Exodus 22:20-26 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 Matthew 22:34-30
The First Reading taken from the Book of Exodus instructs the people of the loving relationship that the Israelites ought to have towards those who were under-privileged. The under-privileged were the aliens, the foreigners those who were forced to leave their homes because of circumstances such as wars, plagues or famines. The reason is that once the Israelites themselves where in such a situation. Further, they are reminded by the Lord of their obligation to take care of the needs of the widows and the orphans. The Lord, the book says, is always a support to the underprivileged people and they receive his personal blessing. In the Second Reading, Paul reminds the Thessalonians about his own life as a living example for them so that they may grow in Christ. Paul’s example was to fully live like Christ which is to live fully the life of Christ, by imitating God. It is a call to live in love, as Christ lived and has loved us and gave himself up for us, as a sacrifice to God. Paul acknowledged that through persecution, the Thessalonians persisted in their living faith, receiving the Word of God with joy that was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul continued by saying that it is by living one’s faith in Christ we live in harmony with God.
In the Gospel by answering the question of the lawyer about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus responds from his experience of a loving and living relationship with God. To love God and to love the neighbour it looks a very simple concept. Jesus however shows how challenging this is. Love led him to reach out to the outcasts of the day, the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and others. In doing so he did experience the disapproval of others and their rejection of him. We see how at the Last Supper he took a basin of water and washed the feet of his disciples and asked them to do the same. These two commandments of love have not changed. They challenge us all even today and they are just as demanding as they were during the life time of Jesus. This involves acceptance, service and forgiveness.
We see the context in which today’s Gospel is given. We see Jesus is being challenged by various leading groups among the Jews. Jesus had just reduced a group of Sadducees to silence, much to the delight of their rivals, the Pharisees. Now it is some Pharisees who approach him with their own question, a question much debated among them: “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Unlike other encounters, there is not necessarily any malice in this approach. As a Rabbi, influential with the crowds and known by many as someone with a mind of his own, they wanted to know his opinion. At the same time it was a very intriguing question that is placed to Jesus, to check his knowledge and at the same time the ability to teach religion to peoples. Normally the Rabbis would give differing answers taking from the legal point of view. The Jews had 613 laws and norms concerning their religion, some positive and others what one is forbidden to do. The question was how to sum these laws and make them clearly understood.
The answer that Jesus gives comes from the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. The first command says of loving God and the second Jesus says is equally important, namely to love one’s neighbour as one would love his self. While placing both commands at the same level, Jesus invites every person to find the image and likeness of God in the other person. In the Gospel of Luke he gives the example of the Good Samaritan to show how important it is to serve the other human person. Our neighbors include every one we come into contact with: family members, friends, persons we do not like, strangers and particularly those persons in need. If we discriminate towards one person within the Body of Christ, then we do not have the love of God in us. This also shows how much of care and concern Jesus shows towards others. In the Book of Exodus, we have the invitation for such care and concern and God says, if you are harsh and if they cry I will certainly listen to them.
In Jesus there is no distinction between these two commands of loving God and neighbour. One naturally flows from the other. In fact for him they are no commands at all; they are a way of life for every Christian, it is a way of living. Jesus could identify himself with the suffering, the hungry and those thirsty, with the naked, the sick and those in prison. In fact, Jesus identifies himself with those in most need of love and compassion. Love is always for doing well and helping others to reach the divine level. Love is not love unless it is free and spontaneous. What Jesus proposes are not just commands or rules but a whole approach to life and to our relationship with others. Hence there is one word or command that summarises today’s Gospel, love. Each one is the object of love as we are the objects of love of the Father.
This love that Jesus invites us to have is not necessarily an emotional and romantic love. It is a love, as the First Reading indicates, which involves treating every single person with deep respect, with justice, with compassion. It reaches out even to those who behave badly or wish to harm me. We become what we are through this love.
Anecdote: Once in New York City, on a cold day in December, some years ago: A little boy, about 10-years-old, was standing before a shoe store on the roadway, barefooted, peering through the window, and shivering with cold. A lady approached the young boy and said, ‘my, but you’re in such deep thought staring in that window!’ ‘I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes,’ was the boy’s reply. The lady took him by the hand, went into the store, and asked the clerk to get half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy. She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel. He quickly brought them to her. She took the little fellow to the back part of the store and, removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with the towel. By this time, the clerk had returned with the socks. Placing a pair upon the boy’s feet, she purchased him a pair of shoes. She tied up the remaining pairs of socks and gave them to him. As she turned to go, the astonished kid caught her by the hand and looking up into her face, with tears in his eyes, asked her. ‘Are you God?’ She smiled and said: I am only a child of God. The shook his head and said: Oh I knew. You were some relation of God.