One Sunday morning, Steve and his wife were driving home after Mass. Just a quarter of a mile away from the Church, his wife began the conversation, “Honey, did you notice Tessy, who sat right in front of us at Mass? She seems to be adding some weight. She is not married, do you think she is pregnant?” He replied, “I did not notice, Dear.” After a few seconds, she said, “Well, did you notice how short Diane’s skirt was? And at her age! What bothers me the most is, she dresses that way to Church.” “I am sorry, dear” said Steve, “I did not notice.” Drawing his attention to one more thing she said, “Surely, you noticed Johnson’s kids and the way they were crawling all over everything and distracting everyone at Mass?” He replied, “No, Dear, I am sorry, I did not notice that either.” At this time, she turned to him, shook her head and said, “Honestly, Steve, I don’t even know why you go to Church anymore. You don’t notice anything!”
In today’s gospel passage, one of the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” When the Jews talk about the law, they might be referring to one or all of the following, the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), the entire Old Testament (the Jewish Scripture), or the 613 precepts made up by the rabbis. At the time of Jesus, the rabbis made up a list of commandments making a total of 613: 365 like the number of days in a year were prohibitions, while 248 like the members of the body were actions to be done.
There were two motives behind the question from the Pharisees: in the first place, they wanted to entrap him in heresy; they wanted him to choose one of the 613 precepts and by so doing say the other 612 are less important. On the other hand, they also saw the law as burdensome and so they wanted to reduce the burden of the law. In his response, Jesus made it clear that everything boils down to love. Be sure you love God, be sure you love your neighbor, and you will have no problem with any commandment.
This passage is just a little part of a long conversation between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. Their opposition to Jesus was heightened after the Triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. They began to question the source of his authority. Jesus used parables to answer them. They became angry and uncomfortable when they recognized that the parables were speaking about them. They wanted to arrest Jesus but they were afraid of the crowds who regarded him as a prophet. In their insecurity, they decided to fight back with their only weapon, namely their learning and their way with words. But Jesus was up to the task. According to Richard Swanson, “The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload.”
What is unique about the response of Jesus is that instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the law, he painted a picture of them as a coherent whole that hangs together on the cord of love. For him, the laws are not just a set of burdensome rules and regulations, but are all about love. Love your God with all your being; love your neighbor as yourself, and all the commandments will be happy with you.
My dearly beloved in Christ, today, as Christians, as Catholics, let us examine ourselves. What is our attitude to the commandments? What is our attitude to worship? When we go to Church, are we motivated by the love of God and neighbor, or do we go, equipped with the commandments to entrap people? Do we go to Mass equipped with the commandments to see how many people we can catch doing the wrong things so we can report them?
Regarding the love of neighbor, in this passage, Jesus uses the self as the yardstick. He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Before you judge, ask yourself, “If I were to be in that position, how would I like to be talked about or treated?” The first reading lays the foundation when God said to the Isrealites, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” As human beings, many times, when God makes things easy for us, we easily forget how we got to where we are. And when we see other people trying to get to where we are, we begin to make life difficult for them, forgetting that we were helped by other people, once upon a time.
A way to rephrase God’s words to the Israelites is: If as foreigners, the owners of the land treated you well, pass that treatment on to others. But if you were maltreated, be sure not to pass it on to others. The same message applies to us today. We were all born vulnerable, relying on the help of others like our parents, older siblings, and neighbors to be where we are. If you are in a position to help, do not withhold the help. If today you are standing, and someone else is on the ground, happily pick them up. Each one of us needs someone else’s help. Yes, love your neighbor as yourself. In case you cannot help, in case you are not ready to help, please, do not hurt. That is what the commandment is all about. You do not even need to memorize the commandments. As long as you love God with all your being, and you love your neighbor as yourself, all the commandments will be happy with you. May the love of God be upon us as we place our hope in God, until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through Christ our Lord. Amen.