Today’s Gospel passage continues the verbal sparring that has gone on between Jesus and the various factions intent on discrediting him in the eyes of the people. Over the past four Sundays, Jesus has had words with the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees and Herodians, the Saducees (although that contest did not appear in our Sunday readings), and today with a scholar of the Law.
There are actually 613 commandments contained in the Torah, the Book of the Covenant. We have some examples in the excerpt we read this morning from the Book of Exodus. This excerpt focuses on several groups of people, the resident alien, widows and orphans. These groups are singled out for special attention because they are “poor,” lacking in status or a place in the community because they have no “man” who stands at the head of the group. Widows and orphans continued to be the objects of concern even in the New Testament. The motivation behind caring for these groups is quite simple. In Israel’s history, they had been resident aliens who had been treated badly. Being a widow or an orphan in this society was not all that uncommon as life expectancy was not what it is today. Women died in childbirth; fathers were killed in battle.
The question posed is not all that out of the ordinary. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, various writers have tried to distill the 613 commandments contained in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy down to an important few. You are probably familiar with some of those attempts: the ten commandments of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the eleven commandments of Psalm 15 written by King David, the six commandments of Isaiah, or the three commandments of Micah. The prophet Amos boiled the 613 commandments down to one: “For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: Seek me that you may live.”
Jewish literature is replete with people trying to summarize the commandments. However, while the question is innocent enough, Matthew reports that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus in his words. Once again, Jesus skillfully maneuvers out of the trap and summarizes the commandments in what is by now a famous pairing: love God, and love your neighbor. However, even this is not original as it appears in an intertestamental work titled “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.”
A few years ago, a Catholic magazine, I believe it was “America” which is produced by the Jesuits, conducted a survey in which it asked people to specifically cite examples of how they express their love for God. In over 90% of the answers, the respondents would almost immediately veer off into the notion of “love of neighbor.” “I show my love for God by being kind to others, by helping those who are less fortunate, by volunteering for a good cause,” etc. When pressed to cite examples that did not involve other people, most of the respondents were at a loss for words. How do we express our love for God?
Perhaps the best way to answer the question is simply to ask how we show our love for a spouse, for a parent, for a child. The answer becomes far easier in those situations. We express our love for these significant people in our lives by spending time with them, by engaging in intimate conversations, by making sacrifices for them, by placing their desires ahead of our own, by thanking them and complimenting them, by apologizing when we do something that we should not have done. Using these examples as our guide, it becomes clear that loving God is not all that different. We express our love for God if we nurture our prayer life by spending time with and by engaging in intimate conversation with God. We love God by making sacrifices and by placing God’s will ahead of our own. We show our love for God by taking the time to remember to be grateful for all we have received, by praising God for the wonders of creation, and by expressing sorrow for our faults and failings.
While this may seem overly simplistic, engaging in this kind of behavior can be very difficult for those of us who are so taken with ourselves. So much of our culture reinforces the notion that we need to take care of “number one,” that we should be all that we can be, that we should go for the gusto. Advertisers know this about us. They promote this kind of thinking by playing upon our need for self-promotion. This is precisely why we find the principles which Jesus espouses in the Gospel so difficult to embrace. It is also the answer to why the Hebrew Scriptures contain 613 commandments, 365 of which are “Thou shalt not. . .” While Jesus’ two-fold formula might appeal to us because of its simplicity, the hard truth of the matter is that loving God and loving our neighbor flies in the face of our human weakness for self-aggrandizement. Some of us even find it difficult to say the words, “I love you,” and have been taught to think that such words are a sign of weakness.
Attempts to distill the commandments down to the most important have continued down through the ages. Perhaps one of the most famous to do this after Jesus was St. Augustine who wrote: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love of God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
In today’s world, the very notion of “commandments” is ignored by many people who don’t want anyone to tell them what they must or must not do. Others will argue that it is impossible to command someone to love, that love must come from within rather than be demanded of us. An older friar who has since died once commented to me that it was impossible to teach someone to love God. Yet it is obvious from anyone who spends time with the Scriptures that the only thing that God ever wanted from the people is a relationship. God formed the covenant of Sinai to establish a relationship with Israel. God sent us Jesus to create a new covenant with all people. Covenants are love pacts that are based on mutual responsibilities. The commandments are simply a way to spell out those responsibilities.
We gather here to celebrate the covenant we have with God in Jesus. God has loved us. We are called to love in return.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator