Christ the King Catholic Church
Here we go again! In today's Gospel the religious leaders continue to try to trap Jesus. If you remember last week both the Pharisees and the Herodians teamed up and asked Jesus a question about paying the census tax to the Romans. Jesus avoided their trap by answering an almost impossible question with great wisdom.
The same is true in today's Gospel. The Pharisees ask what might appear to be an innocent question. "Which is the greatest of the commandments?" Now if we were simply speaking of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai that would be difficult enough. Which is more important: using God's name with respect or honoring God on the Sabbath? It would be hard to answer.
But the Pharisees were not simply asking Jesus which one of the Ten Commandments was most important. For the Pharisees had taken the Ten Commandments and from them devised 613 precepts or rules which a pious Jew had to follow in order to be justified before God. 613 precepts from the Ten Commandments! Even the most pious Jew could not begin to memorize and remember and execute all 613 precepts.
Jesus had criticized the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on people's shoulders and doing nothing to help carry them. And the Pharisees, still bristling from that criticism, are determined to discredit Jesus. They see their own authority and influence threatened by this plain-spoken Rabbi from Nazareth who speaks about God in a way that no one had ever spoken of him before.
And just as he did last week, Jesus avoids their trap by displaying a wisdom that left the people saying, "Where did he get all of this?"
Which is the greatest of the commandments? Jesus responds by citing two very familiar passages from the Hebrew scriptures. The first is from the sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy. It is the great 'Shema' prayer with which every pious Jew begins and ends the day. It is the first prayer that a Jewish mother, then and now, teaches her children.
"Hear, 0 Israel! The Lord, your God, is one. He is Lord alone and you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul." As Jesus
spoke those familiar words every one of his listeners would have been reciting those words with him.
And then Jesus quotes another familiar passage from the Book of Leviticus" "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countryman. You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
The Jewish people understood that God expected them to behave in a particular way toward people. They understood that God was concerned, not only about their relationship with Him, but also about their relations with one another. They were to act justly. They were to do to no one what they would not want done to themselves. They were to care for the stranger and the alien in their midst as we heard in today's first reading, for once they were strangers and aliens. Judaism was, and is, a very ethical religion.
The novelty in Jesus' response to the question as to which is the greatest of the Commandments is the way in which Jesus brings these two commandments - love of God and love of neighbor together, placing them on the same level. Jesus cites love of God as the first commandment and then says that love of neighbor is like it. The two commandments are two sides of the same coin. One cannot be separated from the other.
This teaching of Jesus is confirmed in Chapter 25 of Saint Matthew's Gospel. This is one of the few places where Jesus describes what the final judgement will be like. Humanity will one day be separated into two groups, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. "When I was hungry, when I was thirsty, when I was naked, when I was a stranger, when I was in prison or sick... " And remember the righteous will ask, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or a stranger, or in prison, or sick and meet you in your need?" And the response, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers or sisters, you did for me. Come, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you."
St. John captured this same teaching in his First Letter when he wrote, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from Him: 'Whoever loves God, must also love his brother."' (1 John 4:20-21)
A good teacher is one who can make things that are complicated understandable to his or her students. Many years ago I failed my first philosophy class at Xavier
University in Cincinnati. Day after day, I left class confused and confounded. A friend suggested that I repeat the course with a different teacher and that teacher, made philosophy understandable even to someone like me.
Jesus, in addition to everything else, is a great teacher. Whereas the Pharisees had made religion so complicated that people were near despair, Jesus takes the very same ideas and makes them intelligible.
Which is the greatest of the commandments? Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments, the 613 precepts derived from those Commandments and the message of the prophets throughout the Old Testament with his response to the question posed to him in today's Gospel. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
For a pious Jew the Commandments were so important because they revealed God's will for one's life. The professional religious folks of Jesus' day had confused and confounded the people. Jesus comes along and sums up God's will for us in a way that we can all understand. No one ofus can leave church today and say we don't know what God wants ofus as we begin a new week of life. No one ofus can say that we do not know God's will for us.
God's will for us is that we use the same voice we use at Mass this morning to proclaim God's praises to speak to someone who is lonely or discouraged today. God's will for us is that we use that same voice that says 'Amen' to prayers prayed here this morning to encourage a friend or speak on behalf of the immigrant or the unborn child that has no voice.
God's will for us is that we use the same hands that we stretch out in prayer at Mass today to hug a spouse or a child, to rake leaves for an elderly neighbor or to take food to a food pantry.
For on these two commandments rests the whole of the Law and the Prophets. It is that simple and it's that hard!
And for those who are keeping score: It's Jesus 2; Pharisees O!
Fr. Todd M. Riebe