The Last Question?
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Richard Finn contemplates the Cross of Christ which is what love of God and neighbour looks like.
We’ve come to the final question – the last put by the Lord’s many critics to undermine His authority, to challenge His knowledge of the Mosaic Law. In the verses immediately preceding this Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus has finally silenced the Sadducees in a resounding affirmation of the resurrection. Now it is the turn of the scribes and Pharisees. They, too, will be reduced to silence.
Our Saviour shows His mastery of sacred Scripture in arriving at these two principles under which the many other laws and traditions are subsumed. Jesus first cites Moses’ command to Israel in Deuteronomy (6:5) “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”, words from the Shema, the prayer at the heart of daily Jewish worship. The command to “love your neighbour as yourself” can be seen to précis the many passages of the Law like that in today’s reading from Exodus urging our concern for the stranger (or immigrant), the widow (or single-parent), and the orphan (or children in care). Jesus is not replacing these more detailed requirements of social justice and compassion, however adept we may be at ignoring their demands in present-day society.
Where, then, does this leave us? Put bluntly, the authority which Jesus here displays cannot be ignored. Is it to be rejected or accepted? Is this not the authority of One who is Himself the Author of Sacred Scripture? The questions are no longer for Jesus, but for the rest of us. If the lectionary stops at this point, Matthew’s Gospel does not. Jesus at once turns the tables, puts the question Himself: “While the Pharisees were gathered round, Jesus put this question to them, ‘What is your opinion about the Christ? Whose son is he?’”.
If we place these questions in their dramatic context near the opening of the Gospel’s passion narrative, we see something of the terrible ironies that play around this scene. All seemingly agree upon what love of God and neighbour should be, but how does that love appear in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth? Whatever their knowledge of the Law, these people are about to engineer the execution of Him who is both Son of God and Son of Man.
“On these two commandments”, Jesus says, “hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.” There are painful echoes here of other texts, of the accursed man who hangs on the tree in Deuteronomy. The Greek verb was used by St. Paul in writing to the church in Galatia when he applied that text of Deuteronomy to the death of Christ. In the death of Christ we see the gap between what we know about love and what we do without it. The cross reveals us to be the kind of creature that can torture and execute even the Son of God. That is one of the most painful truths of the Christian faith, lost or denied when a false theology attempts to shift the blame onto outsiders in anti-semitism, racism, or some other kind denial of our common fallen state.
As my Novice Master, Fr. Herbert McCabe OP, never tired of preaching, Christ’s cross just is, in this fallen world, what love of God and neighbour leads to and looks like. Packed away in this short scene is the unpalatable truth that we too must take up our crosses if we are to love, and so worship God in spirit and in truth. We can expect scorn and even persecution because that’s the reaction love sets up in those who abuse power. No wonder this last question put to Christ leads to his questioning of the Pharisees. If we are really in the business of loving God and neighbour, we shall need the power and victory of the Messiah. It is not enough to mean well. That is to under-estimate the forces of evil that confront us. We shall need God’s grace, the power of the Messiah at work in our lives, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the Church and its sacraments. We shall need the divine life communicated to us in the holy humanity of Christ, in His precious body and blood, which is our Eucharist; and we shall ultimately need His judgement and with it, the vindication of the martyrs.
Exodus 22:20-26 | 1 Thess 1:5-10 | Matthew 22:34-40
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Fifth Station of the Cross by Eric Gill, in Westminster Cathedral.