Most Christians know little about the 613 laws
of Moses, which all Jews have a responsibility to obey. What they do know
probably comes from the Gospel confrontations between Jesus and a group of
ultra-strict observers of the law: the Pharisees.
Yet, contrary to popular Christian tradition,
it's clear from Matthew's Gospel that Jesus doesn't trash the Mosaic
law. As a reformer of Judaism, He simply encourages people to stop
emphasizing the law's minutiae.
He demands that they return to the heart and
soul of those ancient regulations, to once again develop proper relations
with God and one another, which is the core of all biblical laws. Unless we
understand that, we can't understand Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22: 34-40).
Were a Jew to wander into one of this weekend's
liturgies, he or she might think they were participating in one of their
Sabbath synagogue services. The lawyer asks Jesus a question which faithful
Jews frequently ask: "Which commandment of the law is the
greatest?" Out of the 613, which regulation is the most important?
Jesus, the good Jewish teacher, doesn't
hesitate. He first reminds the lawyer of the prayer he and all Jews recite
every morning - the "Shema." Based on Deuteronomy 6: 4-5, it
begins, "Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. Therefore you
shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your strength."
Agreeing with the Jewish teachers of His day
and age, Jesus tells His questioner, "This is the greatest and first
commandment." Then, agreeing with His prophetic predecessors, Jesus
quotes from Leviticus 19:18, "The second is like it. You shall love
your neighbor as yourself."
His final statement resonates not only in the
heart of all Christians, but also in the heart of all Jews: "On these
two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well."
The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures
constantly struggle against those who put a disconnect between the two laws.
That's why they so consistently condemn the "good folk" whose
religious obligations consist only in fulfilling the law's liturgical
demands while conveniently ignoring their responsibility to one another.
The second reading (Ex 22: 20-26) fits in the
mainstream of that prophetic teaching. The author informs his readers that
they best serve Yahweh when they serve the most powerless in their
communities: the resident alien, the orphan, the widow and the desperate
poor. (The latter must be in dire straits if the only thing they can offer
as collateral for a loan is their cloak!)
In each of those cases, the one God has become
one with those who are society's most insignificant members.
In the oldest Christian writing we possess -
I Thessalonians - Paul joyfully tells his readers that he received
biblically inspired treatment when he arrived to evangelize them (I Thes 1:
5-10): "People...openly declare...what sort of reception we had among
you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true
As we heard last week, the Thessalonian
community dem-onstrated its faith in "a labor of love." Their
faith guaranteed that they would be more than just "liturgically
If Jesus and His first followers demanded that
people return to the roots of their faith, why would we think that the risen
Jesus and His true followers in our midst today wouldn't want us to do the
Our all-too-infrequent emphasis on the
peripheral and minutiae of our faith places us squarely on the side of those
"good people" who fought with or ignored Jesus, not on the side of
those who courageously accepted and imitated Jesus.