Lectionary commentary: thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary time
"Master, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?"
A reading from the book of Exodus, 22:21-27
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 18:2-4. 47. 51. R/ v.2
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:5-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:34-40
A compassionate project
We might call God’s decision to create and to sustain creation a compassionate project. The poetic human imaginations that gave us the creation stories of the Book of Genesis set this project in train and has not run its course. It is still unfolding, still designed and overseen by God. The Lord God called on human hands and hearts to do the spadework.
Our first poets beautifully imagined our God providing the light in order to see the drawing board and getting down to details. Night and day, land and sea, vegetation and plants were created and the beasts of the earth moved from heavenly sketches to their appointed place on earth. What was needed to ensure that the project was carefully managed was given very careful consideration:
Then God said …
Only when everything was readied, then a partnership of men and women was appointed to manage the care and development of God’s project:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Our first poet lets God rest on the seventh day and he extended the resting to the appointed managers, satisfied that all that was done was very good.
Another poet imagined the whole project to be a garden of delights. Unfortunately, a wily serpent converted human responsibilities into irresponsibility with horrendous consequences. Violence, murder and death defaced what had been “very good”.
God tried again and again, with Abraham, with Moses, with Elijah and Amos, and with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a host of wise voices. Finally, God sent his Son, saying,
They will respect my Son.
Sadly, human authorities set their own scheme in train:
Let us kill him and take possession of his inheritance.
But God was not to be outdone. The Son was rescued from death and the project of compassion was re-issued as an international enterprise. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sought to enervate the whole of humanity and to call on every man and woman to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Men and women from the four corners of the earth are called upon to undertake the business of transforming creation into the dreams of our God. The dream was of a Garden of Eden. The project of compassion is to realise that dream, a new garden that will stretch from here to eternity.
Yes, the foundation documents were still essential for success. To the challenges of old a New Testament clarifies the old and points to the expansion of the challenge. The old charter still stands. But its vision is broadened. My People is set to become All People. The Hebrew vocation is strengthened by an influx of new blood. Not a jot or tittle of the old is abolished; every speck of the old is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-20).The utterly essential charter is retained. What Exodus loudly preached must be proclaimed to the whole humanity. What was said on Mount Sinai must be proclaimed from every mountain and every hill. It is on this mountain that the word “poor” enters for the first time into the vocabulary of God’s holy words.
A reading from the book of Exodus, 20:22;22:20-26
The Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel,
‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.’ ‘
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbour's cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.’
The word of the Lord.
A compassionate constitution
What was said to Moses and the People of God must be heard everywhere. The embrace of God’s compassionate concern must take in the stranger, the immigrant, every outsider. The widow and the fatherless child of every race must be cared for. Otherwise God’s wrath will confront all that is evil.
The embrace of God’s concern is warmest at the bottom. The poor must never become the usurer’s delight. Stripping the poor of their rags will not go unnoticed:
for I am compassionate.
There is a line in one of Israel’s songs:
the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 18:2-4. 47. 51.R/ v.2
A Psalm of David, the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.
R/. I love you, O Lord, my strength.
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies. R/.
The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation—
Great salvation he brings to his king,
and shows steadfast love to his anointed. R/.
The title introduction to this psalm is the longest superscription introducing psalms. The complete psalm is to be found word-for-word in Second Samuel 22:1-51.This is a lengthy prayer of King David thanking and praising God for delivering him from all his enemies, especially from his predecessor King Saul. The older version is the one in Second Samuel. It is possible, though not likely, that the psalm was written by David the King.
What is extraordinary about this victory hymn of thanksgiving is the attributes ascribed to the Lord.If we list God’s characteristics from the full hymn in Second Samuel the list of God’s saving capacities is indeed extensive. God is,
- my rock
- my fortress
- my deliverer
- my refuge
- my saviour
- my rescuer
- my support
- my delight
- my lamp
- my shield
- my strong refuge
- my security
- my strength
- steadfast love.
The prayer of the beleaguered king reaches to the highest heaven. The response from the God of many parts swoops down to every battlefield and every danger in order to deliver David even when it seemed that the jaws of She’ol were opening wide.
The psalm’s first word is a word of love. The last word is a word of praise and thanksgiving. What the psalm offers to those who would pray it today is a vision of God who is ever concerned to meet whatever dangers seek to destroy what the Lord has made. Even a lifetime of meditation cannot begin to exhaust the protective love lavishes by God to see that we come safely home.
