GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
This is a really important teaching for the history of the Church because in it Jesus gives us the essence of the law, the essence of what it means to follow the will of God.
He kind of boils it all down to the most important points.
And so we want to ask what did he mean when he answered this question?
What would he have been understood to have meant in his first century Jewish setting?
And then what does he mean today for us as well?
So in Matthew 22:34-40, this is what happens:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sad'ducees, they came together.
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"
And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment.
And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."
Unlike some of the previous Gospels we've had in previous weeks, this is a very short text.
It is a very short Gospel.
But there's a lot going on here and there's a lot to unpack.
So let's walk through it together.
First of all, the setting.
When it says that a lawyer came up to Jesus and asked him a question — in the Revised Standard Version translation — what that really means is a doctor of the law.
The word law, nómos
in Greek, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew expression torah,
which simply refers to the law of God, the law of Israel, and was a kind of shorthand way for talking about the Scriptures, the Jewish Torah, especially the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Those were, for Jews, the Torah, the heart of the Jewish Scriptures.
You can even say that the five books of Moses were for the Jewish people what the four Gospels are for Christians.
They are the foundation of the rest of the Scriptures.
They are the foundation of the rest of the Old Testament, just like the Gospels are the foundation of the New Testament.
So what this lawyer is basically asking him is, what's the greatest commandment in the Pentateuch, in the five books of Moses?
And if you have read the first five books of the Bible, you know they are long, they are detailed, and there are a lot of laws and a lot of commandments in them.
In fact, by traditional Jewish counting, Moses gives the people of Israel in the first five books 613 laws.
And basically what this lawyer, this doctor of the law, this biblical scholar — that is basically what he was, a Jewish biblical scholar — is asking Jesus is which one of the 613 is the most important?
What's the greatest of all the laws?
Now if I were to ask you what is the first commandment, which can mean both the first in numbering but also the first in greatness, you might be inclined to say the first of the Ten Commandments.
So Jesus could have legitimately answered the guys question by going back to the Decalogue, the 10 words of God, the Ten Commandments of Moses in Exodus 20.
He could have said to this Jewish scholar that the first commandment is of course the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other gods before me.”
The prohibition against idolatry.
But Jesus doesn't do that, he doesn't go to the negative prohibition that Moses gives to Israel in the Ten Commandments.
Instead he goes to the positive law from Moses in the book of Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
So if you go back to Deuteronomy 6:4-6, this passage is called, in Jewish tradition, the Shema.
The Hebrew word Shema
means hear or listen.
And they call this passage the Shema from the very first Hebrew word, because in Deuteronomy 6:4 it says
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And it goes on to say:
And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart;
and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Wow! That's pretty important. So the verses in Deuteronomy 6:4-6, “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might,” that verse, the Shema, became for Jews a kind of creed. They would actually recite it, following the words of Moses here, when they rose in the morning, when they went about (so they would do it at midday), and then also when they would lie down (so they would do it in the evening). And the custom developed of reciting the Shema multiple times a day. As far as we can tell, three times a day was the norm: morning, noon and evening. Morning, noon and evening you would recite these words over and over again: “Hear O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” So what Jesus is doing here, when he answers the Hebrew scholars question, is on the one hand he's kind of doing something unexpected. He is not pointing to the first of the Commandments. On the other hand, he is doing something really commonplace by pointing to the most well-known verses of the Bible for any Jew in the first century A.D. So the Shema for Jews was the equivalent of the Our Father for Catholics.
