“Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” a scholar of the Law asks Jesus in this Sunday’s readings. As frequently happens, the readings are familiar, but the Lectionary helps us to see that they are richer than we might have realized. This week’s readings help us to see how God’s mercy for us should express itself in our mercy toward others.
Jesus’s answer is so familiar as to be almost not worth quoting. “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.”
But then comes something a little surprising, “The second is like it . . . .” How is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves “like” the commandment to love God? They are both about love, yes. But in fact, our neighbor is not loveable as God is – Jesus himself acknowledges this by giving radically different standards for how much we love God and neighbor. Only God is worth loving with all our heart, and soul, and mind.
A second strangeness takes us deeper: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Remember, it is a scholar of the Law – the Old Testament Law – who is asking him this question. In my experience, most people do not consider the Old Testament to be all about love. To understand Jesus’s teaching, we need to read the texts to which he directs us.
The first reading is from the second half of Exodus. The first half of Exodus is the exciting part, with plagues and pharoahs and the Passover and the Ten Commandments. But most people stop reading there: after the Ten Commandments comes endless law-giving, all the way through Leviticus. The next book, Numbers, gives some stories, but then comes Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law” – or “more laws!” The stereotype is that this is all pretty awful stuff; my students tell me they think it’s all about stoning people.
So it’s important that the Lectionary gives us a taste: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. . . . If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him . . . If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?”
It turns out that all this law giving is about mercy, mercy, mercy. What is hardest about the Law of the Old Testament is that it tells us to care for the poor, the weak, and the outcast.
Oh, it is violent too: “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,” God tells them, “. . . My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword.” Yikes!
But it is violent only in demanding that we be merciful.
And there is a rationale: “for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” If you mistreat widows and orphans, “then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”
The Psalm response says, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” The heart of the teaching is that those who have received mercy should be merciful – and we all rely on God’s mercy. If God had not loved us, undeservedly, we would not have the opportunity to abandon the weak – or even to pass over the undeserving.
We are called to express mercy (to love our neighbor as ourselves) as a way of acknowledging God’s mercy toward us (and thus loving him above all things).
The reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that this is how we give witness to God’s mercy toward us.
“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.”
First, they were in affliction, but discovered the Holy Spirit as their joy. God has saved them, been mercy to them, and strength.
But in receiving that mercy, they imitate those who received mercy before them, and become models to those after them.
Our readings calls us to discover God’s mercy in our lives. In showing that mercy to others, we both pass on the Gospel of his love and give him the thanks he deserves.
Think of someone who doesn’t deserve your mercy. Can you think of specific ways that God has already been merciful to you in just the same way you are called to be merciful to them?