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What lies behind the Law of Moses

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Gospel Commentary Oct 25, Mt 22:34-40

Those pesky Pharisees. They’ve already tried to test Jesus a few times. In different encounters, they’ve questioned his authority, probing him a bit to see where he stands on an issue or to entangle him in speech. So far, they’ve been unable to get him to make a misstep. This time, one of them poses the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This question may not seem as difficult as those they’ve tried before. What exactly is at stake?

Immediately before this encounter, Jesus had silenced the Sadducees when they tried to stump him. This revealed that Jesus held anti-Sadducee (and pro-Pharisee) positions on the resurrection of the dead and on the existence of angels. A compelling question is now on the Pharisees’ minds. Could Jesus possibly be on their side? The only way to find out is to test him further.

So they decide to ask him about the law. The Law of Moses contains a total of 613 commandments, and different rabbinical currents held various legal opinions. The Pharisees tended to emphasize the fact that all 613 commandments have equal binding force. God commanded them all, didn’t he? So they are all equal in value, and it doesn’t make sense to rank them. 

Hence a Pharisee asks Jesus this question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” If Jesus declined to pick just one commandment as the greatest, this would further indicate his pro-Pharisee sentiments. If he gave another answer, however, it would open him up to attack; this scholar, who knew the law so well, could question why he chose that commandment rather than another, or why he chose one at all.

 And we know what Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He clearly chooses a side. He explains further: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Every time others approach Jesus intending to trap him, not only does Jesus avoid such a trap, but he also uses it as an opportunity to teach something marvelous. That whole great body of law hangs on two commandments: love of God and love of neighbor.

If one takes the Pharisaical approach to the law, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that something is behind that long list of rules. Behind it all is a lawgiver — a lawgiver with thought, reason, wisdom — and the laws he gives are an expression of his wisdom. So they can be ordered. There is a structure to them. Some laws hang on others. Everything in the law has a reason behind it, even if that reason is not apparent to us. And that reason ultimately is love. Obedience to God’s law forms us to be able to love God and neighbor, while disobedience to any part of God’s law deforms us and makes us less capable of real love.

The problem of the Pharisees is not that they stress obedience to the law. It’s that they miss the deeper meaning behind such obedience. The law given to us by God hangs on love and is infused, through and through, with love. Although this Gospel passage is dealing with the 613 commandments of the Old Law, the same point holds true for the New Law. Everything Jesus has taught, in his earthly life and through his church, hangs on love as well. 

You can take anything taught or prescribed by the church and ask yourself: Do I see this as just another rule on a checklist, or do I see how it flows from the wisdom of God and hangs on love? We abstain from meat on Fridays, for example. Why? Because Our Lord sacrificed his flesh for us on a Friday. Abstaining is a small thing in and of itself, but to do so in obedience to the church is an act of love for Our Lord, while disobedience indicates a clear lack of love. Without love, it hardly makes sense as a practice. With love, even the smallest of our actions takes on great significance.

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020