Today, a Pharisee tries to test Jesus. Even though he was a legal scholar, his question reveals a stunning ignorance. How?
Gospel (Read Mt 22:34-40)
Jesus stirred up animosity against Himself among religious leaders by teaching several pointed parables about the kingdom of Heaven. In our reading today, a Pharisee, “a scholar of the law,” tested Him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment of the law is greatest?” What prompted this question? Legal scholars in Jesus’ day spent all their time poring over the Law of Moses and rendering judgment on its meaning. However, for a man whose vocation was God’s Law, this question shows that something had gone terribly wrong. He clearly expected Jesus to pick His “pet” commandment, but in doing so, there would be many arguments from those who had chosen other commandments as being most important. No doubt a good legal case could be made for all the various laws (a total of about 612 in the Pharisees’ count), so by choosing one, Jesus would set the stage for rebuttal, confrontation, and legalistic wrangling. What was wrong with the question?
The first clue to the problem comes from Jesus. Notice that in answering the test question, Jesus makes reference to two commandments that were not part of the Ten Commandments (read Ex 20:1-7). When we read through them, we do not see any commandments like these. What has Jesus done? He has summarized the Law, refusing to pit one particular commandment against another. The reason for that should have been obvious to the legal scholar. The Law was not a list of rules to be followed. It was, in its totality, an expression of God’s will for man, given to us out of His love. Any offense against it was an offense against God Himself. As St. James writes in his epistle, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For He Who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ said also, ‘Do not kill.’ If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10-11).
This is why Jesus refused to answer the scholar’s question. Instead, He summarized the meaning of the Law: love God with all that you are, love your neighbor as yourself. [Note: Neither the Law of Moses nor Jesus ever directed us to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. This is a common misreading of Scripture. God uses our automatic self-love as a measure by which we need to love others. We feed, clothe, shelter, and seek protection for ourselves by nature. Scripture presumes this kind of love in us and directs us to exercise it for others as well.] When we understand that love is the goal of our lives, because we are made in the image and likeness of God Who is Love, then we understand that the Law of Moses simply described how we reach that goal. All the commandments, then, are equally important. Breaking them results in varying degrees of consequences, of course, but because they are all One Word from God, that cannot be ranked in importance (read CCC 2069).
This legal scholar had missed the point of all his studying. Instead of wisdom, which should be the fruit of much learning, he was trapped in ignorance.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me always to remember, in every situation, that the point of my life is love.
First Reading (Read Ex 22:20-26)
In this reading, we see explicit directions God gave to His people, through Moses, to teach them how to love their neighbors. We can see from just these few verses how important it was for the people of Israel to treat their neighbors with justice and compassion. No one was to take advantage of the weak and defenseless. No one was ever to forget that Israel had been slaves—helpless, disenfranchised, and fully dependent on God for their liberation and their lives. Their own history was meant to mark them indelibly with humility. Their law proved to them that they could not truly be God’s people unless they were willing to love their neighbors as they loved themselves.
As St. John wisely wrote in his epistle, “If any one says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn 4:20-21).
Possible response: Heavenly Father, I am susceptible to hollow talk about loving You and yet being indifferent to or annoyed by my neighbor. Please forgive and heal me.
Psalm (Read Ps 18:2-4, 47, 51)
If the First Reading helped us understand what Jesus meant when He said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” this psalm explains what He meant by, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” When we read this ecstatic profession of love for God, can we imagine the one who wrote it asking himself, “Which one of the commandments in the greatest”? The psalmist knows that every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is to be treasured, because he knows God is his “rock…fortress…deliverer.” This is the kind of knowledge of God that Jesus must have wished for the legal scholar who tested Him. He wants us to have it, too. The psalmist calls us to express this knowledge in our responsorial: “I love You, LORD, my strength.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Thess 1:5c-10)
We might wonder, at first glance, what connection this epistle reading has with the summary of the Law to love God and man. The challenge here is that we are reading only a small portion of the epistle today. As we move through it in the weeks ahead, we will see what St. Paul meant in vs. 5: “You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake.” St. Paul, along with his companions, Silvanus and Timothy, had not only preached the Gospel to these former pagans, but they had been examples to them of great love, service, and self-sacrifice. They established a deep affectionate bond with the Thessalonian converts. This bond of love pervades the entire epistle. Thus, St. Paul demonstrates for us love of God and man. He is a living picture of the fulfillment of the Law that Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, makes possible for all who believe in Him.
So, if we are curious about how to love God and man, St. Paul has something to teach us in the weeks to come.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that love of neighbor includes sharing the Gospel with him, in word and deed, as St. Paul teaches us.
Image: Jacob Jordaens, “Christ Among the Pharisees,” public domain via Wikimedia Commons.