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.”
My apologies for a brief reflection this week, as I have not had much time to prepare a more in-depth look at today’s Gospel. In truth, though, this Gospel reading speaks for itself on just about every level, because Jesus made the path of salvation as simple as it can get. And simplicity is the entire point of this passage, and of the other readings today that focus on mission and mercy.
In Jesus’ time, the temple authorities spent much of their time proclaiming the minutiae of the Law, but little time on its purpose. Time and time again, Jesus and the disciples come across this attitude from the Pharisees and the scribes. They accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath by gleaning grain from fields for nourishment as they walk, or for doing healings on the Sabbath. They tried to trap him on questions about taxation, re-marriage, and so on, without success.
Too often we also miss the forest for the trees. We think of salvation and eternal life as some sort of complex equation for which only a few have the answer. This is the impulse behind gnosticism, the idea that Jesus left secret teachings that unlock the path to Heaven. It’s also the impulse behind a lot of amusing Hollywood and literary entertainment, all of which equally miss the point.
Jesus made the point clear, and the path as simple as possible. Love the Lord above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself. The way to enter the self-sacrificing love of the Trinity in the next life is to form ourselves to it here and now. This is agape or caritas love, in which we work for the betterment of others with the same passion as we do for ourselves, with the love for the Lord as its centerpiece.
We don’t miss this point because it’s complicated. We avoid it because it is hard to do. It’s much easier for us in our fallen and selfish natures to look for a shortcut around this simplicity, even if it becomes a scheme right out of The Da Vinci Code by the time it’s over. The whole arc of human history suggests that we’ll do anything to avoid loving our neighbors as ourselves if we can do so, at least generally speaking. We spend our time working on futile combinations and esoteric nonsense to avoid the simple path to salvation — form ourselves to the Lord’s self-sacrificing love.
That simple path is hard, but it is also effective, and it is tied to the Great Commission as well. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle tells his flock that they have amplified his evangelization by their prophesying and by their example in living in caritas:
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.
This is the fruit of following Jesus’ commandment, or more accurately His focus on what the Decalogue means. By living lives of caritas, we make the simple path plain, even though we occasionally stumble upon it. It opens the ears and hearts of others who hear the Gospel within that example of caritas. It is in this way that the church expands and the Good News of salvation spreads to all nations and peoples. When the people who evangelize do not live in this spirit, the actions speak louder than the words, and the simplicity gets betrayed by the machinations of those preaching this simplicity.
Love the Lord above all others, and love your neighbor as yourself. It couldn’t be simpler, and it couldn’t be tougher — but Christ knew that, too. That is why He sent the Holy Spirit to be among us, to help each of us open our hearts to that simplicity and to take comfort in it.
The front page image is “The Holy Trinity” by Jerónimo Cósida, 1570. On display in Spain.
“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.