Distilling the Commandments

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

For the fifth week running, Jesus and his enemies are sparring with one another in our Sunday Gospel passage. Jesus has bested the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees and the Herodians, and the Saducees. Today's passage tells us that a "scholar of the law," a lawyer, asks Jesus to cite the most important commandment. In chapter seven of the Gospel during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus already did that: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

As we go through the Scriptures, various sacred writers have attempted to do just what is asked of Jesus. David listed what he thought were the most important commandments in Psalm15. The prophets have also summarized the commandments. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Prophet Micah who wrote: You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) However, the point here is not so much the answer as it is the fact that the scholar of the law is testing Jesus. This testing seems to have become the preoccupation of Jesus' enemies.

We may also ask why it is so necessary to distill the Law into the "most important" commandment. To answer that question it is important for us to remember that there were 613 commandments contained in the Books of the Law, the Torah. The Pharisees themselves had grouped them into two segments which they referred to as the heavy and the light commandments. In distilling them to their essence, Jesus points us in the direction of the new covenant which like its predecessor is based upon love. As an elderly priest once said to me, "We can teach them all of the 'do's' and 'don't's,' but we cannot teach them to love." Indeed, the only way to teach the commandment of love is to do so by loving.

Jesus' distillation of the Law is not based upon the Western notion of love. This culture looks at love in the light of the collectivist mindset of the typical Mediterranean. Love for them is "connection"; it is "being a part of." Separating oneself from the group is the antithesis of love. For our "rugged individual" mindset, for the Westerner who would rather "go it alone," it is difficult to understand. It is precisely for this reason that the Church teaches us the need for community, the need for communal worship, and the need to include others. In so doing, we are loving God and our neighbors as ourselves.

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