“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading 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.”
Jesus concludes his discourse with the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Matthew 22 on a much different note than the conversation began. The interchange started as an attempt to trap Jesus into making a declaration by which they could either arrest him for blasphemy or get the Romans to do so for insurrection. Even this question is described as a test, in Matthew’s Gospel, but it has a different flavor to it. There is no obvious trap in this question; it is almost offered as a surrender, or perhaps even a sign of respect. It is the kind of question that one would expect the devout to pose to a well-regarded teacher of a rival school rather than an attempt to get someone to offer testimony that would allow him to be killed or imprisoned.
Jesus appears to acknowledge this in the passage that follows immediately afterward. Even though these men have shown themselves to clearly be His enemies, wishing the worst evil (in their minds, anyway) befall Him, Jesus takes the time to extend the engagement a little further in an attempt to clear their minds and help them see the truth. And at least one scribe, the man who actually asked the question, appears in Mark 12:32-34 to have had his heart opened because of Jesus’ decision to engage them rather than return their treatment of Him in kind. The scribe in Mark’s version of this event proclaims his agreement and extend the thought further:
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
This would have been rather novel for a scribe to say in the days of the temple. Temple worship, with its burnt offerings and sacrifices was the center of religious life for Israelites in those days, and also an important economy in Jerusalem. The power structure of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees depended on both, and yet this scribe has his eyes opened to the actual nature of God by Jesus — caritas. That is why, in Mark, Jesus praises the scribe.
Unfortunately, the scribe appears to be alone among his colleagues. Using the opening the Pharisees provide for an honest exchange, Jesus asks them in Matthew 22:41-46 to explain the nature of the Messiah by asking whose son the Christ would be. When they answer “David,” Jesus challenges them with David’s own words from Scripture:
He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
The reaction of the Pharisees shows that they didn’t listen to either answer. Rather than continue engaging Jesus in respect — which as teachers they should have felt bound to do with an errant believer — they instead refused to continue when they could not answer Jesus’ questions. Jesus challenged their entire view of the Messiah by quoting Scripture, but rather than continue the disputation, they resolve never to engage with Jesus again. (In Mark, the larger audience present for this exchange “heard him gladly,” which shows the power of Jesus’ argument.)
Here we have a practical demonstration of what Jesus explained to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes present for this challenge. Jesus teaches the crowds about the Word and how to live in harmony with God in order to empty Himself out for their salvation. The power brokers, however, do not approach Jesus in love, but in selfishness and sin. They want most of all to discredit Jesus to protect their own positions. This shows a stark contrast between opposites — Jesus’ caritas, the self-sacrificial love of God, and the self-love of sinful and fallen humanity.
Jesus knows the malice of his accusers, and yet does not shy from teaching them. In doing so, Jesus wins a convert — the scribe who has his eyes opened by Jesus’ decision to return love for malice. His accusers are so caught up in their malice that they are slow to recognize that Jesus has none for them in return. And yet, even when they do seem to dimly recognize it, they don’t even return love with love; they instead shut themselves to it and refuse to engage any further.
In doing this, Jesus demonstrates not just love for neighbor, but also exemplifies what it means to love one’s enemies, which Jesus also exhorted his disciples to do. This sense of love, caritas, means wishing for one’s neighbors and even enemies that they eventually thrive and achieve salvation through Jesus Christ. It is this meaning of Jesus’ demand that prompted missionaries from the earliest days of the church to go out among hostile nations to teach people the Word. Paul writes of this in today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10, and how “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[.]” Jesus models that in this exchange, offering the Word to His enemies at the same time as the throngs who gladly receive it, and succeeds in conversion despite the hostility.
Jesus wished for all to be saved, even though He knew that some would refuse His gift. That did not keep Him from offering it, and from loving His neighbors and His enemies as himself. Nor should that keep us from doing the same, even though we may not have much hope for their conversion and their salvation. We are called to love in an active way, not by simply endorsing whatever anyone else says or does, but by offering the truth and helping others to see it. That is true caritas — bringing others to eternal salvation as well as easing their temporal lives to help them to see it.
The front page image is from an early Renaissance tapestry currently on display at the Vatican Museum, from my own photographic collection.