By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4,47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40
The context of this Sunday’s first reading is the encounter of the Israelites with the Lord God at Mt. Sinai, three months after the Exodus from Egypt. The general headline of this section is “The Covenant at Sinai.” Moses is their leader. He approaches God on the mountain and receives general instructions on what is about to happen. After the brief encounter with the Lord, Moses summons the elders of the people and solicits a promise from them, “All that the Lord has said we will do.” He relays their promise to the Lord. Preparations for their encounter with God were made — washing their clothes and waiting for the third day. A solemn warning came from the Lord to stay off the mountain: “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, a trumpet blast. The mountain was wrapped in smoke because the Lord came down on the mountain in fire. There was an earthquake, and trumpet blasts grew ever louder. Moses leads the people out to meet God, but only to the boundaries set earlier. This may all seem strange to us, but one has to admit, the Lord knew how to get their attention!
The Lord reveals the stipulations of the treaty, the Sinai Covenant. First, the Big Ten, the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. Many Christians may not be aware that the Ten Commandments are only the beginning of the laws that were to govern relations to God, to fellow humans and to everything else. The scribes identify 613 commandments, including the Ten. Among the topics covered by the laws: the altar, slaves, tithes, firstborn son, enemies, the Sabbath and the sabbatical year, feast days, and entry into the Land of Promise. Laws included in today’s first reading: reverence and care to strangers, “because you yourselves were at one time stranger’s in Egypt.” Care and justice for widows and orphans, with terrible consequences for infringement: “My wrath will fly up and I will kill you with the sword, making your wives widows and your children orphans.” Money lending to a poor neighbor must be done without collecting interest. If someone desperate borrowed money, and left his cloak as a pledge to repay, “You shall return it before sunset, because he has to wrap himself in it to sleep. A final warning, “If he cries out to me, I will hear him, because I am compassionate.” Why this reading? These are examples of laws that come into play when in today’s gospel a Scripture scholar asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the Torah is the greatest?”
The Responsorial Psalm 18 is a very long psalm. It is known as a Song of Triumph for a King. However, the verses selected should rather be called a Hymn of Praise for God. God is called “my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my refuge, my shield, my salvation, my stronghold, my savior.” And because God is all of this, the people respond, “I love you, Lord my strength.” The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul continues his praise of his Greek “parishioners” in Thessalonica. Because they became imitators of himself in receiving him and his preaching in great affliction, “you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia,” (the two divisions of Greece at that time). The “great affliction” of which Paul writes may be seen in Acts of Apostles 17:1-9. He praises his new Christians for their honorable treatment of himself when he preached among them. They turned from the worship of pagan deities to worship of the true God. Paul only touches upon the matter that was their greatest concern, “to await his Son from heaven,” that is, the return of Jesus.
In last Sunday’s gospel the scribes who belonged to the Pharisee party attempted to trick Jesus into a misspeak, so that he could be in trouble with the Roman occupying forces or with the people who believed in him. After he silenced them with a clever and profound answer, members of the Sadducee party approached him, attempting to ridicule the Pharisee teaching of a resurrection from the dead. This episode is not included in the Year A gospel readings. Instead, we move on to an episode that is not so confrontational as preceding parables and discussions.
Matthew copies this episode from the Gospel of Mark, where it is a friendly discussion. Matthew makes a slight change to make it seem more confrontational, but his attempt does not succeed. The scribes noticed how Jesus had defeated the Sadducees attempt to deny the resurrection of the dead, so they decided to appoint one of their group to discuss with Jesus a question that to them was a major question, “Teacher, which is the great(est) commandment in the Torah (the Law)?” As noted above, the scribes identified 613 commandments. So which is #1? Jesus quotes part of a commandment dear to every faithful Jew: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with your whole mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). To this, Jesus adds, “This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
This greatest commandment is known by its Hebrew title, the Shemah, which means “Hear” or “Listen!” But, according to Jesus, it does not stand alone. He continues, “The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a quote from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus’ final statement on the matter, “The whole Torah (Law) and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” Who is a neighbor? In the context from which Jesus quotes Leviticus, a neighbor is a fellow Israelite. The Torah had already expanded the meaning of neighbor to strangers and travelers living among the Israelites, loving them with food and clothing (Deut. 10:18-19). In the Sermon on the Mountain, Matthew 5:43-46, Jesus expands neighborly love even to one’s enemies, “so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, 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.” Christianity is not easy!