Year A: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Greatest Commandment
Matthew 22: 34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, “you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
- How and why would you describe “loving your neighbor as yourself “, like loving God?
- How do you “love yourself” and how does this deepen your love of God and neighbor?
- In what ways do you intentionally exercise God’s “preferential option for the poor”?
- Where in yourself, do you notice a movement from loving others as willful compliance to, as Shea says an “attunement to the needs of the others”? The commandments should be written on our Hearts.
This passage from Matthew is set in the midst of various controversies that Jesus encounters with both Sadducees and Pharisees. One of the Pharisees, “a scholar of the law,” tested Jesus by first ironically addressing him as teacher and then asking, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” While set in the context of a test, it is obvious from other writings that this was a concern among the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. The possibility of not being able to follow through completely on all of the 613 Torah commandments led the community to prioritize some over others. Choosing certain commandments over others led to controversy among scholars of the law. Jesus responds not so much by choosing one commandment over the others, but rather by explicating the underlying principles that govern the carrying out of all commandments.
Jesus combines two commandments from the Torah, stating that the second is like the first. The first, from Deuteronomy, is an integral part of the Shema (6:4-9), the daily prayer and primary confession of the Jewish community. It calls for love of God with one’s whole being — heart, soul and mind. Jesus calls this the first and greatest commandment. Then he adds a second, saying it is like the first. Quoting Leviticus 19:18, Jesus states, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor in Leviticus is explicated in a very practical, real and just manner. Key to love of neighbor is right relationship, the Jewish understanding of justice. Others in Jesus’ day had also linked these two commandments. Jesus not only approves of this linkage but affirms that these linked commandments are at the core of all his teachings.
For Matthew’s Jesus love of God and neighbor as self are the interpretive key to what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. The final sentence of today’s passage clearly expounds what is essential in living in fidelity to God’s will and purpose: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” The law and the prophets are synonyms for all of God’s revealed word. Jesus is saying that these two commandments are the lens, criteria and basis for carrying out all the other commandments.
Matthew’s Jesus also expands Jewish understanding of the neighbor. In Leviticus 19 neighbor is understood to be only a fellow Israelite. However, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus clearly states that God desires us to love enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (5:43-44). In other words, the care and concern for the neighbor is thoroughly inclusive and expansive. It includes the entire human family: the loved one and the enemy. It demands not just general concern for the other but very specific demands of attunement to the needs of the other and the obligations to meet those needs. These two passages specify the obligation to feed, clothe, visit and care for the other no matter the circumstances.
These commandments are the core of our living in fidelity to God and to one another, especially our fellow Christians. Jesus’ directives form the core of Christian living and unite in a very profound manner all those who have committed themselves to Christian discipleship.
Returning to Love
Whenever people look for guidance, commandments are sure to follow. Some will be of a general nature, like the Ten Commandments, outlining the obligations and responsibilities to God and neighbor. 308 On Earth as It Is in Heaven
These general norms will give birth to a thousand detailed behaviors. There will be regulations about how to pray in the morning and how to pray in the evening, how to bless the food, how to give thanks for the first flower of the season, how to visit the sick, what to say to an unrepentant sinner, a proper prayer for every situation, etc. And these laws are everywhere, surrounding every human activity: worship, loans, gift-giving, parenting, violence, theft, food, sexual intercourse, Sabbath rest, etc. Soon the human person is continually consulting a book of right actions to determine if he or she is following the law.
In this atmosphere, what becomes important is the behavior. Was the law meticulously and literally followed? Was the right thing done? If it was, then that is enough. Doing the law is what counts. However, is not what is lost in this exclusive emphasis on action the space within the human person where action comes from?
There is a story about a busy man: One day a certain man hurriedly headed out the door for work. In his path was his three-year-old son playing with blocks. The man patted the boy on the head, stepped over him, opened the door, and went outside. Halfway down the walk, a guilt bomb exploded within him. “What am I doing?” he thought to himself. “I am ignoring my son. I never play with him. He’ll be old before I know it.” In the background of his thoughts, he heard the pounding rhythms of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin’s ballad about lost fatherhood. He returned to the house and sat down with his son and began to build blocks. After two minutes, the boy said, “Daddy, why are you mad at me? ”
It is not only what we do that counts but from where we do it. Our actions come from different places inside us. These different places affect the quality and effectiveness of what we do. We may think the inside is of little consequence as we push into the outer world, but it can change the impact of our actions. “Steeling ourselves” and doing something is not the same as “opening ourselves” and doing the same thing. Playing blocks out of guilt is not the same as playing blocks out of love, and the difference is quickly spotted, even by three-year-olds, especially by three-year-olds. Doing something because it is expected and doing something from the heart are two different experiences. Perhaps that is why Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, insists that we forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart (see Matt 18:21-35, esp. v. 35).
There is another story about a woman who took her aging mother into her home. The mother had had a stroke and needed time to recover.
The daughter was very solicitous and painstakingly attentive to her mother’s every need. Nevertheless, a terrible fight broke out—over a hard-boiled egg. In the middle of the war of words, the mother stopped short and asked, “Why are you doing all this for me anyway?” (It was a question of, “From what inner space” is all this care coming?) The daughter began to list reasons:
I was afraid for her; I wanted to get her well; I felt maybe I’d ignored her when I was younger; I needed to show her I was strong; I needed to get her ready for going home alone; old age; and on and on. I was amazed myself. I could have gone on giving reasons all night. Even she was impressed. “Junk,” she said when I was done. “Junk?” I yelled. Like, boy, she’d made a real mistake with that remark. I could really get her. “Yes, junk,” she said again, but a little more quietly. And that little- more-quietly tone got me. And she went on: “You don’t have to have all those reasons. We love each other. That’s enough.” I felt like a child again. Having your parents show you something that’s true, but you don’t feel put down—you feel better because it is true, and you know it, even though you are a child. I said, “You’re right. You’re really right. I’m sorry.” She said, “Don’t be sorry. Junk is fine. It’s what you don’t need anymore. I love you.”
Her actions were coming from every possible place inside her except from the one place her mother needed to have them come from: the place of love.
Jesus is concerned about the inner state of the acting person. Mindless compliance with the dictates of multiple laws makes one an outer person—conforming but not understanding. For the outer person following the biblical law, “You shall not . . . put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev 19:14) means not putting a rock in front of a blind person. But when the love of God and love of neighbor center you and inform your consciousness, you know that the law means not to take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability or weakness. In touch with the inner configuration of divine and human love, you move among the laws knowing their ultimate purpose. So, you know when to heed them, when to modify them, and when to dismiss them. You might even heal cripples against explicit Sabbath commandments (see Matt 12:1-13).
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.