30th Sun [A] 2002

Fr. Charles Irvin

Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

During this year, with the Sunday gospel accounts are taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, perhaps you’ve noticed that, since September 1st, we’ve been presented with two main themes, namely rejection of Christ’s teaching and lately attempts to trap him in his own speech and to thus get rid of him. Trapping him with his own words is not unfamiliar to us. Just listen to our candidates for political office; they’re employing that very same technique in their campaign ads against each other.

During September we heard about the servant who was forgiven a huge debt. Be he rejected it since he himself wouldn’t forgive his fellow servant a small debt. Then we heard about the two sons, one of whom said “yes” to his father’s request, and then did nothing, and the other who said “no” but did what his father wanted.

In October we’ve heard of the owner of the vineyard who sent his own son to the workers who rejected and then killed him. This was followed by the guest at the wedding feast who rejected his host’s offer of a wedding garment.

Rejection of Christ then moved to outright attempts to get rid of him. Last week we heard of the Herodians and the Pharisees who attempted to trap Jesus with the question about paying the Roman tax, giving him the coin with Caesar’s image and inscription on it and asking their trick question. And today we’re presented with the Sadducees and Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with their trick question dealing with the greatest commandment in Jewish law.

Both St. Luke and St. Matthew report today’s episode. St. Luke is more direct than what we just heard in St. Matthew’s account. Luke tells us: “There was a lawyer who, to disconcert him, stood up and said to him, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees eagerly hunted down Jesus during the three years of his public ministry. They wanted His life so badly they could taste it, but each time out their traps came up empty. They thought their stratagems were foolproof, baiting him as they did with their thorny questions. They were hoping to gut the body of his teachings, to publicly discredit him and thus be done with Him once and for all.

Today the attorney for Pharisees was the leadoff questioner; “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” The question may appear harmless to us, but it was a verbal booby trap. For centuries the Jewish authorities had been arguing about this very question. If this was their lucky day, then Christ would give an unpopular response. The crowd would turn against him and he would become history.

I want to put before you the idea that legalism is really a form of rejection. It’s minimalism. It involves doing only what’s necessary. Legalism allows us to evade and avoid paying taxes. It allows us to keep all of our options open. Legalism keeps us in low maintenance when it comes to expending our energies. Legalism takes us into doing only what’s necessary to pass our exams and get our degrees. Legalism gives us academic careers in which we learn only what’s necessary to get buy. Love of learning? Forget it. Well-rounded education? Forget it. Intellectual curiosity? That’s only for geeks. Just “getting by” is a kind of rejection.

What about our relationship with God? Do we do only that which is necessary to keep up a minimal relationship with God? Do we think that the best Masses are when the priest preaches the shortest homilies and Mass is over and done with within sixty minutes? Are those what we consider to be the best Masses? Is that what we want to give God when it comes to worshipping him?

So instead of asking “What must I do?” why don’t we ask “What can I do?” Instead of dealing with restrictive minimal norms, why don’t we approach God with generous, unrestricted hearts?

When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the messiah she asked: “How can this be?” The use of the word “can” was open ended. It was open to any divine response. Mary didn’t ask: “What must I do?” There was no minimalist attitude. It was an attitude of openness to anything God wanted to do. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel: “How can this be?” Can… an open-ended word, open to any and all possibilities. 

It’s good to recall here the last reported words of Mary that come to us in the gospels. Examine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and then ask yourself what were the last reported words of Mary? The answer is challenging to both you and me. They were uttered by her at the Wedding Feast of Cana when she said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”

“Do whatever he tells you.” No minimalist legalism here!

What is the purpose of God’s law or commandments? The Pharisees prided themselves in their knowledge and observance of the laws found in the Torah. They made it a lifetime practice to study its 613 precepts, along with the huge body of rabbinic commentaries that subsequently followed. Here in today’s gospel account we find them testing Jesus to see if he correctly understood the law as they did.  His response completely threw them. What does God require of us?  Simply that we love everyone as he loves! Jews and Gentiles alike are his children, the children he loves equally and with all of his love. And God doesn’t love us by meeting only the minimal requirements of being a loving Father. God loves everyone with all of his love.

Finally, we need to ask ourselves, “How is love taught?”

Over the years I’ve watched parents form and shape their children in loving. I’ve watched them present their first-borns with a little brother or a little sister. Can little Johnny be commanded to love his little sister? Of course not. Would it be effective to give him a law, a family regulation, telling him he must love his baby sister? Ridiculous! He can only be shown. People who love without limits are living icons, putting us in touch with God’s love.

In all of the commandments we’ve received from our Jewish origins, or from Christ Jesus himself, where have we been commanded to love God? Such a command is not in the Ten Commandments (the first has only to do with worship and idolatry). We are commanded only to love our neighbor. What’s interesting is that while we are not commanded to love God as distinct from neighbor, we are repeatedly told that in loving our neighbor we thereby love God.

And just who is my neighbor? Are they Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Iraqi’s, Blacks, Asians, Northern Irish? Are professors, and department chairs likewise my neighbors? Do I determine who they are using minimalist, legalistic and restrictive standards? Or do I determine who they are and love them according to the open-ended and non-restrictive standards of Jesus Christ. Am I concerned with the greatest law? Or am I concerned with the greatest love?

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”