When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
John the Baptist was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness (eremós)” (Mark 1:3; Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4). At the news of his death, Jesus withdrew to a “deserted place (erēmon topon),” by himself (Matthew 14:13).
In the Bible, the desert (or wilderness) is a place of encounter with God and truth. The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert (eremós) to be tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1).
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the request: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1).
The children of Israel never imagined that they would wander in the desert for forty years! The long years of nomadic trial, temptation, and trust in the Lord for daily bread were designed to attune ears to the voice of God. Away from the hustle and bustle of Egyptian cities, God called his people to himself in the wilderness.
The Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) is translated as eremós in the Greek Septuagint. The biblical concept of the wilderness (midbar) is derived from the noun dabar (speech, word) and the verb dabar (to speak).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the “word of the Lord” visits patriarchs and prophets with divine guidance and directives (e.g., Genesis 15:1, 4; I Samuel 15:10; 2 Samuel 7:4; 24:11; Jeremiah 1:4). The “Ten Commandments” are the “ten words” given to Moses in the wilderness of Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:13; Hebrew).
In Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd followed Jesus into the wilderness and received an abundant feast from five loaves and two fish. As the Father fed the Israelites in the desert with “bread from heaven” (manna) and the word of the Lord (the five books of the Pentateuch and the two tablets of the law) through his servant Moses, he fed them with his own Son, the Word made flesh and “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32).
When the Word of the Lord fills our being, we become a desert oasis for our God.
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.
One of the disciples was about to betray Jesus (John 13:21-30). Another was forewarned that he would deny him thrice before cockcrow (John 13:38). The disciples had reasons to feel uneasy. Yet immediately after these predictions, Jesus exhorted them to stand firm in faith.
“Believe in God; believe also in me,” an alternative translation reads. Pisteuete (believe) can be read in either the indicative or imperative moods.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
“My Father’s house” evoked a world of images and ideas that shaped the character of Israel from ancient times. Psalm 122 celebrates a pilgrim’s journey to “the house of the LORD,” Jerusalem, which means “foundation of peace (shalom).”
I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
The same word for house, oikia, is used in John’s Gospel and in the Greek translation of the Psalm. Shalom, shalom, shalom—the Psalm resounds thrice (verses 6-8). The house of the LORD is a city of peace, an assembly of praise, and a citadel of justice.
There are many mansions or dwelling places (moné) in the house of the LORD, room enough for all. The Son of Man who had “nowhere to lay his head” on earth, poorer than foxes and birds, threw open the doors to his Father’s house of plenty.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.
Jesus will ultimately triumph over death; the grave cannot hold him prisoner. Christ will “come again” and live forever with his disciples. A little later, Jesus locates the Father’s dwelling (moné) in the hearts of believers:
Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Way (Hebrew derek and Greek hodos) is a central idea in Mosaic law and liturgy. “Walking” (halak) in the way of the LORD is an idiom for living righteously in the sight of God.
Be careful, therefore, to do as the LORD, your God, has commanded you, not turning aside to the right or to the left, but following exactly the way that the LORD, your God, commanded you that you may live and prosper, and may have long life in the land which you are to possess.
Now therefore, Israel, hear the statutes and ordinances I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I am commanding you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
The two stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai contained everything humankind needed to live a holy and blessed life. Rabbis, scholars, and faithful Jews down the centuries meditated on the law “day and night… like a tree planted near streams of water” (Psalm 1:2-3).
The Ten Commandments are profoundly relational in essence. The rabbinic tradition teaches that the “first tablet” concerns our relationship with our creators, both divine and human (worship of God and honor of parents, who are co-creators), and the “second tablet” concerns our relationship with our neighbors. Ethics and social justice (horizontal relationships) flow from metaphysics (the vertical relationship of Creator and creation, mirrored in the parent-child relationship). The foundation for fraternal justice, human rights, and dignity is the imago dei: human persons are made in the image of God.1
The Decalogue contains the first ten commandments of the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people. According to Hebrew scholars, all 613 are reducible to the Ten Commandments, and the Decalogue itself is reducible to a single precept.
