23 Oct 2011
“‘Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’” (Matt 22:36)
In the name …
We’re almost at the end of the high school soccer season. I’ve been trying to go to as many of the Frontier girl’s soccer games as I can. I’ve even been taping the day, home games for FCAT all season. The girls are in a re-building year this season. They lost a bunch of seniors after last year. And as I’m up in the stands or on the field videotaping the games I can’t help but think that if they just used their hands they could play soccer so much better. The goalie kicks the ball down the field, for example. The girls are trapping and controlling the soccer ball with every part of their bodies except for their hands. How much quicker and easier and natural would it be if instead they just caught the soccer ball with their hands and dropped it where they wanted? The hands are right there, doing nothing, you might as well use them, I figure. … But the coach never asks for my opinion.
Hopefully you know a little bit more about soccer than I do, and hopefully you know that using your hands is against the rules of the game. But how much easier it would be, and how much of an advantage we would have over other teams, if we could just play by our own rules, use our hands as we so chose. And isn’t that kind of what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel? A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks a straightforward question of Him: Jesus, which one of all the Mosaic Laws is the greatest? Now we don’t have to be lawyers, nor do we have to be scholars of the Jewish Law, to realize that whichever law Jesus chooses, it’s supposed to be one law, the single greatest law. And this is where Jesus simply changes the rules of the game. He knows exactly what the lawyer wants. This game was an ancient teaching tool of the scribes and lawyers. The rules were well known. Out of the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures, the lawyer was supposed to pick out just one of them and argue its merits as the greatest law. By playing this game, the lawyers would hone their argumentative skills, and become familiar with all of the laws and their applications. And the only rule of the game is to choose the one law.
But what does Jesus do? He gives two laws. The ones that we have come to know as the Commandments of Love: Love God completely and also love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus doesn’t pause between the two. He doesn’t ask for permission. And He doesn’t get caught up in a lawyer’s fight about the rules of the game. He simply and plainly states that the single, greatest law is to love, well to love God and also to love each other, but to love. I get the impression here that Jesus’ mind didn’t work like that of the lawyer. He didn’t concentrate on the technicalities of the Law, but on the meaning of the Law. He didn’t focus on number, but on message. And for Jesus the commandment to love is singular. The commandment to love first God and second neighbour cannot be separated. If you love God, you must love your neighbour. It is, Jesus is saying, a logical necessity.
Technically, Jesus broke the rules of the game. But far more importantly, Jesus presents us here with a profound rule of our faith. To love God simply cannot be separated from to love our neighbour. Jesus can’t imagine how one doesn’t require the other. Technically, He broke the rules, but fundamentally Jesus is arguing that the two are really only different aspects of the same command.
And this happens all the time because faith is alive. It walks our streets. It doesn’t sit behind glass in a museum exhibit. It breathes our air. It’s not surrounded by some inert gas that tries to keep it forever unchanged. God is in our present, and we should better embrace this blessing. Take our Old Testament reading as an example. It speaks to us of the honourable ancient law that protects the alien, the widow, the orphan and the poor. This is a timeless moral lesson and it is one we still choose to share today some 3,000 years later. But the talk only a few verses earlier about buying selling girls as brides is no longer socially acceptable. It’s part of the same inspired text we read earlier, but it’s not one we choose to proclaim publicly any longer. There’s also the verse that insists the sorceress shall be killed. There’s a palm reader over on Route 9 in Hadley. I pass her shop driving down that road all the time. Should we form a mob and burn her and her house to the ground? Obviously, the world has changed and so has our appreciation of its moral laws.
The clearest example of all is the Ten Commandments. Our catechism lists the final commandments as “Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s goods and thy neighbour’s wife. I went to a Christian goods catalogue and most all of the Ten-Commandment-knickknacks finish off the list by just saying “Thou shall not covet.” The Bible, however, actually finishes by saying, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife,” but then it still goes on to say, “or his male or female slave, nor his ox or donkey, nor anything else that belongs to him.” “That belongs to him.” 3,000 years ago the wife was a possession not all that different than the slave, the ox or the donkey. We’ve simply ignored these last words as embarrassing, and that omission points to the fact that our faith is alive and changing. God is still speaking to us. Instead of picking and choosing what we will profess and what we will keep silent, while simultaneously claiming that the rules are forever unchanging, we should follow the example of Jesus in today’s Gospel and emphasize the essentials of the message.
Our responsibility as active Christians is to discover and re-discover the essentials of the faith, to have an on-going and growing engagement with God, to see why, for instance, it is that to love God and to love neighbour are inseparable aspects of one truth. Being a Christian isn’t about the rules; it’s about what the rules are pointing to, and what they’re pointing to is a moving target. We can never rest in the faith. So let us all pray to become more and more engaged in the faith. Church can’t do that for us, but she can help. For the willingness to search for the truths of faith, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo