Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 22:34-40, October 23, 2011
Probably the most intellectually entertaining show that was ever presented on Philippine television, rivaling telenovelas in its crowd-drawing power, was the Impeachment Trial of former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. For the first time the majority of the Filipinos were introduced to the best world of Filipino lawyers who not only explored new grounds of jurisprudence, but also had a field day of demonstrating their intelligence, prowess, legal tricks and tactics.
At the same time, however, it left many ordinary mortals disturbed. For them, the mountain of evidence uncovered by the prosecutors and presented by witnesses was enough to convince them about the truth of the charges. Obviously, it was difficult for them to understand that truth was served by the thrust of the defense lawyers to block evidence on the ground of irrelevance and immateriality. It was easier for them, for example, to go with Aquilino Pimentel who declared, “I vote to open the second envelope… because that is the only way to determine whether or not the contents are relevant or material to the case at bar.” But Francisco Tatad’s view, echoing the argument of Atty Estelito Mendoza, and repeated in his book, A Nation on Fire, that he refused the opening of the second envelope on the ground that the charge against Estrada was not part of the complaint verified by the House did not make sense to them! Given the arguments and counter-arguments and the various interpretations that were aired, however, the ordinary person could only wonder how complicated a society would be if it were governed only by law and lawyers! Could law be simplified enough so that it could be a real guide to all to true life, not a labyrinth where people—the majority of them—could be lost?
The background of today’s Gospel is somehow similar to this. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish fundamental law was the Torah or the five books of Moses which, according to Jewish scholars, contain 613 precepts, of which 248 are positive commandments, the rest being prohibitions. But because these laws needed to be applied to particular situations, Jewish scholars developed other laws, which became known as Halakah, in much the same way that Congress has to apply the Philippine Constitution to particular situation and age through enactment of laws. But when one considers that provinces, municipalities, and barangays also pass laws and ordinances in order to apply the fundamental law in the concrete circumstances of the people’s life, one can only imagine the mountain of laws that he must observe as a good Filipino citizen! At the same time, one must admit that there are few mortals like Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza, just as in Jesus’ time, many people were not as knowledgeable about laws as the Scribes and the Pharisees. Given the plethora of laws to be observed, the Jews needed to know what is central to the precepts and prohibitions so that by observing it, they would not have to bother about the overdevelopment of minor laws in order to be good Jews.
That seems to be the context of the question that a lawyer posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “What commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36). Out of the 613 commandments (mind you, not 10 commandments) of God, Jesus cited two. The first one comes from the heart of the Shema, which is an ancient Hebrew prayer lifted from the historical prologue to the Deuteronomic Code: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). The second comes from the Code of Holiness: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). For Jesus, these two are the most central commandments in the 613 laws of God found in the Torah. What Jesus introduced to his listeners, however, is not the combination of these two. In fact, we already find this in, for example, the Testament of Issachar: “But love the Lord and your neighbor, and show compassion for the poor and the weak” (T.Issac 5:2). What is new here is the view that both commands are on equal plane: “the second is like it” (Matt 22:39a). The second is similar to the first in theological depth, and there is an interrelationship between them. That is to say, although love of God comes first, yet there is no true love of God that is not incarnated in the love of neighbor. The proof that we love God lies in our love for our neighbor. This in a way is reflected in John: “If anyone says, ‘My love is fixed on God,’ yet hates his brother is a liar. One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).
What’s the point we are driving at? Law in Judaism at the time of Jesus has become a complicated phenomenon, with various groups making their own interpretation of the laws of God, a complication that is not without some similarities in what the Filipino people witnessed during the Impeachment Trial of Estrada. And as already noted, the average Filipino might not be able to follow the finer points of law, whose distinctions could be perceived easily only by the likes of Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza. Jesus’ audience, on the other hand, never had the sophistication of the Scribes and Pharisees, for it was a popular and simple one. Understandably enough, since it was his purpose that the law of God could be easily understood and followed by the common people, Jesus taught them what was so central so that by obeying it, they were assured that they have already followed the whole law. And what is so central is love. That is God’s will for man. In other words, for Jesus, anyone who loves God in his neighbor has fulfilled the whole law. Hence, the additional comment of Jesus to what we find in the Gospel of Mark: “On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well” (Matt 22:40). What does this imply? In being Christian, what counts, in the ultimate analysis, is life. But life is not all about laws, and it is too preciously to be placed in the hands only of lawyers. Before anything else, life is about love, and that life is meaningful if it embodies a love of God that is incarnated in the love of neighbor, in the love of others. No wonder, St Augustine could say, “Love, and do what you will.” Obviously, when a person loves, he fulfills what is most necessarily in life, and love is possible for any person, simple or not, even if he does not have the sophistication of an Estelito Mendoza or a Pharisee. After all, the best lawyer is not necessarily the good Christian; but a lover qua Christian lover surely is.*