A Gentile asked Rabbi Hillel (c. 110 B.C. to A.D. 10) to teach him the entire Torah while he, the inquirer, stood on one foot. The rabbi answered, “What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary.”
Rabbi Akiva (c. A.D. 50-135) summarized the Torah with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus proved himself to be a first-rate rabbi in a conversation with a kindred scribe:
One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Love of God and neighbor are two sides of a single coin (the dime of the Decalogue). The imperishable law (Psalm 119:89) is “sweeter than honey” and a life-giving balm (Psalm 119:103). To become a walking, living Torah was the aspiration of a true son or daughter of Abraham.
Jesus, who grew up hearing and chanting the Torah of his beloved people, had the utmost reverence for the law and the prophets.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the new Moses delivered the heart and kernel of the Mosaic law, summed up in the Golden Rule:
Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.
In the Mosaic tradition, law keepers are children of God. Conformity to the law is love of God and neighbor. Jesus raised the bar higher than any teacher before him. No rabbi had ever said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Rabbi Jesus said, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” or in Luke’s version, “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful” (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36).
The nation of Israel produced some of the wisest sages the world has ever known. Kings and queens of foreign nations flocked to Solomon’s temple and palace to hear the wisdom of Israel as Moses predicted:
Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, “This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people.”
Yet Jesus baffled his audience with a new vision of “righteousness” beyond that of their most illustrious members:
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus baffled and eluded the world right up to the Cross and even to the present day. Without the Holy Spirit, who can understand him or even say, “Jesus is Lord”? (1 Corinthians 12:3)
The Golden Rule engraved on two tablets of stone Came to life in the valley as a breathing bone.2
1 The Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions have different enumerations of the commandments given in Exodus 20:1-17. See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnotes. The rabbinic tradition, of which Jesus was a part, gives the following order:
Readings In Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7, Jesus speaks to his disciples from a mountain, a place Moses once chose to speak to the Jews, but Jesus speaks God’s revelation to a wider world from a mountain. His words are loyal to the Jewish traditions and laws that Moses taught. He’s not abolishing them. He came “not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
First, remember them. That’s what the Jewish scriptures tell us to do. “Take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”
Lent calls us to remember.
Second, practice them, from the greatest of the commandments to the least. Lent leads us to great thoughts and great visions of faith, but this season reminds us to remember and to do small things as well. “A cup of cold water,” a prisoner, someone sick visited, someone naked clothed, someone hungry fed, “a word to the weary to rouse them.”
The law of God often comes down to small things like these. They’re always at hand, readily available. They’re within our power to do, and the greatest in God’s kingdom are best at doing them.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Asking, seeking, and knocking presuppose desire. In some wisdom traditions, desire is the root of suffering and must be extinguished in order to be liberated, but in the protological account of human origins in Genesis, desire is presented as primordial—an energy that must be directed in accordance with the Law of Knowledge and Life to blossom into godlikeness.
The serpent’s temptation to Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit contained a partial truth: “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
Jesus said to the Jews, quoting Psalm 82:6, Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? (John 10:34)
Early Christian writers like St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Gregory of Nazianzus believed that Adam and Eve were created in an intermediate state, with the potentiality for deification and infallible knowledge hinging on obedience to the commandment.
St. Ephrem writes:
For had the serpent been rejected, along with the sin, they would have eaten of the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge would not have been withheld from them any longer; from the one they would have acquired infallible knowledge, and from the other they would have received immortal life. They would have acquired divinity in humanity; and had they thus acquired infallible knowledge and immortal life they would have done so in this body.1
St. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
This being He placed in paradise… And He gave him a Law, as material for his free will to act upon. This Law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted; nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to men—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction, or imitate the serpent. But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time; for the Tree was, according to my theory, Contemplation, which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon; but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy; just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk.2
The primordial desire to “be like gods” is fulfilled in Jesus Christ who deified Adam by his Incarnation, obedience unto death, and resurrection.
Asking, seeking, and knocking is the process of walking hand in hand with the Father as his child in his only-begotten Son, and receiving freely the fruit of wisdom and life from the Spirit.
If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
The syllabic count in the following poem adds up to fifty—the fifty days from Easter to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the Church. ASK, SEEK, and KNOCK are 3, 4, and 5 letter words, and their respective stanzas consist of 3, 4, and 5 syllable lines.
