Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Exodus 22:20-26; Response: Psalm 18: 2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5c-10; Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40

Context of the first reading: The encounter between God and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, resulting in their formation as a people and nation with divinely given laws, Exodus 19-24. The time is the 13th century B.C., three months after the Exodus from Egypt. Moses’ first action is to ascend Mt. Sinai to get instructions from God. He returns to the Israelite encampment and summons the elders to relay God’s instructions. The rules for the people’s encounter with God: wash their clothes, wait three days, stay off the mountain. The Lord was deadly serious: “Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death ... by stoning or being shot with an arrow.” When the ram’s horn sounded on the third day, they could go up the mountain; but until then, no marital relations. The third day opens with thunder, lightning, a dark cloud and a trumpet blast. The mountain was covered with smoke because the Lord came onto the mountain with fire. There was an earthquake. Trumpet blasts grew ever louder. Moses leads the people toward God, but only as far as previously agreed boundaries.

All seems strange; but we have to admit, God knew how to prepare a stage and sound effects for the drama about to take place. The name of the drama: The Sinai Covenant. We are more used to the word treaty, an agreement between two parties; though, in this treaty, the Lord God dictates the terms, and the Israelites get to agree to them. The Lord identifies himself: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt ….” That deed establishes his right to set the terms of the treaty. He lays out the Ten Commandments. They are the preface to the many laws that were to govern relations to God, to fellow humans, to beasts and much more. The scribes identify 613 commandments, including the Big Ten. Some of the laws form the first reading of today’s liturgy. They must respect aliens living among them. The word alien does not refer to extra-terrestrials, but to non-Israelites. The reason for respect: The Israelites were, at one time, also aliens living in Egypt. The Lord will protect widows and orphans from those who prey upon their weakness after their husband and father died. The Lord threatens terrible consequences for breaking this law: “I will kill you with a sword. Then, your own wives will be widows and orphans.” No interest may be charged when lending money to a poor neighbor. If a poor man borrowed money and left his cloak as a pledge to repay, the cloak must be returned before dark because that is the only cover he has.

Since the Lord showed such power on Mt. Sinai, Psalm 18 responds with a litany of chosen terms recognizing such power. The psalmist calls the Lord, “my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my rock of refuge, my shield, my salvation, my stronghold, my savior.” For all these benefits, he loves and praises the Lord. The last selected verse of the psalm identifies the speaker as an anointed king to whom God gave great victories.

The second reading continues a series begun last Sunday from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. First, Paul praises his own conduct among them. Because they became imitators of himself and Jesus they, in turn, became role models for all believers in Greece. He enkindled a fire in them, the enthusiasm of new converts, “so that in every place your faith in God has gone forth.” He adds, “so we have no need to say anything.” That, however, does not stop him from adding much more.

The confrontations between Jesus and the religious leadership in Jerusalem continue. Today’s gospel omits a confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus overcame their intended ridicule and showed them to be in error. Matthew notes that the Pharisees heard how Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. It was now the Pharisees’ turn to challenge him with a question. This seems not so much a confrontation as a discussion. They delegated a scribe, a Scripture scholar, to the task. His question: “Teacher, which commandment in the Torah (the laws of Moses) is the greatest?” As noted in the comments above on the first reading, the scribes found 613 laws in the Torah. Of these, 238 were positive (i.e. “Thou shalt”), and 365 were negative (i.e. “Thou shalt not”). There were too many to keep track of all of them. The scribes had already attempted to make things easier by dividing the 613 into heavy and light commandments. The great scribe Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, attempted to help the situation by summarizing the Torah in one commandment, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary on it. Go and learn it.”

Jesus’ answer to the question is a quote from part of the Shema, the basic creed of Jewish faith in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “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 more original part of Jesus’ answer is to proclaim a second law from the Torah as just as important. Jesus says, “The second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” To which he adds, “The whole Torah and the prophets (two of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures) depend on these two commandments.” The commandment of love of neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18. In that context, a neighbor is a fellow-Israelite. However, the Torah itself already expanded the meaning of neighbor to strangers living among Israelites, loving them with food and clothing (see Deuteronomy 10:18-19). In the Sermon on the Mountain, Matthew 5:43-46 extends love of neighbor even to one’s enemies: “… so that you may be children of your heavenly Father, who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Like the scribe Hillel quoted above, Jesus made love of neighbor easy, “Whatever you wish that people do to you, do so to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). 1 John 4:20 has an interesting comment on love of others: “Anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”