Never forget the greatest commandment

  • October 11, 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 23 (Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 18; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40)

The Golden Rule comes in many forms. God’s commandment to the people of Israel is very simple: remember when you were a slave in Egypt. Did you like being helpless and at the mercy of others? Did you like being oppressed and mistreated? No? Good, then don’t treat anyone else in that way. They are forbidden to oppress non-Israelite dwellers in the land.

But there is another class of people who have God’s protection — the widows and orphans. In an ancient society widows and orphans were without property or means of support and certainly without any protection or clout. Without a male head of family they were especially vulnerable. We can expand the category to include all sorts of vulnerable people: the aged, the handicapped, the unemployed, the immigrant and anyone classed as the “other.”

Those who are different or weak are often the target of scapegoating, especially during difficult times.

Often those who have been oppressed, exploited or abused in some way fall victim to a peculiar sort of amnesia and visit the same treatment on others. The pain or humiliation is buried beneath arrogance or insensitivity. Those who turn from a sinful life to God are often the hardest on those who have not “seen the light.” Immigrants or poor people who have become wealthy and successful sometimes become deaf and insensitive to the needs of the poor or marginalized. Those who rise from humble backgrounds often disdain the unsophisticated or uneducated. God’s solution: always remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Never forget what it felt like to be mistreated or neglected. Keep that in mind before you speak and before you act.

We might add: keep it in mind before passing legislation or making decisions that affect other people.

The folks in Thessalonika received the word with joy. It sounds so simple — almost trite — but it resulted in radically transformed lives. They became examples and sources of inspiration for others and were able to turn to a pure worship of the one true God.

Joy and enthusiasm have a capacity to kindle a flame in the human heart and soul that can spread rapidly to others. Christians have always been the butt of jokes at the hands of cynics precisely because of their shocking lack of joy. When was the last time that you were actually joyful or excited about your faith?

Christians did not invent love, nor is the God of the Old Testament all about punishment, wrath and rules. When Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the greatest He did not make up some new rule or reveal some special hidden doctrine. He turned to His own tradition and quoted from its very heart: Deuteronomy 6:5, immediately following the proclamation of God’s oneness.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you mind.” God is everything and should be the total focus and devotion of the human person. But lest we think that this is an exclusive or solitary “God and me” relationship, He adds something from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Interestingly enough He insists that these two principles are the essence of the entire Law and prophets — a sentiment shared by Paul in Romans 13:8-10. But love in the Bible is not sentimentality, emotional bonding or physical attraction. It is eminently practical; in fact, it is the principle from the first reading — treat others as you would want to be treated and avoid behaviour that you would consider cruel, hurtful or indifferent. In a positive sense it is tending to the well-being and happiness of others as if it were your own.

Love and worship of God is absolutely inseparable from love of neighbour. There is no room at all for a religiosity that is pious in Church and a terror and torment to others the rest of the week. The Great Commandment is our entire faith condensed into a proclamation that can be said with one breath. But it is more important that we live it rather than recite it.