Exodus 22: 20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1: 5-10; Matthew 22: 34-40
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, there runs a constant subplot of Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees because their rhetoric and their insistence on keeping the minutiae of the Law didn’t measure up to their behavior (don’t do as I do, do as I say). They weren’t being faithful to the teaching of the prophets, outlined by Moses’ call to look after strangers, widows and orphans. Instead they lorded it over people, and made demands which left poor people helpless and often hopeless too.
Suddenly, once more Jesus presents a radically different overview: every law, every guideline, every commandment can be summed up in two great commandments: love of God and neighbour.
Now while the letter of the law might change depending upon the age and cultural context in which we live (laws of fasting from midnight before Holy Communion, and abstinence), the spirit of the law doesn’t. These two great commandments have never changed, and never will.
So, we might ask, what’s the point in the detail? As they say;- “when you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s difficult to remind yourself that your original objective was to drain the swamp.” Day to day reality means that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and we sometimes need specific guidance to help us negotiate and deal with the interferences and obstacles which life throws our way.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees can challenge us in our own time. In every community, there’s always a temptation to maintain order and control by laying down the law – that’s the easy way, the simple way. And the same can go for the Church if it tries to misuse power by believing that maintaining the structures is all that really matters (the Friday abstinence and mortal sin I limbo). Jesus reverses things and places the powerful at the service of all (I came to serve … “).
The only criterion by which we can judge ourselves is the law of love; and to be able to love, we have to be free, even free to make mistakes.
Two thousand years on, what kind of example do we give to each other and to those around us. If we start with tiny steps, treating each other with basic fairness and respect, then perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of the love which Jesus tells us about There are still millions of strangers, widows and orphans who cry out for our love and care. And what of our contemporary beggars – the asylum seekers, the feckless, those who simply can’t cope with life? How do we reach out to them? Christian love demands that we respect them, overcoming our prejudices and stereotyping in order to see them simply as brothers and sisters, fellow human beings in need.