The Greatest Commandments

Sunday October 25, 2020 The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

The tie in between today’s readings: Impossible Love

Psalm 18:2-4;47-51, Exodus 22:20-26, 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Matthew 22:34-40

Today’s gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, opens with another question to Jesus from the Pharisees. They ask the Lord, “Which is the greatest commandment?” He gives them a two-part answer, “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Also, love your neighbor as yourself.”  All present agree with Christ that the whole Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Finally, common ground! Of course, this is the same crowd that will crucify Him in a mock trial, once again showing that there is a chasm between knowing something and doing it. Considering how high the bar is placed for us to obey these commands, this chasm is great indeed, but the benefits play out on so many levels.

Exodus 22:20-26 deals with these commandments from a different angle. The Lord is setting the conduct of His society. Using the obverse approach, instead of beckoning people toward Him in love, He threatens. Idolatry earns obliteration for straying away to other gods. Oppressing others brings the hammer of the Almighty on top of your head. You can easily fall into the cliché that Old Testament Jehovah is wrathful and New Testament Jesus is loving. Silly boy, they are the same God. It boils down to whether the application is personal or public. There is nothing wrong with codes that safeguard the wellbeing of individuals and in a Theocracy, such as it was in Israel’s case, worship of the one true God is paramount. Legislation that is written by any government to ensure fairness and order in society are always backed up with penalties. When it comes to laying down the law, there are never carrots…only sticks. While these are instituted for everyone’s good, the problem is that coercion is not conversion.  If the hearts of the people are not in it, rebellion ensues, which happened many times throughout the Jew’s history. We can see that something deeper must occur to apply these two great commandments to their full intent.

Today’s reading in Psalm 18:2-4 and 47-51 takes us a step closer. God is a hero, but not just any hero…my hero. He is my fortress. He saves me from my enemies. He gets revenge for me. My God is faithful forever! Daring deeds of deliverance usually elicit responses of thanks, admiration, and joy toward the rescuer. We are inspired to be like Him. To varying degrees, we take on His purposes as our life’s goal. We emulate the Lord in our own version of “paying it forward” and that’s a good thing. The world is in bad need of good deeds. However, while it is so much better than the coercion of the Law discussed earlier, this hero worship begs the question: where is the love? Let’s face it, there are many people who don’t give a hoot or have never even heard about Jesus that are doing great things to benefit humanity. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul gives us examples of grand works of charity and personal spiritual achievements, but trashes everything if it’s done lovelessly. No matter how good an action may be, the Lord looks at the heart to see if love is the motivation. In Jeremiah 17:9-10, God tells us that man’s heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. The love of God and man that the Lord commands and is looking for is naturally foreign to us. We worship God, pray to Him, and buy His merchandise. But there is a barrier that must be crossed to make a love connection with a Being so mysterious and so totally different than we are. We are helpless to do this. The Lord, Himself must make this happen. Until then, we may fool ourselves into thinking that we love Him, but in reality…we are only flirting.

God crosses this barrier to us in His Son. Jesus Christ jumped the gap from the spiritual to the physical. In His humanity, we not only get better acquainted with the Almighty, but by His sacrifice on the cross, we can be born again by faith into a new spiritual life with Him. We are no longer alien to each other. Through Christ, we become one with God. We know Him and He knows us. The indwelling God, The Holy Spirit, produces the real love that we need to fulfill the Great Commandments: agape love. It is this sacrificial supernatural love of God that the Spirit echoes back from us to the Creator with all our hearts, souls, and strength. It also spreads out to our neighbor and even to our enemy because they are made in the image and likeness of our God who we agape and agapes us. 1 John 4:7-21 sums this up best:

Beloved let’s love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God was revealed in us, that God has sent His only Son into the world so that we may live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we remain in Him and He in us, because He has given to us of His Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. 16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. 17 By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, we also are in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us. 20 If someone says, “I love God,” and yet he hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother and sister whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God must also love his brother and sister.

The effect of all this is picked up in our reading in 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10. St. Paul reminds this church that the gospel of salvation came to them in power and the Holy Spirit. Just as the Lord had changed the hearts of the apostle and his missionary entourage, God had worked His agape miracle in their hearts too. In fact, word had spread back to Paul about the reputation of the believers at Thessalonica. They had turned from idols to the true God and their conduct as imitators of Jesus had become a model for the other churches to copy. They were living proof of the power of God in them fulfilling the Great Commandments. Their work is finished. It is our turn now. Let us grow in Christ and –as imperfect as we are– move toward knowing God, loving God, and serving others.

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