“If we desire to live in the dwelling-place of his kingdom there is no means of reaching it except by the way of good deeds.” – St. Benedict
Matthew 22:34-46: But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees they got together and, to disconcert him, one of them put a question, ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?’ Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.’ While the Pharisees were gathered round, Jesus put to them this question, ‘What is your opinion about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ ‘David’s’ they told him. ‘Then how is it’ he said ‘that David, moved by the Spirit, calls him Lord, where he says: The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand and I will put your enemies under your feet? ‘If David can call him Lord, then how can he be his son?’ Not one could think of anything to say in reply, and from that day no one dared to ask him any further questions.
Christ the Lord The “law and the prophets” was considered by the Jews to contain the absolutely unique self-revelation of the one, true God to his only Chosen People. In possessing this revelation, Israel excelled over all other nations and peoples: the Creator of heaven and earth had entered into a personal covenant with them, promising to bless all nations through them. Therefore, when this Pharisee (who happened to be an expert in “the law and the prophets”) queries Jesus as to the greatest among the 613 commandments of the law, he is really ferreting out Christ’s interpretation of the entire history and reality of the Israelite nation – a daunting task. We can imagine Christ fixing his eyes on those of the questioner, wondering if perchance this question were asked sincerely. Once again, he rises to the occasion, giving us in two sentences the perfect program for our entire life.
After responding, Jesus decides the time has come to end the interminable debate with the Pharisees. Throughout St Matthew’s Gospel they have obstructed, insulted, doubted, confronted, and tried to humiliate and discredit Jesus. As the hour of Christ’s passion approaches, he turns the tables. He asks them about the first verse of Psalm 110, a psalm that, as all the rabbis agreed, dealt specifically with the Messiah. Jesus asks them to interpret how David can address the Messiah, who is David’s son and by that standard ought to be inferior to David, as his superior, calling him Lord. Some commentators see this challenge as a final discrediting of the Pharisees by Jesus. Up to this time, they have tried to demean him with their supposedly superior knowledge of the Law, but now Jesus denigrates them in the eyes of all the people, inviting the crowds to retract their confidence in these false teachers who are not even able to decipher the meaning of a simple, well-known Scripture passage. Other commentators say Jesus was indicating one final time that their concept of the Messiah was too worldly; it didn’t leave room for God’s wonderful plan of sending the Second Person of the Trinity. In this case too, their small-mindedness destroys their credibility.
In either case, this final exchange marks a turning point: the Lord will no longer tolerate the Pharisees’ stubborn resistance; the time has come to put them in their place so as to open the hearts of the people to the Savior’s grace.
Christ the Teacher The novelty of Christ’s answer to the Pharisee’s query comes not in identifying the greatest commandment, about which the rabbis had already come to a consensus, but in linking it to the second greatest commandment – in binding together in his New Covenant love for God and love for neighbor. They had asked him for one commandment; he gave them two, as if to say that these two are really only one: how can you truly love God with all your heart if you do not also love your neighbor? This is where the Pharisees were always falling short. And, how can you truly love your neighbor if you do not love God with all your heart? This is where many modern humanitarians tend to fall short. What possible reason would there be to love my neighbor, that neighbor who contradicts me and gets on my nerves and treats me badly and uses up my resources, if my neighbor were not loved by God, if my neighbor were not my brother? If God loves him, and I love God… well, as true friends say: any friend of yours is a friend of mine.
Christ the Friend The social action of the Church throughout the centuries proves the power of this double dimension of love, lived out first by Christ, and subsequently, through the Holy Spirit, by his followers. The saints have been the ones to found hospitals, orphanages, schools, and countless other works of charity (“charity,” by the way, traditionally refers to both these dimensions of Christian love – for God and for neighbor because of God). Their love for God burned so wildly that it spread into love for all of God’s children, and whatever they could do for the spiritual and material benefit of those children was never enough. The dignity of every human person, a dignity that demands that they be loved, stems only from the image they bear within of God himself, most worthy of all our love. True love of God yields love for our neighbor; without it, love for our neighbor may temporarily relieve our conscience, but it will never bear lasting fruit. In identifying himself with each of his children, then, Christ has become the truest friend of all.
Jesus: So many people are searching for easy formulas that will simplify their lives. So many people are trying to find a clear answer to the questions that torment their souls. If only they would listen to my words! If only they would trust me and accept my teaching! If only they would try, just a little bit, to make the slightest effort to put it into practice, then my grace would sweep them off their feet and lead them to the meaningful life they long for.
Christ in My Life Lord, is it possible that some of the leaven of the Pharisees has penetrated my life? I know the right answers, and everyone identifies me as a faithful Christian, but are there relationships or habitual ways of thinking in my life that conform more to selfish standards than yours? Show me where my attitudes and actions need to be touched by your grace. Teach me, Lord, to do your will…
Your program of life is so simple. Why is it that I complicate things? How I long for the peace of living in communion with you! Cleanse my heart of every other desire, so that it’s only full of love for you and for my neighbor…
Why must I love my neighbor as myself? I so readily make excuses for myself; I always put up with myself – but my neighbor is so hard to tolerate, so full of faults. How do you see that person, Lord? Open my eyes to see as you see. No one is so faulty that you can’t make them into a saint…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Matthew 22:34-36: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. The Pharisees and the Saducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.