30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings here
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,
"You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
I regret missing last week’s Gospel post. I blame that on the joys of home ownership: our home insurance adjuster finally arrived to look at storm damage, and the HOA engineer came out to examine our plans for drainage improvement. They both gave us a lot of homework. So, this week I have some catching up to do. The Gospel I missed last week—render unto Caesar and to God—also appears in Chapter 22 (22: 15-22). If you are studying the full text of Matthew this year, you are aware that between the tax controversy of last Sunday and next Sunday’s Gospel is that most peculiar debate between Jesus and the Sadducees about the woman who married seven brothers in succession, only to be widowed seven times. I sometimes regret that the seven brothers’ saga did not make the cut, so to speak, in Cycle A.
Chapter 22 is full of contestation. Standing with Chapters 23 and 24, it illustrates the depth of acrimony between Jesus and the Jewish leadership in its various segments. In the matter of the poll tax controversy, the protagonists are the Pharisees and the Herodians (the latter from the court of the Roman-allied King Herod). In the seven brothers’ (or unlucky widow) controversy, the protagonists are the Sadducees, old school temple guard who did not believe in life after the grave. In next Sunday’s Gospel the battle is joined by the Pharisees alone, or more specifically, a lawyer chosen to represent the group.
The question itself of which of the commandments is greatest was not particularly life-threatening. R.T. France notes that rabbis “did discuss which of the commandments were heavy, and which were light.” The Mosaic Law contained 613 commandments, not ten, and some sort of hierarchy was necessary in the Jewish moral life. (p. 842) Moreover, the Pharisees expanded the Biblical law to include additional counsels and directives over time, something akin to Catholic moral practice.
To the Jewish authorities, Jesus did have certain vulnerabilities when presented questions on the Law. Matthew (and Mark and Luke) narrates several instances where Jesus invoked a higher law—he was diffident on the matter of “cleanness,” regularly eating and drinking with sinners. When the needs of preaching the kingdom were pressing, Jesus healed [i.e., worked] and performed miracles of healing and allowed his disciples to harvest food along the road on the Sabbath. However, France does not believe that Jesus’ own conduct is the point of the question. The more troublesome matter was the fierce, almost fanatical, adherence of various rabbis and teachers to their particular “school.” Whatever answer Jesus would give on the most important of commandments, he would alienate some segment of the Jewish community where he enjoyed considerable popularity at that juncture.
Jesus’ response of loving God and loving neighbor is brilliant on a number points. He combines two Biblical sayings prayed daily by Jews: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. What Jesus does here is raise the bar on the discussion. The Pharisee had asked for an opinion on a body of laws. Jesus, by contrast, answers with the revealed principles that underlie the laws of all religion. As he puts it, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." One can also read into Jesus’ answer something of the psychology of religious conversion and life.
I wrote yesterday in Monday’s Morality stream that the heart of Catholic morality rests with the basic disposition of a man’s heart, his fundamental option; in the Catholic Catechism terminology the indwelling of the Holy Spirit directs the open soul toward an understanding of life mission and guides the acts and choices made in the pursuit of this Spirit-personality within us. This concept is not unique to Christianity. Judaism venerated God’s “spirit” or “breath,” as on Easter Sunday night when Jesus breathed over the disciples and prayed that they would “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In his response to the Pharisee-lawyer, Jesus points out that the excessive legalism of the Pharisees was too black book, and not enough Spirit of God and embrace of others as one’s self. This explains his earlier claim that he had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets [understood as “spirit filled men” then and now] but to bring them to fulfillment. And while his answer here did not lose him any admirers among the crowds, it did infuriate the Pharisees who would make common cause with their own religious enemies to bring down the Teacher, as we will see through November as Matthew’s Gospel in Year A comes to its climactic fulfillment.