you will automatically love neighbour and self.
A few years ago I went through a phase where I had all these buttons. I collected them and had them attached to my backpack. I must still have them somewhere. Someone gave me one that had the letters J O Y. It spells “joy”. But it stands for “Jesus”, “Others” and “Yourself”. It is a reminder of how these three loves have to be ordered. First we love Jesus, we love God. Then we love others. That’s important – that’s the love of the cross: the vertical love of God and the horizontal love of neighbour. But if those two are in place, then automatically there is the third one of loving yourself: Jesus, Others, Yourself. It spells JOY.
In the time of Jesus they wanted to know what was the greatest commandment. Today we want to know what brings us Joy. It’s the same answer.