What are the most important commandments to obey? This is something that was debated in the time of Jesus – and may heard today, not always with the word ‘commandment’ but often in discussions about ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’.
This selection is from the three chapters in Exodus containing detailed moral laws, these dealing with how to behave with other people. In the light of the gospel reading for today, we can see these as spelling out part of what ‘love your neighbour’ means.
Psalm 17/18:2-4, 47, 51
A ‘royal’ psalm of praise made by a king in thanksgiving after he was saved from his enemies, but the verses can be applied by anyone who relies on God in all circumstances. The final words balancing ‘king’ and ‘anointed’ can also be seen by Christians as referring to Jesus: compare the last words of the second reading of God raising Jesus from the dead, in victory over death.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-10
We continue to hear from St Paul’s affectionate letter to the community he evangelised in Thessalonica, again giving them much praise for the way they received the Good News. As a guide to how to live as Christians, Paul does not cite any texts from the Old Testament or even words of Jesus – at this early time the gospels had not yet been written, and whenever he quotes Jesus it is from oral tradition. Instead Paul’s stress is on their remembering how he himself lived, using that as example for them to copy.
I take this as a personal challenge: Do I live in such a way as to be a ‘living rule’ from which others watching me would know what following Christ means?
The final words of the reading take up the topic of Jesus’ return from heaven at the last days. This will be discussed in more detail later in this letter, although we are not hearing those sections in our masses. It will, however, be a significant theme in Advent coming in December.
Gospel Acclamation John 14:23
When there are two possible texts to recite before the Gospel, I can only guess which one will be used at the mass you are attending; this ‘alternate’ one with the theme of love fits well with the gospel today. It is from the 4 chapters in which John has set in the form of Jesus’ final address to his disciples at the Last Supper. He consoles them with the promise that he will be with them after his resurrection, and also the Father and the Holy Spirit will also come to ‘dwell’ in the believer united with Christ – our short quotation focuses on the Father. The ‘word’ Jesus had given them to keep is ‘love one another’, so fits Matthew’s words with both love of God and love of the ‘neighbour’.
The reading opens with a reference to Matthew’s preceding verses (22-33) which we do not hear at mass, a controversy between Jesus and the conservative Jewish faction of the Sadducees. (It turns on a provision of the Jewish law of less of concern to modern readers.) As in the reading we heard last week, Jesus had given those questioners a response they could not find an answer to.
Now it the turn of the Pharisees, a group who insisted on strict observances of all the ‘Torah’ or Law. They too are looking for a way to trap Jesus, perhaps hoping he can be accused of being either too lax or too demanding. The rabbis counted 613 directions in the Law that had to be obeyed, but with so many and with such fine details they also argued about which of these were ‘light’ and which ‘heavy’. There was also discussion about whether one could find a single command that underpinned all the others. Either of these two disputes could be behind the question to Jesus about the ‘greatest’ or more important commandment.
Jesus’ reply is from the book of Deuteronomy, and comes from the prayer called the ‘Shema’: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.’ (Jews to this day recite these words daily, following the command of Moses in verses 7-9 of Deuteronomy.) The Pharisees could not object to this. Then Jesus takes a further step, calling the ‘second’ commandment ‘like it’. This quotation is from Leviticus 19:18, and it has been quoted in Matthew’s gospel before (5:43, 19:19). Linking the love of neighbour to love of God may have been a creation of Jesus. J. P. Meier in his commentary says: ‘Note the careful balance: God must come first but there is no true love of him that is not incarnated in love of neighbour.’
Love is this sense is not the warm emotional feelings the modern world often considers ‘love’. It is more a matter of firm intent to do good where it is needed. An example of this is the first reading with specific ways of treating others in a loving way. St Paul also fills this out in the famous chapter in 1 Corinthians 13:2-8.
The idea of ‘hang’ is that the rest of commandments can be derived from these two.
It was a challenge to the Pharisees whom Jesus will charge in later parts of this gospel with being more concerned with petty details than the essence of loving God and others. It is also challenging for Christians today to carry out both these commands with the fullness that is laid out in Matthew’s long ‘Sermon on the Mount’, (chapters 5-7) and Paul’s chapter. When we read such detailed accounts of what love means, it becomes apparent that the ‘command’ to love others is not so much a ticking off of various things to do/not to do, but a way of living at all times. A way of being aware of others’ needs and ready to help anyone and everyone in whatever ways we can.