The problem with laws is we seem to not take them as absolutes. If you drive on any road it is obvious that speed limits are not treated as an absolute speed for most drivers. Teens have always found a way to get around the age limit for purchasing alcohol. Even our church teaches us that to kill another during wartime is not a violation of the laws of the church and self defense is legal in the US. Yet for the Pharisees in Jesus’ time as well as in our time the laws are to be exactly followed without any leeway.
After all the laws were given to the Jews by God in the form of commandments on stone and following that the moral, dietary and cultural laws were prescribed by God and recorded in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy by Moses. In fact, were over 600 of those laws and the Pharisees scrupulously followed each and every one of them.
You know from the scriptures how many times these righteous Pharisees challenged Jesus for not following the exact letter of the law. “Is it lawful to heal o the Sabbath” (Mk.12:10). “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mt. 19:3). “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath” (Lk. 6:9). What is amazing to me is how strict the Pharisees were in following the law but they themselves were in violation of the very foundational principles of the law. That is the reason Jesus constantly challenged their adherence to the law while at the same time were in violation of the law to love God and neighbor.
The scriptures tell us that when the Pharisees asked Jesus which law was the greatest they were trying to trip him up. These righteous Pharisees saw this so called messiah setting a poor example and leading the people away from following God by breaking God’s laws. So they have a lawyer pose a question to Jesus – which command of all the 600 is the greatest. Jesus without hesitation responded “you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This was the great command given to them by God and as part of fulfilling that command they were to drill it into their children and speak of it at home and abroad.
If you take the time to read Deuteronomy and all the laws that followed you will discover that one law – loving God with our entire being – if followed is at the heart of the first three of the Ten Commandments. However the other seven commands of the Ten Commandments are directed at your relationship with others so could this be the trap they were trying so hard to set for Jesus? Yet Jesus was not finished answering the question and without taking a breath he adds a second law “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself” quoting the law word for word from Leviticus 19:18. What Jesus did was to link this law to the first and by doing so he spells out the foundation on which all laws were based.
Jesus has in one breath gives us the very reason why the law cannot save us and why the hearts of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and those of our day are so far from God. Those two laws together sum up everything Jesus was revealing to us and why the Pharisees were guilty of breaking the very laws they so strictly followed. If you want proof just read the scriptures and see how they did everything for show and yet they lacked compassion of those in need so desperately needed to feel the love and mercy of God. They failed to love God and love neighbor because they loved the superior feeling of following the law better than anyone else.
By scrupulously following the letter of the law we and they missed the spirit of the law as well as missed understanding the promise of God telling us he would write the law on our hearts. Paul says this to us when he wrote “…the law was our disciplinarian …but now that faith has come we are no longer under a disciplinarian” (Gal.3:24-25).
As I was prayerfully preparing for this homily, I realized the reason those two laws were linked by Jesus. We cannot focus on God alone for if we would then we would be no different from the Pharisees. We need to bring our love of God into the world. Our spiritual journey involves others – those close to us, those in our faith community and strangers. Our love of God has to change our hearts so we can love, serve and forgive others as the very expression of our love of God.
We are in church because we do desire to be obedient and faithful to God. We are here because we do want to grow spiritually and fulfill God’s plan for our lives as did the people of Thessalonica Paul was praising in today’s epistle.
Today’s readings should challenge us to do exactly what God desires us to do – love him with our entire being and allow the Spirit to transform us so we can truly love others without any hesitation or reservation. Will we continue to stretch the law, of course we will but we will also stretch ourselves to serve others with love and compassion; we will stretch ourselves to show our love of God in all we say and all we do. Our actions will invite the modern day Pharisees to criticize us for not doing what they think is proper for a Catholic and it will give us an opportunity to expound on the law of what it means to love God and neighbor.