32 + 42 + 52 = 50 syllables
Adam’s son, Son of God, King and Priest
Strolls with Abba— Eden enfleshed— Eating fruit of Knowledge and Life.
Kingdom of Heaven, Nucleus within, Offers orisons: Come, Holy Spirit, Kingdom come on Earth.
1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis II.23, in St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), 214. St. Ephrem’s view is also found in the Palestinian Targum tradition at Genesis 3:22 and in Nemesius, On the Nature of Man 5. See Brock’s introduction (footnote 39).
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
Genesis 2:15 (Revised Standard Version)
Adam, priest and king of the Lord’s garden sanctuary, had the duty “to till it and keep it.”
The Hebrew word for “keep” (shamar) appears throughout God’s treaty with Israel: they are to “keep” the Sabbath, commandments, festivals, and covenant.
Adam had only one law to “keep” in the garden of Eden:1
You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.
The law was a matter of life and good, death and evil. Keeping the law proved Adam’s love, trust, and obedience. Preserving the law, Adam “walked” with God.
Like a father to his children, Moses gave the law to Israel:
See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the Lord, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping (shamar) his commandments, statutes and ordinances, you will live and grow numerous, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. If, however, your heart turns away and you do not obey, but are led astray and bow down to other gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the Lord swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.
Law and love are one in the heart of God. Keeping the law is union with God. Christ is the Law and Love Incarnate.
The Cross, the tree of life, transcended the deadly effects of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eclipsing the Mosaic polarity of “life and death” and “good and evil,” Jesus shocked the world by swallowing death and evil.
“Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
“Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
The poisoned drink that killed Christ’s mortal body transmuted into living wine by drowning in his divinity.
St. Paul, zealous keeper of the Mosaic covenant, had to be blinded and knocked to his spiritual senses before proclaiming in wonder:
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
Walking the line between life and death is a fearful thing for mortals, but Jesus walked right into the black hole of death and evil and emerged into the Light immortal and transfigured. Jesus set us free from the enslaving fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).
The divine strategy was as incomprehensible in Jesus’ day as it is in ours:
He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. ”Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?
Christ forfeited everything to God and won heaven and the whole world. On the Cross, losers are winners.
Christ Rose Obedient Smashing Sin
1 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Second Oration on Easter 8: “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on. This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.” From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 62.
According to Aphraates, a 4th century Syrian ascetic and bishop in the patristic tradition: “He established a new law for Adam, that he could not eat of the tree of life.” See the Liturgy of the Hours, First Week of Lent, Wednesday, Office of Readings.
Then God said: Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature: tame animals, crawling things, and every kind of wild animal. And so it happened: God made every kind of wild animal, every kind of tame animal, and every kind of thing that crawls on the ground. Clean and unclean he created them. God saw that it was good.
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
God’s orderly and functional arrangement of the cosmos into day and night (time), sea, sky, and dry land (space), filled with heavenly lights, animals, plants, and humankind was pronounced “good” seven times.
The universe of the scribes and Pharisees, however, was contaminated and polluted, filled with categories of clean/unclean and pure/impure that were foreign to the creation story.
So where did the distinction of clean and unclean come from? Jesus, who fearlessly interacted with centurions, lepers, “tax collectors and sinners,” walked in Gentile territory and breathed Gentile air, made no division in the created world between clean and unclean. Look within the heart, he said, and root out the true source of defilement.
Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them… For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.
Mark 7:15, 21-23
A centuries-old religious consciousness that developed out of the purification laws and rituals of the Mosaic covenant was hard to challenge. Many heroes of Israel were celebrated as martyrs in defense of their laws and customs. The prophet Daniel admirably withstood pressure from the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to partake of the royal food and wine, receiving only kosher vegetables and water (Daniel 1:8-17). In consequence, the Lord filled him with prophetic insight. The scribe Eleazar of Maccabean fame was martyred for refusing to eat pork as a sign of assimilation to Hellenistic culture (2 Maccabees 6:18-31).
