Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
The Sadducees were silenced last week when they asked if it was lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not. In today’s Gospel the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus by asking the question above. There were 613 laws in the Torah. Jesus was critical of the Pharisees’ emphasis on minutiae. For instance, they “pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.” And in one of scripture’s most biting put-downs, he accuses them of “straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel” (Mt 23:23-24). By concentrating on legal trivia, they were ignoring the purpose and thrust of the entire law. They were missing the obvious.
During Jesus’ historical ministry, every Jewish man was expected to greet the sunrise by praying the Shema. Taken from Deuteronomy 6, the prayer begins, “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Nothing can or should replace this fundamental law of Judaism. In Jesus’ mind, there can be no question about which of the 613 is “the greatest.” The 612 other laws only exist because of the Israelites covenant with Yahweh.
But then he quickly joins the second most important regulation to the first, quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is reminding the Pharisees of something they already knew.
In one of Judaism’s most treasured stories, the famous teacher Hillel responded to a gentile’s taunt to teach him the entire Torah in the time it took him to stand on one foot. Hillel responded: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.” Love of others is a constant for anyone who enters a relationship with Yahweh.
There is an important aspect to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. “As much as” is another way of saying “equals.” Love of neighbor equals love of self. Jesus is saying that the more you love your neighbor; the more you’re loving yourself; the less you love your neighbor; the less you are loving yourself. Jesus is telling us that living a fulfilled life revolves around constantly giving ourselves to those with whom we share that life.
Our first reading from Exodus demonstrates a few practical ways in which one is expected to love one’s neighbor. More than anything we are to take care of those who traditionally are unable to care for themselves. Ancient Israel had three groups who fit that category: orphans, widows and resident aliens. There’s no one to guarantee their rights: no parents in the case of the orphan; no husband for a widow; and almost no one for the resident alien. Without the help of others, they are on their own, at a time and in a place in which more powerful people can and will run roughshod over them. The Israelites are to remember their own experiences of helplessness when they were enslaved and refugees.
Above all Yahweh reminds them, “I am compassionate.” We are called to that kind of compassion for others. (Taken from Fr. Roger Karban’s reflection in Celebration)
Next weekend we will have our Candle Memorial when we remember loved ones who have died this past year. You are invited to carry a candle into church and name your loved one. After mass you take the candle to your home to serve as a reminder that their light still shines in your hearts as you continue to remember them.