A lot of Catholics aren’t familiar with chapter and verses in the Bible. And sometimes our non-Catholic brothers and sisters can give us a hard time with that, because they will frequently memorize verses and memorize the chapter and verse where certain key passages are located, and Catholics can feel a little intimidated. But I always try to tell Catholic students of mine, if anyone says to you, well do you know the Bible chapter and verse, you should always say well yes, I know Matthew 6:9-13. Let me recite it for you: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name… That passage from Scripture is well known to Christians because traditionally it actually would also be recited three times a day. That was a standard Catholic thing for a long time. Not just a long time, but since the first century. In the Didache, it is an ancient Christian writing from the 1st century A.D., it said pray the Our Father three times a day; morning, noon, and evening as a kind of fulfillment of the Jewish praying of the Shema. That is kind of a long side note, but it is important to see that Jesus is taking this prayer which he himself would have recited three times a day as a faithful Jew — Mary and Joseph, they would've prayed the Shema over and over again — he takes this creed of the Jewish people and he says this is the greatest commandment. You are to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, which would mean your will, with all of your soul, which is the image of your life — the nephesh is the soul in the Old Testament, it is a Hebrew word for life — and with all of your mind, Jesus says as well, in other words with your intellect. So it's a kind of composite but complete picture of the human person. In other words, you will love God with all that you have and with all that you are.
Now before we go to the second commandment, which Jesus will say is you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I think it's actually important to point out one more parallel from Jewish tradition. I found this really helpful for sharing with people about the meaning of the text. So there is a tradition in the collection of ancient Jewish beliefs and traditions, known as the Babylonian Talmud. This comes from around the 3rd to 5th century A.D. There is a tradition of a very famous rabbi who lived a little after the time of Jesus called Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva was martyred by the Romans. He was actually skinned alive by the Romans. The story of his martyrdom gives us a little bit of an insight into the importance of the Shema for the Jewish people, as well as into Jesus' interpretation here. So in the Babylonian Talmud — I have a copy right here — he gives this tradition. It says:
When Rabbi Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour of the recital of the Shema',
In other words, it was the time for prayer, the time for reciting I am the LORD your God; you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might. And it says:
and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingdom of heaven.
Which means he was reciting the prayer.
His disciples said to him, "Our teacher, even to this point?”
In other words, “are you still going to be reciting the Shema?
He said to them, "All my days I have been troubled by this verse: 'With all your soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if he takes your soul'. I said, 'When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this verse'? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it?” So he prolonged the word echad [='one'] until he expired while saying it.
That is a powerful story. What does it show? Well it says that Rabbi Akiva basically was saying “I never really understood what it meant to love God with all your soul until this moment, until I give my very life for the love of God.” So as he's reciting this prayer, when he gets to the word the LORD is your God, the LORD is one, he dies and gives his life for God. So in that context I hope you can see why Jesus might've said that loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind, and strength was the most important. It's about a total gift of self to God, even unto death, which is what Jesus himself is going to do, obviously, on the cross.
But then Jesus gives us a second commandment as well. He says “there is a second commandment that's like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
A couple of points. Number one, notice what Paul says here:
...our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
Now what does that mean? Well, remember, the word Gospel is euangelion
in Greek. And it just means a good message. Eu
means good and angelos
is the Greek word for messenger or message. An angel is a messenger. So an euangelion
is a good word, a good message, good news...and here Paul says that:
...our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…
And that’s puzzled commentators, but it likely means—this is important—that Paul didn’t just preach the Word of God at Thessaloniki, but that he also performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And one of the things you’ll see in the evangelization of the early Church—you can see this is in the book of Acts, for example—is that the conversion of the pagans will take place not just through telling them, “Hey, the Scriptures of the Jewish people are fulfilled. The Messiah has come”...but also by performing healings. Resurrections from the dead, the casting out of demons—these are things that Paul is going to do in the book of Acts and that are going to be motives of credibility for believing the Gospel.
This is actually the teaching of Vatican I. From the 19th century, one of the ecumenical councils taught that three principal motives of credibility for believing the Gospel are prophecy (the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures in the life of Christ), miracles (the performing of acts that require supernatural power) and then the third is the existence and the perpetuity of the Church...so the Church itself becomes a kind of living witness as she passes through time and is—despite all the trials and tribulations—She’s never conquered. She’s never destroyed...becomes a living witness to the truth of the Gospel. But those first two motives—prophecy and miracles—are something that Paul himself is going to appeal to whenever he’s preaching the Gospel in the early Church.
