Most Christians know little about the 613 laws of Moses which all Jews have a responsibility to obey. And what they do know probably comes from the gospel confrontations between Jesus and a group of ultra strict observers of the law: the Pharisees. Yet contrary to popular Christian tradition, it’s clear from Matthew’s gospel that the historical Jesus doesn’t trash the Mosaic Law. As a reformer of Judaism, he simply encourages people to stop emphazing the law’s minutiae. He demands that they return to the heart and soul of those ancient regulations; to once again develop proper relations with God and one another: the core of all biblical laws. Unless we understand this, we can’t understand today’s gospel pericope.
Were a Jew to wander into one of this weekend’s liturgies, he or she might think they were participating in one of their Sabbath synagogue services.
The lawyer asks Jesus a question which faithful Jews frequently ask: “Which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Out of the 613, which regulation is the most important?
Jesus, the good Jewish teacher, doesn’t hesitate. He first reminds the lawyer of the prayer he and all Jews recite every morning – the “Shema.” Based on Deuteronomy 6:4-5, it begins, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. Therefore you shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Agreeing with the Jewish teachers of his day and age, Jesus tells his questioner, “This is the greatest and first commandment.” Then, agreeing with his prophetic predecessors, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18, “The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” His final statement resonates not only in the heart of all Christians, but also in the heart of all Jews: “On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well.”
The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures constantly struggle against those who put a disconnect between these two laws. That’s why they so consistently condemn the “good folk” whose religious obligations consist only in fulfilling the law’s liturgical demands, and who conveniently ignore their responsibility to one another.
Today’s Exodus passage fits in the mainstream of that prophetic teaching. The author informs his readers that they best serve Yahweh when they serve the most powerless in their communities: the resident alien, the orphan, the widow and the desperate poor. (The latter must be in dire straits if the only thing they can offer as collateral for a loan is their cloak!) In each of these cases, the one God has become one with those who are society’s most insignificant members.
In the oldest Christian writing we possess – I Thessalonians – Paul joyfully tells his readers that he received biblically inspired treatment when he arrived to evangelize them. “People . . . openly declare . . . what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God . . .” As we heard last week, the Thessalonian community demonstrated its faith in “a labor of love.” Their faith guaranteed that they would be more than just “liturgically active.”
If the historical Jesus and his first followers demanded that people return to the roots of their faith, why would we think that the risen Jesus and his true followers in our midst today wouldn’t want us to do the same?
Our all too frequent emphasis on the peripheral and minutiae of our faith place us squarely on the side of those “good people” who fought with or ignored Jesus, not on the side of those who courageously accepted and imitated Jesus.