At issue in today’s readings are commandments about what is the right guide for daily living. Questions of what is right and what wrong are all around us today, currently much in politics, although these debates no longer use the terms ‘commandments’. Does the Bible offer a guide we can still use?
This selection is from the three chapters in Exodus containing detailed moral guidance on the basic commandment, dealing with how to behave with other people in specific situations. In the light of the gospel reading for today, we can see these as spelling out of just some examples 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, his 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 in this Letter is on their remembering how he himself lived and using that as example for them to copy. Then he praises them for the example they too are giving.
It may pose a challenge to us: Do I live in such a way as to be a ‘living rule’ from which others watching me would know what following Christ means? Or in the lines of a joke, ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?’
The final words of the reading take up the topic of Jesus’ return from heaven at the end of time. It is discussed further in other parts of this Letter, and is a theme of Advent which begins next month.
Gospel Acclamation John 14:23
This is one of two text that may be recited today, and fits the theme of love fits well with the gospel today. It is from the four 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 just 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 which we do not hear at mass. The Sadducees, a conservative group of Jewish leaders who argued against a resurrection after death, asked a question based on a provision of the Jewish law of less of concern to modern readers. (You can read this in verses 22-33.) As in the reading we heard last week on tribute to Caesar, Jesus had given them a response they could not find an answer to and which got Jesus out of the trap they tried to set.
Now it the turn of the Pharisees, a group who insisted on strict observances of all the ‘Torah’ or Law. They too were looking for a way to trap Jesus, and chose a question hoping for an answer that would allow him to be accused of being either too lax or too demanding, and so lose the good will of one group or the other. The ordinary people who were attracted to Jesus, found it hard to carry out all the 613 directions in the Law. These Pharisees prided themselves on obeying all, 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’ – most important or basic – commandment.
Jesus’ reply is first from the book of Deuteronomy, a text called called the ‘Shema’ from the first word, ‘listen’. ‘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.’ (Many Jews to this day recite these words daily, following the command of Moses in Deuteronomy.) The Pharisees would not object to this. Then Jesus takes a further step, calling the ‘second’ commandment ‘like it’. This quotation is from Leviticus 19:18. Such a linking the love of neighbour to love of God may have been made first by Jesus, as a basic moral guide. The idea of ‘hang’ is that the rest of commandments can be derived from these two. From them one can see how God is to be loved and honoured and also how we treat everyone around us.
Matthew does not say how the Pharisees reacted, but in Luke, one asks, ‘Who is my neighbour? Jesus responds with the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, Luke 10:15-37. It is a matter of acting with all, and not the exclusion of some in favour of others. Love in the Gospel sense is not warm emotional feelings which often in the modern world often considers ‘love’. It is more a matter of desiring that all will be treated well and giving what care is needed to insure their welfare. Some examples of this are laid out in the first reading with very specific ways of treating others in a loving way.
It was a challenge to the Pharisees whom Jesus will charge in other 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 ‘Sermon on the Mount’, (chapters 5-7), Last Judgement (25;34-36) as well as St Paul’s famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). When we read such detailed accounts of what love means, it becomes apparent that the ‘command’ to love others is not so much a list of various rules to do/not to do, but a way of living at all times. It means being aware of others’ needs and ready to help anyone and everyone in whatever ways we ourselves would want to be treated when we are in need.