First reading: Exodus 22:20-26.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 17(18):2-4, 47, 51.
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10.
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40.
Link to readings.
The theme uniting today's readings, the unity between the love of God and love of neighbour, goes to the very heart of the Christian religion. It seems that the two commandments, existing separately in the Old Testament (see Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18), were brought together by Jesus. But in uniting them he drew directly upon the tradition of his people where all commandments regulating behaviour towards others were enclosed within the overall covenant commitment to God.
This can clearly be seen in the First Reading, Exod 22:20-26, which offers a brief extract from the "Book of the Covenant" (20:22-23:33). The prescriptions mentioned here all have to do with responsibilities towards the vulnerable in the society. First, the familiar triad: "the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land". Since family and kinship ties were the chief and really the only "safety net" against misfortune, persons in these categories lacked protection and so were particularly exposed to ill-treatment and exploitation. The Lord inculcates a responsible and compassionate attitude towards them by reminding Israelites that once-in Egypt-they were collectively in a similarly vulnerable situation, until God heard their cries of distress and rescued them. That experience should make them understand what it is like to be oppressed. It should also remind them that the Lord who heard their cries and punished their Egyptian oppressors will not fail to hear the cries of the vulnerable in Israel and act in like manner on their behalf.
We have here a classic instance of the biblical theme, emerging equally strongly in the teaching of Jesus, that God takes the side of the poor and disadvantaged. In modern parlance, God has a "preferential option" for the poor. The theme continues in the regulations regarding loans. Taking interest is ruled out-at least as regards fellow Israelites and the poor. And, if a poor man's cloak is taken as surety, it must be returned by nightfall lest he suffer cold during the night-a concrete prescription that powerfully illustrates God's sense of the vulnerability of the poor and identification with their cause.
Against this Old Testament background, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, Matt 22:34-40, does not seem all that novel. In Matthew's account (contrast Mark 12:28-34) the question about the chief commandment of the law comes as a further hostile attempt to put Jesus to the test. Throughout this gospel, he has been at odds with the scribes and Pharisees concerning the proper interpretation of the Law (Torah) of Moses. Jesus has insisted that he is not setting aside the least commandment of the law (5:17-19). But, in contrast to the "burden-imposing" interpretation of the scribes (see 23:4), he is authoritatively promulgating a "burden-lifting" interpretation of the Torah by insisting that it must be interpreted according to "what God wants"-and what God wants, as indicated in the prophet Hosea (6:6) is "mercy, before sacrifice" (Matt 9:13; 12:7).
This is why, when faced with a question concerning which of the commandments of the law is the greatest, Jesus has no hesitation in uniting the two commandments concerning love. The second commandment is "like" the first in the sense that it flows immediately from the nature of Israel's God, who has so identified with the cause and situation of human beings. To love God with all one's heart and soul and mind-an echo of the Shema recited by all Israelites on rising every morning (Deut 6:4-5)-is to love those whom God loves: one's fellow human beings, especially the vulnerable and the poor.
The command "to love one's neighbour as oneself" occurs already in Lev 19:18. Down the ages, there have been many interpretations as to what loving other human beings "as oneself" might mean. In biblical terms, as the First Reading suggests, it seems to imply putting oneself-at least imaginatively-in the neighbour's shoes and asking what then would I really want, how would I like to be treated. Better still, perhaps, it means taking pains to find out from the neighbour what exactly their desire might be. This is the point, surely, of all those biblical reminders to Israel of what it was like when they were slaves in Egypt, strangers and wanderers in a foreign land. All truly effective works of charity and justice begin from a similar base, from compassion ("experiencing with") in the deepest sense.
The Second Reading, 1 Thess 1:5-10, shows Paul at his pastoral best. At the start of his letters (Galatians is the only exception), before any word of exhortation and warning, he reminds the community he is addressing of how gifted they are, how richly blessed by God, and how rightly full of hope for what still lies ahead. Paul sets a paradigm here for all good pastoral practice.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media