Declining the Frisbee
Toward the end of the Gospel of Saint Matthew (which is the Gospel from which our lectionary readings for this year are selected) Jesus is confronted by priests and scribes (experts in the Law of Moses) relative to the major topics of 30 AD – whether there is a resurrection from the dead, whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, what is the relative importance of the many commandments of Jewish Law. By the way, according to scholars, the Law was not simply the Ten Commandments but included an additional 613 other commandments, 365 interdictions and 248 other prescriptions – so that the question of priorities was bound to arise.
Many rabbis underscored the equal importance of all the maxims in expressions like: whoever transgresses but one of the commandments breaks his relationship with God just as much as anyone who transgresses all the commandments. Or: the lightest commandment should be held as important as the gravest commandment. Or: if anyone transgresses loving one’s neighbor as oneself, he will soon wind up hating his neighbor even to the point of bloodshed. Not much room for latitude in any of these cases. So something of these extreme interpretations of the Law lay behind the question put to Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment of the Law is greatest?”
But is this question sincere? So often in an argument someone will ask a question, pretending to seek information – no ulterior motive. But just as often, if not more often, someone asks a question already knowing the answer he wants! He does not really seek information but wants to test someone, wants to catch someone in his speech (as might happen at an Inquisition). Jesus seems to have detected this motivation among the authorities that question him in Matthew. It’s as if they launch a Frisbee at him and every time he refuses to catch it and get trapped in a give and take that leads nowhere. No, rather he always lets the Frisbee fly past his ear as he lifts the discussion to a higher plane.
In this case, Jesus doesn’t get lost among the trees of the scribal forest – to select this commandment or that. He simply sums up the whole law in a combined quote from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “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 its equivalent: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He concludes: the whole of Scripture (and your life) pivots upon these two commandments – to love.
In effect he seems to say, stop becoming unhealthily scrupulous over things like gleaning wheat on the Sabbath or touching unclean people like a leper or Gentile. Reach down deep into the love that made you and let that flow forth – even as that wonderful river in the Book of Ezekiel flowed forth from the Temple and turned the Salt Sea into something sweet. If you adhere to this principle, the details will take care of themselves.
Spontaneous goodness – such as characterized Jesus – will prevail. Become a virtuoso when it comes to virtue and not forever an amateur.
There follows in Matthew then a whole chapter in which Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the scribes – in terms like “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.” Which leads to the question: are you as scrupulous about love and a deeper exploration of your faith as you are about your posture in church?