Jesus alone could not transform religious consciousness. He left that work to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and enlightener of hearts. It was not to Daniel or Eleazar, whose witness preserved the Hebrew faith, that the following vision was given, but to Peter the apostle:
The next day, while they were on their way and nearing the city, Peter went up to the roof terrace to pray at about noontime. He was hungry and wished to eat, and while they were making preparations he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.” But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.” The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky.
The vision stunned Peter. The Holy Spirit who gave him the vision also prompted the Roman centurion Cornelius to summon Peter to his house. The shocking actions of Jesus now became Peter’s own as he opened his speech with this revelation:
You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean.
The division between Jew and Gentile was not created “in the beginning,” but developed out of the covenant between God and Abraham, “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4). The final goal of the divine-human covenant is oneness in Christ, as expressed by Paul:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
With the Son’s revelation of the Father and the Holy Spirit, humanity is now destined for a life even beyond that of Eden. For with Paul’s inclusion of “male and female” among the divisions overcome by Christ, Adam is transfigured to the Trinitarian fullness of the divine image as persons transcending individuals:
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:
Scripture says in the first place, “God made man; in the image of God, he made him.” Only after that is it added, “He made them male and female,” a division foreign to the divine attributes.2
Human persons in the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the whole theandric nature by grace through Jesus Christ. As the person of the Son of God is neither male nor female, Trinitarian fullness integrates the gender division into the oneness of deified human nature.
Pentecostal baptism by the descent of tongues of fire upon unique persons crowned the work of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Body of Christ is thus One Many, mirroring the One Three Trinity.
Peter did not break with Abraham and Moses, but finally saw the Light guiding Israel down the centuries:
In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, all creation is moving towards its fulfillment in the glory of the Blessed Trinity.
God made all things good. Knowledge of good and evil Marked clean and unclean spaces, Birds, beasts, persons and races— A world un-paradisal— Till Christ died on wood.
1 According to the New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote, “The vision is intended to prepare Peter to share the food of Cornelius’ household without qualms of conscience.” It is not a prescription for food culture.
In Genesis 1:29-30, God actually intended vegetarianism for humans and animals. See NABRE footnote: “According to the Priestly tradition, the human race was originally intended to live on plants and fruits as were the animals (see v. 30), an arrangement that God will later change (9:3) in view of the human inclination to violence.”
2 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Man 16. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 35.
Our first readings this week at Mass are from the Letter to the Galatians, who were pagans St. Paul converted probably on his second missionary journey through Asia Minor. When Paul left, some Jewish Christians arrived and were enticing the new converts to adopt Jewish practices, especially that of circumcision. They also called Paul’s authority into question, saying he wasn’t among the original witnesses to Jesus’ life and resurrection.
Paul responds in this emotional letter written in 54 or 55 AD in which he voices amazement that the Galatians are listening to the newcomers and losing sight of the faith they’ve learned. Paul gives an account of his own call; he defends his authority to preach the gospel and his communion with the other apostles.
But the theme of his letter is belief in Jesus Christ, who was crucified. “Stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” ( Gal 3,1) Don’t lose sight of what’s most important, what’s central to your faith–Jesus Christ!
Of course, losing sight of what’s most important isn’t only a characteristic of the Galatians; we do it too. That’s especially true in times like ours today.
Some of the most beautiful expressions of Paul’s personal faith are found in this letter. He describes his own conversion as a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” a grace by which God “revealed his Son to me.” It wasn’t through a book he read or a blinding light. Jesus revealed himself to him and that revelation continued. “I have been crucified with Christ,yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal 2,19-20)
Do we need to remember too the Lord’s revelation of himself to us today?
Living in Christ means living in his Spirit, Paul continues. The Galatians are enticed by practices of the Jewish law; Paul reminds them of the law Jesus taught. “The whole law is fulfilled in one statement,’ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5,14) Bearing one another’s burdens is the way you fulfill the law of Christ, by sharing good things with one another you fulfill his law. Don’t tire of doing good, keep doing it, Paul says to his children in faith. (Gal 6,2;6:9)
Paul doesn’t give the Galatians a book he wrote once about Jesus, he speaks to them from his own faith in Jesus which is living and constantly growing. He’s likely just read the verse from the Old Testament about the curse one bears who hangs on the tree. The Son of God took on that cursed condition of hanging on a tree! What greater love can there be? Paul’s thinking too of the promise Abraham embraced who lived long before the mosaic law existed. That was the promise Abraham saw in faith and that’s the revelation the gentiles see in the Crucified Christ.
