Friday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 22:34-40

Matthew’s gospel is building up to its climax. The continued confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders is leading to the final showdown. It had been described symbolically in the parable we heard yesterday.

This parable is followed in Matthew by three encounters where Jesus’ opponents try to wrongfoot him by showing him to be in opposition to the Law. There is the famous scene where he is asked whether it is right to pay tribute to Caesar or not. The question is put in such a way that, no matter what answer he gives, he will say the wrong thing. This is followed by the Saduccees, who did not believe in the after life, bringing up what they thought was an insoluble problem for those who did believe in the resurrection of the dead.

In both cases, Jesus dealt expeditiously with his questioners and left them with no comeback.

Today we read of a third encounter. The Pharisees, who were very pleased that the Sadducees had been silenced by Jesus, now had their own challenge for him. They asked him:

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

This was a much-discussed question among the experts. There were more than 600 laws and it was common to ask which ones were of greater importance than others.

Jesus responds very quickly, not by using his own words but quoting from the Books of the Law themselves. And his answer contains not one but two laws:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Deut 6:5)

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Lev 19:18)

They both have the word ‘love’ in common. It is important to be aware that the word translated ‘love’ here is the verb agapeo, from which we get agape and not phileo. Agape can be described as an intense desire for the good or the well-being of the other. Philia, on the other hand, implies friendship and affection. We are not asked to have affection for each other, only to work for the good of the other, no matter what that person is like.

And, from the Gospel (see Matt 25) we know that not only are these two commandments similar, they are complementary and inseparable. In other words, it is not possible to love God and not love the neighbour and vice versa.

So Jesus is, strictly speaking, answering their question about the “greatest commandment” (singular). The greatest commandment is simultaneously to love God and neighbour. And, in Luke’s gospel, the identity of the “neighbour” will be clearly shown, although it is also in fact clearly indicated later in Matt 25:

I was hungry, thirsty…just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters…you did it to me.

Jesus says:

On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

In other words, the whole of the Old Testament teaching is linked to these two laws. The Law was contained in the Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible; the Prophets included both the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), but also the twelve minor prophets as well as the so-called ‘former’ prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Also included were the Writings, the Wisdom books.

And Jesus is saying that as long as one is truly loving God and the neighbour, the rest of the Law will take care of itself. And there may even be times when such love will transcend and override the requirements of some laws. No truly loving act can ever be sinful.

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