How does love relate to law? The two can seem opposed, a contrast to one another. Love is a romantic dinner for two on a veranda overlooking the Seine. Law is a solemn old man in a black robe, sitting behind a high podium with police officers at his side.
The Readings for this Sunday insist that law and love, as strange as it may seem, are ultimately united. Without love, law is cold. Without law, love is mere emotion. The Readings show the unity of the Old and New Testaments in pointing to the love of God as the highest law.
1. Our First Reading is from the Book of Exodus:
Reading 1 Ex 22:20-26
Thus says the LORD:
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people,
you shall not act like an extortioner toward him
by demanding interest from him.
If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge,
you shall return it to him before sunset;
for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body.
What else has he to sleep in?
If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
This excerpt is taken from the “Covenant Code,” a body of laws consisting of Exodus 21-23. Many scholars consider it the oldest law code in Scripture, which was later the basis for further legal elaboration in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the context of Exodus 19-24, the law code of chs. 21-23 function as a set of civil laws given to Israel to govern her national life. Most if not all of these laws can be seen as extrapolations, developments, or applications of the principles of the Ten Commandments, which were given first, in Exodus 20.
In the present case, the laws prohibiting the abuse of aliens, widows, orphans, and the poor can all be seen as applications of the seventh commandment: You Shall Not Steal (cf. CCC §2443-49). The text has in view primarily economic offenses against these vulnerable populations. The poor and needy have a just claim on our excess goods. Not only is it stealing to take from them what is already in their possession, but it is also a form of stealing to refuse to help them with our excess goods. Failure to help the poor, when there is the opportunity to do so, is a form of stealing from the poor.
God promises to hear the cry of the widow, the orphan, and the poor man deprived of his cloak. These kinds of persons are particular objects of God’s compassion and love. Although most of the Readings will be discussing our love for God, there is a strong theme of God’s love for us, especially the poor among us, in this passage. The Bible is striking in describing God’s anger against those who take advantage of the vulnerable: My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans. God has a close relationship to the poor, and will rise up in great anger against those who oppress them. The vigor of the language should wake us out of our slumber. The oppressor of the poor will face death, and the fate of those he misused will fall on his own family.
2. The Responsorial Psalm stresses our love for God:
Responsorial Psalm Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
R/ (2) I love you, Lord, my strength.
I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.
R/ I love you, Lord, my strength.
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies.
R/ I love you, Lord, my strength.
The LORD lives and blessed be my rock!
Extolled be God my savior.
You who gave great victories to your king
and showed kindness to your anointed.
R/ I love you, Lord, my strength.
Psalm 18 is a Psalm of David, written by him to celebrate the blessings God had bestowed on him by granting him victory in battle and in raising him to the kingship. It is a todah psalm, that is, a psalm of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God for saving David from many situations of death. At the end of the Psalm, David thanks God for having made him king, even over Gentile nations. The royal theme of this Psalm will be continued in the Gospels. The point of the Psalm in the context of this Sunday’s Readings is to show how passionate love of God was already present among some—in this case, David—already in the Old Testament. Jesus’ re-affirmation of the command to love God is in continuity with the holy men and women of the old covenant.
Reading 2 1 Thes 1:5c-10
Brothers and sisters:
You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,
receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit,
so that you became a model for all the believers
in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth
not only in Macedonia and in Achaia,
but in every place your faith in God has gone forth,
so that we have no need to say anything.
For they themselves openly declare about us
what sort of reception we had among you,
and how you turned to God from idols
to serve the living and true God
and to await his Son from heaven,
whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.
One of the themes of this Second Reading is the modeling of the faith. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” and then they in turn “became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” The Macedonians imitated the Thessalonians who imitated Paul who imitated Christ. So we can see the Christian life as a chain of imitation. It continues down to the present day. It is one of the blessings of being Catholic that we have the processes of beatification and canonization. This enables the Church to hold up for imitation the lives of the holy who have lived within our times. This past week we were reminded of the holiness Pope St. John Paul II, whose memorial we celebrated on Thursday. He was a man of the modern world, who faced substantially the same challenges we are still facing, and he set us an example. He showed us what following Christ looks like in the modern era. He in turn imitated saints who preceded him, so the Church is one big network of copycats. But we need examples to imitate and copy. Every realm of human endeavor starts with imitation. So in music, one begins by playing the compositions of others, and imitating the styles or techniques of the musicians considered excellent in our own day. Only with much time do we make any unique contribution of our own.
4. The Gospel is Matthew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Let’s recall where we are in the Church year. We have been working through the Gospel of Matthew throughout Ordinary Time in Year A. We have moved from the beginning of the Gospel all the way to Passion Week, and now we are in Jerusalem listening to Jesus teach and debate before he goes to his death. Last week we read about the Pharisees and Herodians questioning him about paying taxes to Caesar. After that, the Sadducees came and questioned him about marriage and the resurrection—although that unit is not read in the Year A cycle. Now, one of the better scholars among the Pharisees tests him with a question about the Law.
