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The Equal Commandments

The readings for Sunday, October 26, 2014, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.

In a series of confrontations with religious authorities in Jerusalem, Jesus first astounded a delegation of Pharisees and partisans of the Herod family who were rulers of parts of Palestine through appointment by the Roman emperor and senate. That confrontation was last Sunday’s gospel reading and treated Matthew’s catechetical instruction about paying taxes. The Sadducees are next. They were the upper crust of the temple priesthood plus wealthy and powerful laymen. Their question was about the resurrection of the dead, which they denied. Jesus’ answer puts them to shame, and they move on. The episode with the Sadducees is not part of Cycle A, this year’s readings.

Matthew introduces the next confrontation, “But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees,” they sent one of their learned men, an expert in the Law of Moses (the Torah) to question Jesus about a topic debated among the scholars. The question: “Which is the great commandment in the Torah?” Jesus answers by a quote of part of a profession of faith known to every pious Jew, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with your whole mind.” This profession of faith, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, is called the Shema, a Hebrew word for “Hear!” or “Listen!” Jesus adds, “This is the great and the first commandment.” This commandment does not stand alone in the teaching of Jesus. There is a test by which we will know whether or not we love God with our whole being. That test is phrased in Jesus’ quote from Leviticus 19:18, when Jesus says, “The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is interesting to note that Jesus seems to be the first to put on an equal basis the command of love of neighbor and the command to love God with one’s whole being. There is no clear evidence of the equality of the two commandments in Jewish literature outside the New Testament. In a 2nd century B.C. document called “The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs,” there are instances of the two commandments being connected but they are not put on an equal basis. A great Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria (late 1st century B.C to early 1st century A.D) comes closest. He writes, “Among the great number of particular propositions (studied in Sabbath schools), two …stand as preeminent topics, one of duty toward God in piety and holiness, one of duty toward human beings in generosity and justice.”

In the context of Leviticus 19:18 a “neighbor” is a fellow-Israelite, as we see from words preceding verse 18, “You shall not hate your brother (another Israelite) in your heart …. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people.” A later law, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 extends love of neighbor to a “sojourner,” the stranger (non-Israelite) living among them, “The Lord … loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The first reading of this Sunday, Exodus 22:20-26, has a similar command, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Mark and Luke have the same encounter between Jesus and this learned scribe, although there are minor differences in presentation. In Luke the scholar wants a further explanation, and asks, “So who is my neighbor?” Luke adds the story of the Good Samaritan to give an example of the meaning of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, that this love must extend beyond the boundaries set by society, history, tradition, and personal prejudice. We can add to Matthew’s brief instruction by asking the same question, “So who is my neighbor?” Matthew has a different way of answering this question than Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan. The answer is his Sermon on the Mountain.

In Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, society, history, tradition, and prejudice determined  that Samaritans and Jews were enemies. But the Samaritan does not recognize such a limitation and becomes the Good Samaritan.

It is clear that in the New Testament the word “neighbor” takes on universal meaning in the teaching of Jesus. The same must be said of documents other than the gospels. St. Paul, in Galatians 5:14, comments “The whole Torah is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The First Letter of John 4:20 connects the two commandments to love God and neighbor, “If anyone says he loves God and hates his neighbor, he is a liar.”

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