The Letter to the Galatians is about essentials that have been forgotten or replaced by something else. Paul recalls the essentials. “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
In the legalistic society Jesus grew up in, he witnessed the meticulous ways in which people carried out their ritual purifications, food laws, and Sabbath regulations. The heart and soul of these minute rules was love, Jesus pointed out earlier to the wise scribe (Mark 12:28-34). He had no battle to pick about words and letters in the law. Such scholarly disputations were a hindrance to his simple yet inexhaustibly profound message from the Father’s heart: the only-begotten Son of God is the Law made flesh.
All of the sacrifices of the Old Law were nailed to the Cross in Jesus Christ. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will not live. Seen in the light of the Trinity, Jesus showed us that the way to authentic personhood and communion is self-emptying. By detaching from ego and its illusory, finite possessions both material and spiritual (“mine”), persons are released into the infinity of the Triune Love (“all mine are thine, and thine are mine”).
Spiritual eyes open slowly and gradually, over centuries and generations, as humanity crawls from babyhood to adulthood as one man. In the dramatic episode of Elijah’s glorious defeat of the prophets of Baal, the lukewarm children of Israel returned to their God. However, zeal and fanaticism led Elijah to kill his opponents. With the heat of Jezebel’s threat on his neck to take his life in return, he fell into depression under a broom tree, begging the Lord to let him die. He was not fully aware of the reason for his slump, but it probably came from his excessive zeal.
No prophet ever died for his enemies but Jesus Christ. All of the arrows, violence, scorn, beatings, and hatred of the scattered children of Adam were hurled upon the Cross. And Jesus said, “I thirst.” He thirsts for our love and unity. He thirsts for our ultimate happiness which can only be obtained by dropping our arrows and emptying our hands. We are one, he told his disciples at the Last Supper. If you hurt one of the least of my brethren, you hurt me, he told Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus.
In the childhood of humankind, the line between good and evil was drawn outside in the world of material extension. “Us” versus “Them,” “friends” versus “enemies,” “I” versus “You.” The line between good and evil, however, is found within the human heart, the true altar of sacrifice. The message of the Beatitudes is conquer yourself. The battle with sin and evil is within. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is replaced by, “Love your enemies.”
Stories abound from the desert fathers and mothers about the discovery of God’s universal love for all without discrimination, a realization obtained only after a great interior battle and purification.
Let us pray with the Psalmist, “Teach me your paths, my God, and guide me in your truth” (Psalm 25:4b, 5a).
Most of the encounters between Jesus and the teachers of the Law in the Gospels were confrontational and combative, but in this passage we meet an unusually thoughtful and spiritually mature son of Israel.
One of the scribes who had been listening to Jesus asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The first part of Jesus’ response was familiar to every Jew from the cradle—the Shema (Hear!) began every synagogue service and was the pillar of Judaism. Found in Deuteronomy (6:4-9; 11:13-21) and Numbers (15:37-41), over time the command to “bind them” to the hand, between the eyes, and on doorposts and gates was taken literally and evolved into the phylacteries which Jesus condemned (Matthew 23:5).
The second part came from Leviticus 19:18. All of the minute rules and regulations of Jewish law were summed up in these two precepts—love of God and love of neighbor, or simply, love, for the two are inseparable.
The scribe found a kindred spirit in Jesus and spontaneously responded: “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, He is One and there is no other than he. And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
This remarkable scholar probably spent a lot of time meditating on the essence of the Law contained in Prophets like Samuel: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Obedience is better than sacrifice, to listen, better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). In passages like these, the highest wisdom of Judaism is contained. All external works and sacrifices find their fulfillment in the inner temple of the heart.
The scribe received a tremendous gift that day in hearing from Love Incarnate himself, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ face, body, hands, voice and entire demeanor radiated wisdom and kindness. People listening to him were captivated: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”