Often, we Christians forget that, as a reformer of Judaism, the historical Jesus taught almost nothing new. The fact that people of His day and age primarily regarded Him as a prophet tells us that they heard His preaching and experienced His ministry as a call to return to the origins of their faith.
Like all true prophets, Jesus bases His reform on His faith's earliest traditions. He does so throughout His public ministry. But nowhere do we more clearly hear Him calling His followers to return to Judaism's beginnings than in Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22:34-40).
Jesus' Jewish enemies hurl a frequently asked question at Him: "which commandment in the law is the greatest?" In other words, "around which of the 613 laws contained in the first five books of Scripture (the Torah) do all the other laws revolve?"
Jesus responds as a good, reforming Jewish teacher is expected to respond. He first quotes the book of Deuteronomy: "You shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment."
Then, lest there be any doubt about the meaning of "love your God," the Galilean carpenter quickly turns to the book of Leviticus. "The second is like it," He proclaims, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
In the Bible, the Bible is never called the Bible. The biblical term which usually connotes the Jewish collection of sacred writings is "the law and the prophets." So when Jesus says the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments, He's saying all Scripture revolves around love of God and love of neighbor.
Love of Yahweh's people equals love of Yahweh. It's a theme which runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Again and again, biblical prophets remind their people of this basic truth, as we hear in Sunday's first reading (Ex 22: 20-26).
"You shall not wrong any widow or orphan," Yahweh warns. "If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry....If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate."
Yahweh's last comment implies that we treat our neighbors correctly only when we imitate Yahweh's compassion for all people -- especially those who inhabit society's fringes: aliens, orphans and widows, the poor and debtors. It's impossible to love God without loving the least of God's people.
All reformers call us to return to that tie-in between God and God's people. The actions which flow from perceiving and living out such a connection will be the basis for God's judgment of us -- even before Jesus' Parousia.
From the second reading (I Thes 1: 5-10), we know such actions have become a major element in Paul's criteria for judging the effectiveness of his preaching to the Christian community in Thessalonika. He reminds the Thessalonians that all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia "openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await His Son from heaven."
The way in which the community received Paul and his companions was an indication of how they would receive God's word.
We always should include the following question in our daily examination of conscience: What part of Jesus' essential message have I ignored today?
Perhaps we hesitate to include it only because some of us aren't grounded enough in earliest Christianity to know how to separate the essential from the non-essential.