Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. fr Benedict Jonak asks whether the Church would still be needed if we had never sinned.
When St Thomas Aquinas reflects on relations between the state and the Church, he postulates that even if humanity had not fallen, even if it were a perfect society, we would still need the structures of state to organise the way we live together and work together.
We may continue that line of enquiry and ask a similar question about the Church: would we still need God’s commandments if we were living in a pre-fallen community?
The answer depends, among other things, on what we mean by being ‘perfect’. If we take St Paul’s hymn of love, that when all things pass away it is only love that remains, we may comfortably say that what Christ gives in his commandment of love is not just a remedy for our imperfection but that it properly belongs to what humanity is truly called to, namely love of God and neighbour. And so love in Christ and through Christ is our perfection.
And so today’s reading from Matthew is very special. The question posed by the Pharisees seems to be genuine. They are really interested in hearing what Jesus has to say, they are interested in discovering and following the truth.
They have just heard how Jesus answered the Sadducees, how he defended the Jewish and Pharisaic faith in the resurrection. The Pharisees see in Jesus an ally, this time they ask him which of the laws is most important.
There are 613 laws that they follow: 248 positive ones corresponding to the number of bones in the human body (according to ancient medicine) and 365 negative corresponding to 365 days in the year. Which one of these is the greatest, the most important, they ask.
They ask Jesus to single out one. He says he gives them two but in fact we hear three commandments. The first one is not surprising at all. The command to love the Lord with all heart, soul and mind is well established in the Jewish tradition.
It is the second and the third one which would might have been surprising to Jesus’ listeners.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself is in fact not one but two commandments.
You need to love yourself in the first place in order to love your neighbour with the same love.
So we end up with three:
Love your God.
Love your neighbour with the same love as you love yourself.
And how do we do that? The traditional way is not limited but ought to include at least prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which Christ teaches in other places in the scriptures.
Prayer builds and restores our love for God. If we attempted to use God for our own purposes, even if they are noble, we end up treating God as an object, an idol. Prayer helps us to see that God is someone we are called to love. So prayer restores our relationship with God; with the most loving of friends.
Fasting restores our love for ourselves. It helps in curbing our selfishness and it strengthens our will. So it enables us to live a virtuous and free life, a free life where it is we who are in control of our desires and not the desires which enslave us and take away our freedom.
Almsgiving restores our love for our neighbours. In giving alms we are constantly expanding our hearts to love not just members of our family, not just our friends, but complete strangers.
This commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is probably the most revolutionary of all.
Notice that it is no longer a mere prohibition, the one that we have heard in the first reading:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him”. Jesus does not ask us to love our brothers and sisters and not to harm others. He encourages us to love all people, including strangers, as all are created in the image and likeness of God and all are called to the same destiny: to see the face of God.
For this reason, before we can see God face to face, we need to educate out desires, our love and longing for him. And in this way love becomes both means and the goal of Christian life and its striving for true perfection, which can only be given to us by God who is love.
Readings: Exodus 22:20-26 | 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 | Matthew 22:34-40