October 29, 2023
Revised Common Lectionary
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51 (2)
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Who or what is the GOAT? No, not the animal, but “the greatest of all time”? Who is the greatest shortstop, the greatest singer, the greatest poet, the greatest actor, the greatest president? What’s the greatest city, the greatest school, the greatest song, the greatest video game, the greatest restaurant?
In today’s Gospel reading, a lawyer presents Jesus with a question about the GOAT among all the commandments. It was not unusual, of course, for scholars to engage in lively discussions about the law. Matthew does note that the lawyer was testing Jesus, it’s not at all surprising that he would pose this question to Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Mt 22:36)
It’s equally unsurprising that Jesus replied with the beginning portion of the familiar Shema Israel, which every devout Jew still recites each day: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt 22:37; see Dt 6:4-5). There it is—wholehearted love of God as the GOAT among commandments of the law.
Matthew wanted his audience of Jewish Christians to appreciate the continuity between Jewish tradition and the teaching of Jesus, who in his Sermon on the Mount proclaimed that he had come “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law (Mt 5:17). By quoting the Shema and citing the love of God as the greatest commandment, Jesus demonstrated his deep fidelity to Jewish faith and tradition.
But wait, there’s more. Jesus continued, “The second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt 22:39; see Lev 19:18). Jesus is citing yet another well-known text from the Torah. Like the love of God, love of neighbor was already considered central to a life of righteousness.
The two great commandments Jesus quoted were not new, but he brought them together in a new way, identifying them as inseparable and as the key to every other commandment—indeed to all of Scripture. “On these two commandments,” he declares, “hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40). One cannot love God without loving all those whom God loves, all those with whom Jesus had identified throughout his ministry—the poor, the lowly, justice seekers, tax collectors, and sinners. While the religious elites sought ways to narrow the definition of neighbor, Jesus identified the neighbor as including everyone—even enemies.
This exchange between Jesus and the lawyer was part of an ongoing feud with the religious authorities in Jerusalem just days before he was put to death. The elders were deeply alarmed by his words and actions and so had engaged him in a series of challenges in an effort to entrap or discredit him. Jesus, however, not only outwitted them but showed himself to be the authoritative teacher of the law—thus posing a direct threat to their position.
The teaching of Jesus in this passage is both deeply traditional and shockingly radical. The two great commandments are intended not only to change our personal relationships but to transform the world in God’s image. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’s time, we often attempt to place limits on love of neighbor. Does God actually expect us to love that relative, that politician, that annoying person down the street, that ethnic or racial group, those immigrants? If we truly love God with our whole being, then we will love all those whom God loves—and we will love them as God loves them.
A Hymn for Today: “O God, We Read the Holy Law”
The writer of this hymn, Michael Schneider, was a sixteenth century leader of Philippite Anabaptists. He and other members of his group wrote hymns while they were in prison in Passau (Germany). Written in the context of persecution, Schneider’s texts reflect an emphasis on discipleship by surrendering one’s life to God.
Schneider’s hymn follows the spirit of today’s Gospel reading with an eye toward viewing and living God’s law through the lens of the two great commandments. This translation by Mennonite scholar Scott R. Troyer appears in the hymnal Voices Together set to Martin Luther’s well known tune EIN FESTE BURG with its original rhythms.
O God, we read the holy law
to shape our ways of living
like those who first in fear and awe
received it with thanksgiving.
These laws that Jesus knew
he summarized with two
that capture best the whole:
“With heart, mind, strength, and soul,
love God, and love your neighbor.”
All people born of God above
will live as Jesus taught us:
God’s chosen children practice love,
for God in love has sought us.
We know love never fails;
and through love, good prevails.
When all else turns to dust,
in this we place our trust:
God’s love endures forever.
So let our love for God be known
in how we treat creation—
true love in word and action shown
to ev’ry tongue and nation.
If we would heed this call
and offer love to all,
then we must surely praise
our source of love always:
to God alone be glory!
Text: Michael Schneider (present-day Germany), Christliche Gesang wie dieselbigen zu Passau von den Schweizer Brüdern . . . (precursor to the Ausbund), 1564; trans. Scott R. Troyer (USA); vers. © Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, admin. by GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Tune: EIN FESTE BURG
Image Credit: Wooden Love Sign, Doi Inthanon National Park, Chom Thong District, Thailand
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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