Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
In the middle of the wonderful parables from Matthew which we have heard proclaimed now for several weeks, are a series of controversy apothegms (short, pithy sayings) where Jesus goes head-to-head with the religious leadership of his day. To say that Jesus is critical of the Scribes and Pharisees is an understatement, and a fair amount of space in the closing chapters of Matthew’s gospel is used to chastise them in an attempt to get them to recognize their hypocrisy. Just previous to our gospel today Jesus put the Sadducees in their place (“silenced”) when they asked Jesus a question about the resurrection, and the Pharisees sensed the time was right to get Jesus to, at the very least, embarrass himself, or, even better, infuriate countless numbers of faithful Jews who would see Jesus picking and choosing from the 613 precepts of the Jewish Law. Their question to Jesus about the greatest commandment was neither genuine nor honest, yet Jesus was able to answer their inquiry with the simplest and greatest teaching of all time.
By the simple combination of precepts, one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus, Jesus was able to form the greatest of commandments, a commandment which covered our complete responsibility to God and to humanity, God’s quintessential work in Creation. The attempt of the religious leaders to get Jesus to be a “smorgasbord” Jew failed miserably, for Jesus was able to distill 613 precepts down to a two-pronged commandment which was unassailable and complete in its scope. There was no need to add the Sabbath regulations or the rules governing purifications, for if there was something of value in those precepts the love of God and love of neighbor would be served. Not only is Jesus avoiding walking into the trap set for him by the Pharisees, but he is also proclaiming a major truth about religion in general, for while not explicitly stated in the pages of Matthew’s Sunday gospel, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that all the precepts of the Law need to be reviewed (and renewed) in light of this greatest commandment. If a precept of the Law was unable to promote the love of God or love of neighbor, or, even more problematic, if the precept fully thwarted the ability to behave lovingly, then the precept should no longer receive the respect it once demanded. The greatest commandment taught by Jesus enjoyed a primacy over all precepts, and for Jesus and for all those who call themselves Christian it is a principle which is intended to govern all of life.
While the dual commandment proclaimed by Jesus can rightly be viewed as the greatest, it should not be viewed by the Christian as the simplest, in spite of it being seen as a distillation of the 613 precepts of the Law. Indeed, to allow the greatest commandment to be a principle which governs all of life requires a great deal of effort, for all of our actions in the course of any single day are meant to be measured according to their ability to promote love of God and love of neighbor. Far too many of the religious elite of Jesus’ day had become complacent, and their observance of the Jewish Law had more to do with performing empty rituals than with the furthering of a genuine love of God and neighbor. It is for this reason that Jesus is so hard on the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in the gospels.
The passionate Christian, likewise, should never be simply satisfied with empty ritual, for what Jesus teaches us, in cleverly responding to the Pharisees, is to measure all things in love. If you keep holy the sabbath, avail yourself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and regularly pray the rosary, but cannot come to love the brother or sister in need of God’s mercy, then your faith is no better than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. When we are tempted to forget the primacy of love in our lives we run the risk of becoming Christians in name only, thus deserving the Pharisaic label of hypocrite. In speaking of the greatest commandment, loving God and neighbor, Jesus doesn’t so much simplify our faith, as much as he highlights the real challenge facing all men and women who profess to follow in his footsteps.