Tumultuous Tuesday – Friday, 20th week in ordinary time- Matthew 22: 34-40
On Wednesday we were in chapter twenty of our lectionary; on Friday we find ourselves in chapter twenty two. In this period, Jesus has foretold His death for the third time, healed two blind men, entered Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) cleansed the temple and headed to Bethany. On the way back He curses a fig tree and then gets into an argument with the chief priests and elders to whom He addresses three parable of judgment. Whew! It seems like the gentle flowing brook turned into a gushing river; all with the turn of one page!
This brings us to chapter twenty two, where the temple becomes an intellectual battleground between Jesus and various religious groups. Jesus finds Himself engaged by the religious establishments in a political, theological and spiritual debate; all with the hope that He would make an error and so give cause to be arrested.
The opening attack comes from the Pharisees, whose queries were asked with the sole intention to trap Him (22: 15). They begin with a political question; should one pay taxes or not? Jesus’ answer leaves them ‘amazed’, compelling them to leave Him; save face and go away. However they were followed by the Sadducees (verse 23) who fundamentally rejected the resurrection or the belief in angels. Yet they pose a bizarre and most hypothetical theological question on the resurrection.
When they too are left silenced (verse 34) the Pharisees return; now having licked their wounds. They enter the ring; round two has begun! This time however the attack formation is abandoned in favour of what must have seemed as a more subtle single combat. Their spokesperson was a lawyer. The date chosen was the Tuesday in Holy Week. His question and Jesus’ answer forms the heart of today’s gospel.
We must be careful not understand the lawyer as we understand modern day legal eagles of our justice system. The lawyer mentioned in the Gospel was a scribe who was learned in the Torah. The question he poses encapsulates the Pharisaic obsession; to grasp in a nutshell the summary of the law of Israel or an elucidation of its core. For the Pharisees and scribes, the minute and scrupulous practice of the law had become far more important than its intention. The law was merely a body with no soul.
In citing a double commandment, Jesus puts the ‘heart’ back in to the law. Loving God was beyond a doubt the most important aspect, but it did not make sense if it was not accompanied by the law of love for God’s people.
The love of God is not some mushy emotional feeling, but implies covenantal fidelity. Our love for God is a covenant and not a contract. This implies that our love must go beyond the demands of contractual agreements, for it demands a love with all ‘one’s heart, mind and soul’. The covenantal love of God is not some ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’! Covenantal love demands more, even when not asked or mandated.
The command to love God, permeated the consciousness of every Jew, for it was imprinted in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5) and in their hearts. However, what also formed an essential commandment of the law but perhaps a less central text in Jewish liturgy was ‘the love for one’s neighbour in the same manner as one loved Himself.’ This law of Leviticus 19:18 is not merely written as a curb on some narcissistic love, but an encouragement of love that finds balance by loving others in the same measure.
In pronouncing the importance of these two commandments, on which ‘hang all the law and the prophets’, Jesus contradicted the rabbinical view of the law. For the rabbis, the world hung on the Torah till it resembled a stand of hair that held the weight of a mountain; more law, less love.
In bringing the vertical and horizontal dimensions of love together, Jesus enunciates a holistic spirituality. The covenantal relationship with God is also a call to a covenantal relationship with one another. Those who believe that salvation is merely a practice of the vertical dimension of God and self, end up looking like poles facing heavenwards; directionless and meaningless. But to this vertical pole, if the horizontal dimension of the love for one another is added, then there appears the symbol of the cross.
Fr Warner D’Souza
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