Jesus was a Jew. Everybody knows that. His mother was a Jew. His step-father was a Jew. All his aunts and uncles and cousins were Jews. Most of the people He ministered to were Jews. Jesus lived in a Jewish society.
In Jesus’ time, Jews had an entirely different view of God than we do today. Look at today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. The Lord says “you shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword, then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”
Whoa! The Old Testament God didn’t mess around. “If you’re not nice to widows and orphans, I’ll kill you.” End of story. Jesus introduced us to a kinder, gentler God. He told us it was OK to call God “Our Father”.
Look at our Gospel reading. The Pharisees decided to test Jesus. One of them asked Jesus “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” We all know the answer to that question. “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment.” He goes on to say that the second commandment is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, he knew that the Pharisees, experts in the Jewish Law, weren’t following either of these two commandments.
As 21st century Christians, we look at this reading and think, “OK, out of the Ten Commandments these two are the greatest. But wait! “Love your neighbor” isn’t one of the ten.
Maybe we should have a little quiz here. Who knows the Ten Commandments?
- I am the LORD your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
The first three are about loving God. The last seven are about loving our neighbors. The Ten Commandments can be reduced to just two.
But, remember, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews, not 21st Century Christians. The question the Pharisee asked Jesus was, “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” He wasn’t asking about Moses’ TEN commandments, he was asking about the commandments of the Jewish law. The Jewish Law, which still applies to Jews today, was made up of SIX HUNDRED THIRTY ONE LAWS! And every good Jew was expected to know all of them!
If we look back at the first reading, every point the writer makes is one of the Jewish Laws. Don’t molest or oppress an alien. Don’t wrong widows and orphans. Don’t demand interest on a loan. If you take your neighbor’s cloak, give it back before sunset. There are 627 more. And observant Jews know all of them.
One of the Jewish laws is to “love all human beings who are of the covenant”, in other words, to love all other Jews. Another law says to “love the gentiles”. The Jewish laws did direct the Jews to love everyone, but Jesus wrapped up dozens of individual laws of the Old Covenant into one law of the New Covenant.
Even though the Jewish Law says to love one another, it does make some distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. For example, charging interest on a loan to a fellow Jew is prohibited in the law and in today’s first reading. But the law also says charging interest to a Gentile is mandatory.
The point is that today’s Gospel, which we’ve all heard dozens of times was a major shift in thinking about God. Don’t fear God. Love God. Love your neighbor. The two are one and the same. Our God’s not an angry God. He doesn’t kill people with swords. We don’t think of Him as being wrathful. We think of Him as Our Father.
When Jesus came, everything changed. He didn’t come to abolish the Jewish law, He came to fulfill it. At the time, the 631 individual laws made sense. They covered every area of life. The Jewish people weren’t just a religious group, they were also a society. Their laws were their constitution. Their laws protected them from making bad choices. In today’s world, our Church doesn’t care if you charge interest on a loan, as long as it’s not excessive. If you were to take out a loan from the Vatican bank, you’d better believe you’ll be charged interest.
There are a lot of Jewish dietary laws. Many of them make perfect sense, even today. “Don’t eat a worm found in a piece of fruit” is pretty good advice. “Not to eat or drink like a glutton or a drunkard” is also wise. Some of the laws about certain foods were written to keep people from poisoning themselves and that’s a good thing.
Without rules, it would be impossible for people to live together. You and I have rules where we work. If we’re retired, we still have rules we have to follow. If you’re married, there are rules you follow to keep a happy home. If there weren’t traffic laws, none of us would ever be able to go anywhere. There would be chaos. But it’s hard to find a rule about anything that doesn’t fall under “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” And “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Catholic Church has laws. They’re called Canon Laws. This is the Canon Law book. Thanks be to God you and I don’t have to memorize it. It’s nearly 2,000 pages long. I’m willing to bet that you don’t even own a copy of it. Frankly, if someone hadn’t given it to me, I wouldn’t own one either. It costs about $100.00. But it exists and there are people who do know it backwards and forward. They’re called Canon Lawyers.
When I studied Canon Law the instructor told us there was just one thing we needed to remember. It was the telephone number of the Office of Canon Law. They could answer any question.
The thing is, we need these rules and laws to maintain an orderly church. What happens at Saint John Nepomuk in Saint Louis is the same thing that happens at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague. At least that should be the case. It’s in the book.
But the point is, Jesus boiled all of this down for us into two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. If we judge everything we do according to those two simple sentences, we’re doing God’s will. Anything we do that’s contrary to those two sentences is against God’s will. It’s all so simple. And it’s all so very, very hard.
When we gossip; when we talk about people behind their backs, we’re not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we refuse to accept change because it’s not the way we’ve always done things, we’re not loving our neighbor either. When we criticize the Church and its leadership, we’re not loving God or our neighbors. When we don’t welcome strangers, we’re not doing God’s will. When we come to church with the attitude that “it’s all about me”, we’re violating God’s commandment. When we act like a Pharisee instead of like a disciple, we’re breaking the covenant that God made with us by the death of His Son.
Our faith is simple, but it’s not easy. The Pharisees thought they knew it all. They did everything they could to defeat Jesus, up to and including hanging Him on a cross. But they didn’t win. They committed the greatest Sin of all time. And Jesus lives! He’s alive for each of us and He’s in each of us. All we have to do is remember the two commandments He reminds us of today.
We’re called to constantly judge our actions against these two commandments. We have to ask ourselves, “Am I a Pharisee or am I a disciple?”