Friends, exegetes tell us that there are three key themes in the readings today. First, each of us is “created in love.” Second, “Love of God and neighbor”—both are important, and third is the “witness of love”—words mean little if the actions aren’t there. I would add a fourth, that being, “compassion of our God.
Joan Chittister recently commented in her weekly column that we can sometimes be “seduced by the good.” In other words, we can decide that we have always said or done some good thing a certain way and get upset if someone suggests we “do our loving” in a different way. A good example is how our country is satisfied to simply send “our thoughts and prayers” at each succeeding act of gun violence in this country instead of putting some concrete laws into place that will keep us safer. The law to love convicts us to this action.
In the passage from Exodus—the ancient law codes of Israel; we see that human nature is built in, as it singles out the alien, or stranger, the widow and the orphan—basically, those most vulnerable. Here, as we know, the term “widow” generally meant a woman without children whose husband had died and she wasn’t able to return to her family of origin. All was set up on the system of patriarchy—women had status—protection, care, only in so much as they had men in their lives—father, brother, husband, son—women and girls were simply out of luck in this society unless some care came from the men. If there was no man in a woman’s life, she was basically reduced to begging which could be very dangerous. The culture is being challenged here beyond the immediate men in any particular woman’s life to care for these unfortunate ones—here we see the compassion of God.
It is interesting to think of what is going on at present in our culture—the discussion of several days now in the media concerning blatant abuse of women in society/in the workplace. This abuse has gone on so long that it has taken our culture an equally long time to understand and to take action. The #MeToo action on Facebook is calling attention finally to the culture of sexual harassment of women that exists in Hollywood, in business and really across our world: sexual innuendo and the understanding, spoken or not, that if you want to move ahead in whatever field you happen to be in, you will give a powerful figure, (read male), what they want, sexually. The culture also allows for unwanted comments, at the expense of women that are accepted as the way we do things. This aspect in our culture is so insidious that women have to come to understand that sexual jokes, passes, and innuendo at their expense are not acceptable and don’t have to be tolerated. Jesus, for his part, cuts through all the law codes of Israel and says—there are really only two laws you need concern yourselves with—love God and your neighbor as yourself.
The term “alien” or stranger was used not just for people passing through the land, but those who lived among them, who had no resource, no family, no support system; much like the immigrants in present day looking for a better life. So, with that definition, women could be both widows and aliens in their own land. The laws of Israel forbade taking advantage of those who were already unprotected by the social structures—the special reason for this consideration was that the Israelites were once alien residents in Egypt.
God will not look kindly on those who inflict hardship on others or who refuse to lift a hand in support—it would seem good for this world to remember that. The Israelites came to see their God as one for the oppressed because of how God had been there for them in Egypt, and they came to see that they must do the same. This is confirmed by Jesus in the gospel; love God and your neighbor as yourself. How can we say we love God if in fact we don’t love our neighbor? Or, why would you do to your neighbor what you wouldn’t want done to yourself? We have come to see here that “neighbor” is a broad classification—one that includes anyone in need.
Our God is for the oppressed—consul is given here not to make worse the plight of the vulnerable—there should be concern for those in financial straits—the piece about asking for your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge of payment was going beyond what should be unless in fact you gave it back before sunset, because a person’s cloak also served as their blanket at night and to ask for that was to exacerbate an already dire situation for one’s “neighbor.” For these reasons we at All Are One, do not keep a surplus in our bank account but give back to those in our midst who likewise represent the widow, the alien, the orphan.
The term for love in Hebrew is ra-ham and it means “womb love”— the intimate love that a mother or father has for their young; this kind of love our God has for us. When I think of how much I love my children, my grandchild—it amazes me to think of God’s love for us—in this same way and so much more.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we hear that teaching the gospel is one thing, but the example of living it out in one’s life is most important. Paul and his companions showed the Thessalonians the way, and they in turn were able to make the transition in their lives to live as they saw Paul doing and their example was seen by others. Those of you who are parents know that to teach with words alone just doesn’t “cut it” so to speak—the kids will do what they see you doing. Francis of Assisi is well known for this adage: “Preach the gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.”
Turning to the gospel; we see that the question posed by the Pharisees was intended to trick Jesus. It is good to know a bit of background as we look at what is really going on in the gospel today. The history of the Law at this point shows that there were 613 commandments, 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year) and 268 prescriptions (one for each bone in the body)—and of course some carried more weight than others—we might recall lists of venial and mortal sins.
Exegetes tell us that the lawyer challenging Jesus would have been more aware of the weight of each commandment and prohibition better than Jesus as Jesus wasn’t a scribe, but his interest again was to catch Jesus supposedly annulling a part of the law and then they could diminish his place in the community as a teacher.
Jesus goes to their Scriptures to answer the question posed about which is the greatest commandment. He points to the “Shem,” which is the most significant prayer of the Israelite religion—“to love God with one’s whole heart and soul” and Jesus adds, “mind” in order that the person’s whole being would be engaged and their response would not be a superficial thing.
Jesus not only gives one commandment, but two—basically saying that one can’t truly be done without the other—to say we love God whom we can’t see and not our neighbor, whom we do see, is a lie. Placing his answer within the Shem, their most significant prayer; Jesus uplifts the one-ness of the God they all worship and that there is no other. In order to love this God of their prayer; they must then love their neighbor as they do themselves.
So, in reviewing the themes of this day, the fact that each of us was created in love, our response must be to return the love. Jesus teaches that love of God and neighbor is what it is all about. It is easy to love those who are easy to love—our task in loving as our God does is to make our love more expansive—to reach out to the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, and to remember that people are hungry, poor and imprisoned in many more ways than materially—due to ignorance, illness, discrimination. In addition, our world calls each of us to reach out in love toward our planet earth and do all that we can to preserve it. Caring for the land, the water, the atmosphere is so very important, not just for us in our time but for all those who will come after us. All is gift, given in love for no particular reason other than our God first loved and cared for us and wanted to share—can we do less than respond in love?