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:5-10
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
The Word of the Lord.
The LORD God, the God capable of defeating every enemy seeking human destruction, confronted the afflictions of David. “The church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is rich in faith, hope, and love. The community lived as Paul desired they should; they followed every instruction that made them “imitators of the Lord”. Yet in receiving the word of God they encountered “much affliction”.
Paul’s converts had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (I Thessalonians 1:9).These former pagans being admitted without any of the trappings of Jewish life may have given rise to some hostility from Jewish people. Much more likely, hostility came from authorities in the city who were opposed to any rejection of the gods of the city, especially to any who embraced a faith that denied the very existence of the city deities.
So while this young church was to be praised for their “work of faith, and labour of love, and steadfastness of hope”, there was a price to be paid. There was much affliction to be endured. Such was their steadfastness in their newfound faith that they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and indeed everywhere where their story was heard. Not only had they turned from idols to serve the living and true God but their steadfast faith in God had encouraged them,
to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
I Thessalonians 1:10
It is this waiting that is at the heart of Paul’s little letter to his beloved church of Thessalonian Christians. The great apostle had a deep conviction that the world was soon to come to its final destiny in God. We know that he was wrong in this (since it has not as yet happened).Nonetheless Paul understands that humanity will come to judgement. Christians live in the sure and certain hope of resurrection, no matter when that event comes, and the vision of Jesus will be realised. The fullness of the kingdom will come. Whatever it might mean, the Thessalonians can be certain that it is Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:34-40
The Pharisees, on hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it:” You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The first reading today from the Book of the Exodus provided us with some of the nuts and bolts of living the God-like life. It is in this book that the word “poor” first occurs in the Bible:
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender [literally “a usurer”] to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.
From this sentence throughout the book of Exodus, through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God’s demands are underlined again and again. The reason God spells out why the poor are so central to God’s concerns is very simple and very obvious (and in our time and in our world so utterly ignored):
… so that the poor may eat.
The details in our first reading and all the details underlined in God’s covenant with the People of Israel when they emerge from the desert are many. But they all come from what is revealed in today’s Gospel. If God’s people are to live a God-like life, if the former mixum-gatherum of slaves are to live freedom, then there must be a fundamental re-ordering of human affairs. If slavery is the become freedom, there must be a radical re-ordering of human affairs. The foundation stone of all freedom, the rock on which humanity must build its sure foundations is this:
Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It is in loving that we are are God-like. It is in loving that we are most human. Not to have loved is to live in a dark emptiness. Loving must be done with all your heart, for love must be felt. Felt love penetrates to our very soul, to that inmost place where we live and move and have our being. For loving with all your soul is not a reckless extravagance; it is a wild and inner calm. To be sure, love must be with all your mind for in the calm and excitement of love there must a knowing that loving is what I have been born to be and to be possessed by.
It is that total joy that God insists must be done in our being as it is done in heaven. Indeed, in loving God we are enabled to love with that intensity that is beyond words. The first commandment makes all other loving possible. We do not need to be religious to know this. For we are created in love in order to love and be loved, whether we know that or not.
The second commandment is the mirror-image of the first:
… you shall love your neighbour as your self.
There is a danger here. It is to believe (as some do) that there is a special word for love when we speak of God’s love. There are many loves in the Bible; love of money, the love of power, love of self, even love of sin. What is underlined in the Bible is that God’s love is steadfast. It endures forever. We are blessed in knowing that this steadfast love is given to every human being. It is that love that teaches us how to love. Loving our neighbour means that being blessed by love we must become a love-blessing to everyone.
The Hebrew Bible does not go as far as Matthew in demanding love. Both however agree that love may be demanded. The love commands in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are not optional extras:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
Love is not optional. But in the Hebrew Bible it is a matter of loving your own people and those who come among you as immigrants. Jesus is much more insistent that love must embrace everyone:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and
hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …
But why? Why must we bend our hearts into love of enemies and persecutors? Jesus has an answer:
… so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus demands that our love must not meet human standards. Our love must be as perfect as God’s love. Of course, this is impossible. Our model however is the man on the cross: Father, forgive them …
Yes, that standard was not demanded of the people of old. It is a demand that comes into our world in the preaching of Jesus and it is a hard saying. But if we have ever loved we will know that loving is not always easy.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.