(Ordinary Time – Cycle A)
The will of God, shown in the Scripture, finds its maximum and definitive expression in the double evangelical commandment of love of God and neighbour, which gives meaning and unity to the whole biblical revelation in its normative aspect. At the same time, it is the best antidote against the pharisaical casuistry of the law and against the ethereal spiritualism that neglects the concrete commitment in life. Today Jesus offers us the fundamental key to interpret God’s will manifested in “the law and the prophets”, that is, in the whole of the inspired Scripture: the total love of God as the only Lord and the active and disinterested love of neighbour.
The first reading (Ex 22,21-27) is taken from the so called “Book of the Covenant” (Ex 20,22 - 23,19), which is a collection of laws and norms coming from the different periods of the history of Israel and which have been placed in the book of Exodus in the context of the Sinai covenant (Ex 19-24) and of the Decalogue (Ex 20).
The covenant is the great proposal of Yahweh to establish a relationship of love and fidelity with Israel. God has taken the initiative, choosing the people, liberating them from slavery and committing Himself to walk with them in history. The response of the people is concretised in the Decalogue and in this legislative entirety called “Book of the Covenant” (Ex 20,22 - 23,19), which aims to orient and illumine the framework of the social and religious life of the people of the covenant. This fundamental norm is the way in order that Israel may conserve its freedom and may authentically become the “people of Yahweh”.
The text that is read in the liturgy today contains a series of socio-ethical precepts that revolve around the three great classes of persons privileged by God: the alien, the orphan and the widow, and the poor. These three social categories have one element in common: they are persons who lack protection and live marginalized and without any help in the social structure. That is why they are the object of God’s preferential love in the context of the covenant. The alien has no family or clan that will defend and protect him, the orphan and the widow lack the basic support in the family circle (parents or husband), and the poor has no resources to assert his rights. God Himself, therefore, has decided to assume the public defence of these “poor”, assuming their cause as His own: “You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (Ex 22,22); “If he [the poor] cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Ex 22,26).
The community of Israel should preoccupy itself with the welfare and justice in favour of the poor, defending them and lavishing them with care and love, because the cause of the poor is God’s cause. As the book of Proverbs says: “He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honours him” (Prov 14,31). It does not deal then with a simple social norm. The preferential option for the poor is fundamentally a “religious” decision.
The second reading (1Thes 1,5-10) continues describing the mystery and the life of the Christian community of Thessalonica: a community that has followed the example of Paul because “they received the word despite great trials, with the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit” (v. 6). Like the Apostle, they spread the Gospel with passion (v. 8) in the whole of Greece and beyond, and finally, because they firmly await the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 10).
The Gospel (Mt 22,34-40) belongs to the whole of the polemic accounts with which the ministry of Jesus is concluded in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has finally arrived in Jerusalem and faces the representatives of the official Judaism in a series of religious controversies about the fundamental issues of faith.
In the text that is read in the liturgy today, one of the Pharisees, “expert of the law”, asks Him: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” (v. 36). The question reflects one of the biggest preoccupations of Judaism at the time of Jesus, that seeks fervently to establish a “unifying principle” in the different formulations of God’s will. The great Jewish teachers tried to find and to propose a guideline that would give unity to all the divine revelation in its normative aspect. And this was many centuries ago. It is enough to remember the intention of the prophet Micah in the 8th century B.C., who wants to synthesise in one phrase the whole of God’s will for man: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6,8).
The teacher Hillel, 20 A.D., had proposed this unifying principle: “Do not do to your neighbour what is unpleasant to you, this is the whole law. The rest is only an explanation.” Likewise, one century after, the famous Jewish teacher Akiba, commenting on Lev 19,18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, affirms: “This is the great precept and the general principle of the law.” It is therefore not accurate to affirm that for the Jewish tradition the 613 precepts, miswôt, 365 of which were negative and 248 positive, were all placed at the same level. Besides the juridical and formal distinction between grave and secondary, small and great, general and specific precepts, there always existed in Israel the preoccupation to find a principle that would give unity to God’s will manifested in so many norms and to establish a certain order and hierarchy.
The newness of the Gospel does not consist in the fact that it establishes as unifying principle the supreme value of love. This is repeated oftentimes in the biblical tradition and was taught endlessly by the Jewish teachers. When Jesus affirms that the first commandment is “love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22,37), He refers to the essential nucleus of the religious creed of the pious Israelite who recites the Shema twice a day: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart…” (Dt 6,5). Jesus takes up again the basis of Israel’s faith and proposes it to His disciples as the first and most important commandment: the total love of God as the only Lord. The prototype and perfect model of this spirituality is Jesus Himself, who lives in a unique relationship of love as Son before His Father (Mt 11,27).
The originality of the proposal of Jesus is found above all in the second part of His response, where He establishes a relationship of “similarity” between the first and the second commandment, which is also defined with a biblical formula taken from the “Holiness Code” of the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19,18). The commandment of love of neighbour is placed in relation with the first about the whole and total love of God, inasmuch as it belongs to the same category of unifying and fundamental principle. In fact, in the conclusion of v. 40, Jesus places them explicitly in relation, as criteria of unification and basis of the whole biblical revelation, that is to say, of “the law and the prophets”.
The proposal of Jesus is not a simplification of the multiple prescriptions and numerous commandments of the old covenant, but it represents the principle that gives unity and support to all the historical revelation of God. This is what the model image of the Greek verb kremmanymi, “to hang” (to depend) expresses in v. 40 (Mt 22,40: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets”). For Jesus, the whole of God’s will is gathered in the love of God and neighbour. These two commandments are the backdrop with which the whole Law should live. Proclaiming love in its double aspect, divine and human, as the fundamental and only expression of man’s response to divine revelation, Jesus confirms the objective of His mission, announced in the inaugural discourse on the mount: “to fulfil the law and the prophets” (Mt 5,17).
The Christian disciple does not achieve perfection simply by observing the exterior laws or by participating in religious rites that later do not influence or change his way of life. The proposal of Jesus through the double commandment of love of God and neighbour does not impose any material content, nor does it demand any specific gesture, but it offers the spirit with which the Christian disciple should live all that he does. The vertical dimension (God) and the horizontal dimension (neighbour) are reciprocally lived and are mutually nourished. It is precisely in this double expression of love, inseparable and fundamental, that one finds the basis of the genuine and total Christian existence. The proposal of Jesus even goes beyond the purely Christian sphere. The evangelical commandment of love of God and neighbour is not placed in any scale of values, but it constitutes the essence and the foundation of any religious and ethical experience. In fact, Jesus does not propose love so that we will better, but in order that we may become truly human.