30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Greatest Commandment

Note:  Fr. Ed’s homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time is now available online! Click here to listen.

“The whole Law and the Prophets depend on these two Commandments.”

The rabbis, in articulating the commandments of the Scriptures, have come up with a number traditionally valued at 613, the Taryag Mitzvot. (“Mitzvot” is simply the plural of the Hebrew word for “commandment,” and “Taryag” is an acronym made up of the Hebrew letters that express the number “613.”) Any Jew, when asked what is the greatest commandment would respond with the Shema:  “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is LORD alone, and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Dt. 6:4-5) In fact, Orthodox Jews pray this prayer every day, twice a day. But when they pray it, they add a phrase between the first and second part of the prayer: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever!” When they pray it, they turn and face Israel. If they are in Israel, they face Jerusalem. If they are in Jerusalem, they face the Temple Mount. From childhood to old age this prayer would be central in their lives.

“…with all your mind…”

When the Lord Jesus is asked in the Gospel (Mt. 22:34-40) what commandment in the Law is the greatest, He begins to respond as they would expect, but then changes the actual words of the Shema by adding the phrase, “with all your mind.” To the Jews listening, this would have been stridently shocking. In fact, daring to “edit” the Shema could be seen as one more example of the Lord Jesus asserting His divine authority.

His addition is a very critical one, in that it called them (and us) to make sure that when we pray, we do so with intent and conviction, to pray with our minds as well as our lips. The rabbis have very harsh condemnations reserved for those who only pray with their lips and not with their minds, insisting that one must pray “with great concentration.”

This approach is certainly reflected in the teaching of the Vatican II Council Fathers in the Constitution on the Liturgy in which the People of God are reminded of the need to always participate in the Mass in a way that is “full, active, and conscious.” Prayers that are done on autopilot are anathema in the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. Our minds and hearts must be in our words. The first focus is always our relationship with the Holy One of Israel, Who has called us to union with Himself.

“…love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Lord Jesus then goes on to highlight the second dimension, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. He states that all the Law and the prophets depend on these two. The importance of the second commandment was strongly held by the Jewish people, especially in response to the teachings of Scriptures like the first reading today (Ex. 22:20-26). In fact, there is a famous story about a man who came to the great Rabbi Hillel and asked him to teach him the Law while he stood on one foot. Hillel replied by stating the Golden Rule as the heart of the Law.

A “me and Jesus” Christianity that does not include the service of the People of God (and all others in need) is not a Christianity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Lord Jesus invites each of us to always hold the balance between the two.

There is, of course, a logical priority to the First. It not only concerns the obvious fact that we should always place the Love of God before all other things in our lives, but, in a certain way, more importantly, the strength that we receive from loving God and being loved by Him is precisely where we get the strength to love our neighbors as ourselves. We cannot love the way that the Lord Jesus calls us to love without His grace and His strength. If “without Me you can do nothing,” then in particular, without Him we cannot love as He calls us to. Let us place Him first and plead with Him for the grace to love others, even as He has loved us!—Fr. Ed