Being Christian Is Not the Result of an Ethical Choice

Biblical Reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, OCT. 18, 2011 ( Today’s first reading from Exodus (22:20-26) and Matthew’s Gospel story about the greatest commandment (22:34-40) challenge us in the ways that we love God and neighbor. 

The Exodus reading relates some specific provisions of the Law regarding widows, orphans and the poor. The Lord reminds his people that they themselves were once strangers in a foreign land. To the strangers, widows, orphans and the poor we must show justice and compassion. If not, the Lord himself will punish wrongdoers and defend the helpless.

The Lord deals severely with our negative attitudes and action toward others, particularly the poor, strangers, the disadvantaged and those different from us. The authenticity of our faith, our love of God and our relationship with Christ is measured by the way we treat others. The readings challenge us to seek repentance and forgiveness for our negative attitudes toward others and the way we tend to treat them.

Jesus is put to the testToday’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) contains the fundamental prayer of the «Shema,» the Hebrew profession of faith: «Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord» (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as we profess our faith with the Creed in Christian worship, the Jewish people profess their faith with the Shema in their synagogue services. The Shema is a summary of true religion: «Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.»

Matthew 22:34-40 has a Marcan parallel (12:28-34), which is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe who is impressed by the way in which Jesus has conducted himself in the previous controversy, who compliments him for the answer he gives him, and who is said by Jesus to be «not far from the kingdom of God.» Matthew has further developed that scene.

The scholarship of the Pharisees was the knowledge of the Law, which they regarded as the sum of wisdom and the only true learning. The position of scribe in the Jewish community was a respected place of leadership. At first glance, the scholar’s question to Jesus appears to be very honest.

The teachers of the Torah (scribes and rabbis) had always argued about the relative importance of the commandments in the Old Testament. Scribes were the scholars and intellectuals of Judaism. The Pharisee identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Of those 613, there were 248 positive commands — «you shall» — and 365 were negative — «you shall not.» The fundamental question «Which is the first of all the commandments?» offers Jesus an important teaching moment as he is «put to the test.»

In his response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the verses of the Shema, recited daily by the Jews. Even though Jesus is asked for one commandment, he provides two in his response. In combining the two commandments, Jesus goes beyond the extent of the question put to him and joins to the greatest and the first commandment a second, that of love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). The double commandment is the source from which the whole law and the prophets are derived. Jesus does not discard other commandments. He explicitly adds: «On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.» The remarkable thing is that the «scholar» expresses agreement with Jesus by paraphrasing him without any hint of hostility or irony.

Love of God and neighbor not an original idea of Jesus

Love of God and love of neighbor as the fulfillment of the law is not an original idea of Jesus. It exists in very early Hebrew Scriptures. There is something unique, however, in Jesus’ assertion that they are alike. Jesus teaches that we cannot have one without the other. Motivation to love our neighbor springs from our love of God; our love of God is demonstrated and strengthened by our love of neighbor. Love of neighbor is not only a love that is demanded by the love of God, an achievement flowing from it; it is also in a certain sense its antecedent condition. There is no real love for God that is not, in itself, already a love for neighbor; and love for God comes to its own identity through its fulfillment in a love for neighbor.

Teaching of Moses and Jesus

Moses teaches in the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34) — and Jesus reaffirms in today’s Gospel that all of the commandments are summed up in the love of God and loving-kindness toward one’s neighbor. Every time that Jews recite the «Shema Israel» and when Christians recall the first and second great commandments, we are, by God’s grace, brought closer to each other. Whenever we make the sign of the cross, we are tracing the Shema upon our bodies as we touch our head, heart, and shoulders and pledge them to God’s service.

God is Love

In light of today’s Scripture readings, let us reflect on two texts this week. The first is No. 42 from «Lumen Gentium,» the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council.

«God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him.» But, God pours out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us; thus the first and most necessary gift is love, by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of God. Indeed, in order that love, as good seed may grow and bring forth fruit in the soul, each one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God and accept his will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God’s grace. These actions consist in the use of the sacraments and in a special way the Eucharist, frequent participation in the sacred action of the liturgy, application of oneself to prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues. For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity that guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor that points out the true disciple of Christ.

The second text is from the opening paragraphs of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical letter «Deus Caritas Est» (God is Love), and sums up beautifully the message of today’s Scripture readings:

«Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (…) In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might’ (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbor found in the Book of Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18; cf. Mark 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.»

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Recently I had some lengthy discussions with several good Catholics who claimed to be «prophetic» in their embrace of social justice issues in the Church. While they held up some great role models of authentic social justice in the Catholic tradition like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, they were quite negative about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, claiming that she never addressed «systemic evils» of our day. They said that Mother Teresa never embodied authentic prophetic criticism, claiming that she was simply a safe role model for a male-dominated Church!

What has always impressed me about Mother Teresa and her sisters is that
when they speak of loving God and neighbor, and «sharing poverty,» it defies the logic of many of our institutions and agencies today that prefer political agendas for the poor instead of deep, personal, communion with individual poor people. The agents and instruments of this type of communion are dismissed as being irrelevant.

What the church looks for in saints is not just good works — for that there are Nobel Peace Prizes and other such worldly awards — but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization or beatification was transformed, inwardly and outwardly, by God’s grace and embodied a deep love of God and neighbor.

Years ago when I first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta after teaching a group of her young sisters at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome, she placed firmly into my hands one of her famous business cards, unlike any «business» card I had ever seen. On the front of the card were printed these words: «The fruit of silence is PRAYER. The fruit of prayer is FAITH. The fruit of faith is LOVE. The fruit of love is SERVICE. The fruit of service is PEACE. God bless you. Mother Teresa.»

I still carry that card with me. There was no address, phone number, e-mail or FAX on the card. We don’t need any of her contact information for she is available to all of us in the communion of saints. May Blessed Teresa of Calcutta teach us how to love God and neighbor in unity and harmony.

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The readings for this Sunday are: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5C-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at:

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