All religions eventually veer away from their founders' faith, even Judaism and Christianity. The fact we have the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures proves the point. Our sacred authors almost always compose their works to call their communities back to the roots of their faith. If Abraham's descendants and Jesus' followers did what each expected them to do, we'd have no Bible.
The problems that prompted the writings are easier to surface when we read the law codes in the Hebrew Scriptures and the letters of Paul in the Christian Scriptures. They're more difficult to uncover when we read the four Gospels.
Because we've traditionally -- but falsely -- thought the latter were intended to be biographies of Jesus, we don't automatically look for the abuses that inspired the evangelists to write. We rarely ask why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John chose the specific actions, sayings and narratives we find in their writings. Yet scholars continually remind us that every Gospel is a deliberate response to a problem the evangelist faced.
Knowing that helps us better understand and appreciate Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22: 34-40). As a Jewish reformer, the historical Jesus certainly would have been asked about His core beliefs. People would have wanted to know what part of their roots He wanted them to zero in on. In this situation, which of the 613 laws of Moses did He think was the most important?
Jesus' response to the lawyer's question isn't unique. Most Jewish prophets and teachers responded the same way. Equating love of God with love of neighbor is a constant theme in the Hebrew Scriptures.
But Matthew doesn't insert this passage into his Gospel simply because he wants his readers to know about confrontations which the Galilean carpenter had with His frequent nemeses: the Pharisees. He included this particular story because some in his Jewish/Christian community -- only 50 years after Jesus' death and resurrection -- were beginning to put extraneous religious practices at the center of their faith, practices which sidetracked their love of God and neighbor.
As we hear in the first reading (Ex 22: 20-26), it's easy to know how to recite the "greatest commandment," but never do anything in our daily lives to demonstrate that our faith revolves around it. Not only are the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai called by Yahweh to love their neighbor, but they're also especially commanded to care for their community's most helpless: aliens, widows, orphans and the poor.
When it comes to the latter, Yahweh does into great detail: "If you lend money, you shall not demand interest from him. If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset. If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate."
How can someone love a compassionate God without sharing that God's compassion?
Notice how Paul praises his new converts in Thessalonika for putting this same belief into practice (1 Thes 1: 5-10). "In every place," he writes, "your faith in God has gone forth....They themselves openly declare...what sort of reception we had among you." In other words, the Thessalonians demonstrated their deep love of God by the loving way they took care of Paul when he was among them.
One of the perks students of Scripture can expect from their study is an ability to distinguish what in our faith is essential and what is accidental. The only problem is that, looking at their respective religions, they -- like the authors they study -- can't help but notice that some of the beliefs which our founders placed at the center, we've relegated to the periphery.