We should note that there is Davidic kingdom typology going on in this passage. Solomon sat on his throne in Jerusalem and was tested with hard questions from a great number of people, most notably the Queen of Sheba, who came for that very purpose (1 Kings 4:34; 10:1). The whole scenario of Jesus sitting in Jerusalem and defeating all comers with his divine wisdom fulfills the image of wise King Solomon of so many centuries before. Jesus is the greater son of David, and that concept ties in with our responsorial, Psalm 18, which was a royal Davidic Psalm. We also recall that the Law of Moses required the King to meditate constantly on the Law (or Torah; Deut 17:18-20) and thus become an expert in its concepts and application. This is what we see Jesus doing: he has brilliant insight into the interpretation of the Torah, and a very clear view of which laws express principals of primary hermeneutical importance, and which are of lesser significance. He is the Davidic king who has meditated on the Law.
Although the text says the Pharisee meant to “test” him, this question is not asked with the same ill will as the previous questions from the Pharisees and Sadducees. There is not necessarily a trap here. Rabbis debated which laws within the Torah carried precedence, and discovering the way an individual Rabbi prioritized or ranked the Mosaic laws gave insight into his interpretive approach or legal system.
Jesus replies that the greatest commandment is love of God, followed closely by love of neighbor. Our Lord’s reply is not entirely unique: other Rabbis might have given a similar or identical answer. In fact, in Mark’s fuller account of this passage, the Pharisee who asks the question agrees enthusiastically with Jesus’ response (Mark 12:28-34). Our Lord takes the first and greatest commandment from Deut 6:4-5. This is a famous passage known as the Shema, which to this day is recited multiple times a day by pious Jews, similar to the way the Our Father is recited by Christians.
The second, Love your neighbor as yourself, is taken from the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (Lev 19:18). Many think Jesus invented this law, but he is actually quoting from the Pentateuch.
It is a common misconception that by summarizing the Law with the two commands of love, Jesus was somehow making the law less challenging or demanding. That is hardly the case. Perfectly to live out love for God and love for neighbor is all-consuming and very challenging. It is also a common misconception that the Pharisees had high moral standards, and Jesus criticized them for their high standards and instead dumbed things down to a generic “niceness” to everyone. This is also a completely wrong view. The Pharisees did not necessarily have high moral standards, although some among them (like the Pharisee asking this question) were decent men. The Pharisees had rigorous ritual standards, but frequently low moral demands. Jesus primarily criticizes them for (1) hypocrisy, in holding to high ritual standards but neglecting matters of morality, or (2) using legal reasoning to create loopholes in the moral law that allow them to evade the high demands of love of God and love of neighbor.
By emphasizing that the whole law is summed up in the two commands of love, Jesus does not make it easier to fulfill the law, he makes it more challenging, because there are no loopholes in love! If the criteria for evaluation of moral behavior in any given situation is the imperative of love rather than some external physical criteria, it becomes impossible to create legal ways to evade God’s will.
Of course, love has to be properly understood. Many reduce love to an emotion, or confuse love with “niceness.” There is an emotional component of love, and love can express itself in being nice. But love has to follow truth, and it is not ultimately loving to tell people falsehoods or encourage them along a false path that will not lead to their happiness. The difficulty arises when we love someone who is engaging in self-destructive behavior, but does not realize it. And when we point it out—motivated by love—they perceive us not as loving but as hostile or narrow-minded or “traditional” or intolerant or some other category.
Let’s discuss what it means to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind. The heart (Gk. kardia) can be understood as the seat of the emotions or affections, so loving God with the heart means cultivating our affection and emotional attachment to him. The soul (psyche) can be understood as our spiritual nature, so loving God with one’s whole soul is seeking spiritual union with him, the “unitive way.” Loving God with the mind (dianoia) is an intellectual endeavor, seeking to know God, to understand the truth about Him, his nature, and his creation. An anti-intellectual spirituality would be a failure to love God with the mind. We can observe a rough analogy to the classic three stages of the spiritual life: the purgative involves learning to love God with the heart vs. disordered passions or desires; the illumanitive involves loving God with the mind, as our minds are enlightened with the knowledge of God; and theunitive involves spiritual union, loving God with the soul.
Jesus wasn’t a lawless hippy or an anarchist revolutionary. He respected the role of law in human society and personal life. He and his parents were careful to observe the laws in force at the time, as we see from the infancy narratives in Luke. However, Jesus stressed that the law was ordered to love, and has to be interpreted in light of love, which is more than an emotion, but fundamentally an act of the will in which we will the good of the person who is loved. Love needs to be understood as an act of the will based on truth—this is where our culture misunderstands love. In any event, Jesus taught that law was ordered to love and had to be interpreted in light of love. This is more than we can humanly live up to, which is why we need to exercise faith and receive the sacraments. Through faith and the sacraments, Jesus can fill us with his love, such that St. Paul will say:
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)
Rom. 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
But the love of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts is key. We can’t live up to the command of love until we learn to love with the love of God which has been given us. Our own feeble efforts are not going to be sufficient.