And I was recently reading Pope Gregory the Great, his Dialogues
. So he’s writing in the 6th century, and he had a question from a deacon that was written to him: Why don’t we see as many miracles nowadays as we read about in the New Testament? And Gregory says, first of all (and I’m paraphrasing here)—first of all, we’re not as holy as they were, so we don’t have enough saints. (You know, Gregory was a saint.)
But then the second thing he says is that the miracles of the apostles in the first generation were superabundant, in particular, as they were spreading the Good News to the Gentile nations who had never heard of God before. In other words, this was a charismatic gift given to the apostles in order to bring about the rapid spread of the Gospel amongst people who had never heard of Israel or Judea or the people of Jerusalem. They didn’t know anything about the Jewish Scriptures, but they understood the visible signs of divine power that the apostles manifested. And that opened the door of their mind and heart to listen to the rest of the Good News...to listen to the Gospel.
So Paul begins here by reminding the Thessalonians who, remember, they’re from a Greek city, so they’re pagans who have converted to the worship of Jesus and believe in Christ….that, remember, when we brought you the Gospel, we didn’t just preach words. We used power in the Holy Spirit.
The second thing is Paul praises the Thessalonians by talking about the fact that their faith has become an example to other believers in Acha’ia and then Macedo’nia. So these are Greek territories within the empire. So people in these other Greek cities and Greek regions (pagans) are hearing about what’s happened to the Gentiles (the pagans) in Thessaloniki. They’re hearing about their conversion to Jesus Christ, and so they’re becoming an example—a witness—to others who might be led to faith through them.
The third thing Paul says here that I think is extremely important is he then reminds them about the fact that they have turned from idols to the living God. Now this is an exhibit A example of the fact that although Paul is successful in preaching the Gospel to his fellow Jews...there are Jews that he will speak to in the synagogue who will become believers in Jesus. He is much more successful among the Gentiles than he is among his fellow Jews. And when he writes his letters to the churches that he founds, although there appear to be Jews (Jewish believers) in some of these congregations, it seems like the vast majority of the audience to whom he’s writing are not Jewish Christians (Jewish believers) but Gentile Christians—people who have come to faith in Jesus but who used to be pagans.
And that’s really clear here when he says:
...you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God…
So he’s addressing former pagans who have now become believers in Jesus. And when he does this, it’s fascinating he says that:
...you turned to...a living and true God…
Because that’s a standard expression from Jewish Scripture to describe the fact that the God of Israel—He’s not a demon, He’s not an angel, He’s not some made up deity. He is living. In other words, He’s the true God. He’s the real God. He’s the creator of the universe.
And so I thought I would take this opportunity here to just point out that when Paul alludes to this turning to God from idols, he’s making moves that are very different than our contemporary context. So in our contemporary context, we live in a very religiously pluralistic context. We are used to there being many Christian denominations and many different world religions and many different people from different cultures and different places who believe a vast variety of things about the afterlife, about the human person, about the soul or whether there is a soul or not, and who express that in all different forms of worship and belief.
We live in a pluralistic context, and Paul did too. The difference, though, is in our contemporary society, there is a kind of relativism that says this group believes this and that group believes that—that’s really not a matter of concern to me. There’s no problem there. To each his own—kind of subjectivistic and relativistic way of looking at the world.
But Paul doesn’t see the world through that lens. Remember, Paul is an apostle to the pagans, but he’s an apostle from
the Jews. He’s a rabbi. He’s a Pharisee, and he would have known that the first commandment in the Jewish Scriptures is not “don’t murder.” It’s not “don’t commit adultery.” It’s not “don’t steal.” The first commandment in the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments—isn’t about violations of love of neighbor. It’s about violations of love of God. It’s the commandment against idolatry.
So when Paul commends the Thessalonians for turning from idols to the living God, he’s alluding to Exodus 20:1 and following. So just to refresh your memory there, in Exodus 20—actually verse 2—this is the first commandment in the Decalogue. And I want you to hear something about this. As I’m reading it, ask yourself the question, “Why is idolatry such a problem? What’s the big deal? What’s the issue with idolatry?” Listen to what Exodus 20 says, and this is what Paul is presuming...
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