Gospel reflection for Oct. 29, 2023, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Pharisee and the teachers of the Law were generally suspicious of Jesus and his teaching. While much of what Jesus taught was in line with, and often even directly from, the Torah and Prophets of their tradition, at times his points of emphasis challenged the ways in which said scholars and teachers understood and interpreted those teachings. The source of many of the questions that they ask Jesus reflect this desire to force him to qualify his teaching in order to either silence him or to trap him into saying something that will allow them to move against him. We saw this strategy played out in the previous passage when he was asked about the legitimacy of paying the Roman census tax.
Now Jesus is asked the fundamental question in Judaism, as regards the priority of the commandments. Jews at the time of Jesus, as well as today, have a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of the commandments found within the Torah than do we as Christians. We think of the Ten Commandments, which is not what Jesus or his contemporaries would be considering here. Of the 613 commandments in the Scriptures, which of them is the greatest commandment? On one level this is a complicated question, and at the same time there is the overarching commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4) known as the Shema Yisrael: Hear, O, Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord alone. This is a Jewish prayer that stands as the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayers. It is traditional for Jews to say the Shemaas their last words of the day, and parents teach their children to say it as their night prayer.
The Deuteronomy passage continues: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign* and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”
Jesus responds, properly, to the question of the scholars with the Shama. Then, as does so, he continues by expanding the commandment with a second point of emphasis. Now Jesus reaches elsewhere in the Torah, specifically to Leviticus 19. Herein we find the commandment to be Holy, as the Lord is holy (another teaching Jesus emphasizes) and then in verse 18 we read: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By emphasizing the two commandments and virtually making them one, Jesus changes our entire understanding of religious law.
Now, through the teaching of Jesus, the love of God and love of neighbor become the unequivocally central commandments of our faith. All other commandments, laws and precepts of the Church, and the demands of ordinary discipleship flow from these two. Loving God is, of course, an abstraction. Other than worship there is nothing that one’s love for God does for God, but the implications of love of neighbor are immeasurable. It is very easy to find excuses to not love one’s neighbor, and very hard to actually do the work of loving. Love demands two things: intentionality and action. Both need to be present and at work in our lives if we are to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
So important is this commandment of love that John in his first letter writes: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Likewise, St. Paul write to the Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Of all of the teachings of Jesus, this one left the greatest impact on his disciples and apostles, and yet proves to be one of the most overlooked demands that Jesus handed-on to us.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.