Disciples called to higher standard

  • October 20, 2008
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A), Oct. 26 (Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 18; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40)

Don’t ever forget who you were and always remember your own experience. This is good advice in any setting, but in this week’s Scripture readings it is a divine command rather than a suggestion.
There is a peculiar blind spot — amnesia if you will — that affects many people. It involves the injustices, cruelties and outrages that they may have suffered at the hands of others. The temptation is not only to blot out one’s painful past but to inflict it on others. Children who have been abused often grow up to abuse others. Poor people who have been oppressed sometimes grow up to become oppressive rich people. Those on the receiving end of racial, political or religious persecution often go on to visit these same injustices on others when the tables are turned. People who are guilty of sin are often the harshest judges of others.

The divine command from Exodus insists that injustice and oppression must end with us — we are not free to pass them on to others. If we have been mistreated, all the more reason to behave with justice and compassion towards others. God insists that He is not there only for the Israelites, but for all, especially the poor, vulnerable and marginalized.

How do we treat immigrants? People of other faiths? Muslims? Those we judge to be “sinful”? Belonging to the people of God — in either an Old Testament or New Testament context — is not a free pass to treat others callously or harshly. In fact, those who claim to be disciples are held to a higher standard of compassion and justice.

The Exodus passage uses some harsh and violent God-language to get the point across. This should be understood as a dramatic and emphatic way for the author to drive home the point: what goes around comes around. We reap what we sow, and the spiritual health of a society is gauged by how the weak, poor and different are treated.

The troublesome community at Corinth was a source of frustration and anger for Paul, and he had to dole out a great deal of correction and reproof.  By contrast, he could not stop singing the praises of the community at Thessalonica. What did they do that was so exceptional? Receive the word joyfully? Live their faith zealously? To be sure — but many others did too.

Their turning from idols and serving a living and true God was the source of their joy and faith. And at the core of serving a living and true God is the message from the Exodus reading: a passion for justice, mercy and compassion. A faith lacking these elements, even in an imperfect degree, is not really faith at all.

The “great commandment” is the core of the Gospel — and it’s all from the Old Testament. This gives the lie to the unjust stereotype of first-century Judaism as legalistic and cold. When asked about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy — the portion called the Shema that forms the Jewish profession of covenantal faith. The second part — “love your neighbour as yourself” — is from Leviticus and forms the basis of correct ethical behaviour.  It is a pity that often less attention was paid to this commandment than to doctrinal disputes and power struggles.

The very last verse is often overlooked: “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love serves as a fine litmus test in determining whether a law, doctrine or practice is from God or from humans. The definition of sin — so often denounced by the prophets — is a lack of love towards God, neighbour or self. This usually is manifested in the form of injustice, indifference or outright cruelty.

The great commandment is at the core of all healthy religions and should serve as the unifying focus for people of all faiths. The teaching and ministry of Jesus sought to fire people with a renewed enthusiasm and deeper understanding of this simple, eloquent and profound commandment of God.

What a different world we would have if this commandment formed all of our thoughts, words and actions. Embracing this principle and attempting to live by it is what makes one a true disciple and child of God.