1st Reading – Exodus 22:20-26
Thus says the LORD:
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people,
you shall not act like an extortioner toward him
by demanding interest from 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?
If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
Today’s first reading comes from the law codes of ancient Israel and reveals the humane nature of that law.
(This passage appears as Exodus 22:21-27 in most translations, but the New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, and New Jerusalem Bible have it as Exodus 22:20-26.)
Thus says the LORD: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
The aliens (gēr) referred to here are not merely foreigners passing through the land of the Israelites; they live among people who are not their relatives. As such, they do not enjoy the civil rights or privileges that come with kinship.
Aliens were usually forced to leave their homes because of adverse conditions like war, plague, or famine.
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
A special reason is given for consideration of the alien: the Israelites themselves had been resident aliens in Egypt. Jacob, the great Israelite patriarch, was forced by a severe famine to emigrate with his entire family to Egypt.
It was precisely the hardships the Israelites experienced in Egypt that led to the revelation of their God as the God of the dispossessed.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
Israel was a patriarchal society based on the rights of free adult men. Women were under the jurisdiction of and benefited from the rights that belonged to their fathers, their brothers when their fathers died, their husbands when they married, and their sons when their husbands died.
The term “widow” was generally used only to refer to childless women whose husbands had died and who could not return to their family of origin. These women were frequently reduced to begging, a life that was always dangerous, but particularly so for women.
Orphans were those children who had no legal male guardians. They too were utterly vulnerable and relegated to lives of begging.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.
God is particularly attentive to the needy. If these vulnerable aliens, widows, and orphans are further oppressed and they cry out to God, God will hear them just as he heard the cry of the Israelites when they were in bondage in Egypt (Exodus 3:7).
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
The punishment for afflicting them is severe. Those guilty will be killed, and their wives and children will be forced to endure the plight of the widowed and orphaned.
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.
The law is also concerned with those who are burdened by financial hardship, a burden which is not to exacerbated by their fellow man.
Here, the Israelites are instructed to provide interest-free loans to the needy so that they can recover their lives. The loans addressed here are not for commercial purposes, but for alleviating distress; taking interest in these cases would be profiting from another’s misfortune.
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?
Every attempt must be made to ensure that the vulnerable are not made to endure any additional humiliation or distress. Since one’s cloak also served as a blanket against the evening chill, to demand that cloak as a pledge would deprive that person of warmth and protection.
If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.
Once again God promises to hear the cries of the dispossessed and vulnerable. The reason God gives for his concern is: I am gracious (hannûn)! He is concerned about those who are vulnerable. God is the God of the oppressed.
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Brothers and sisters:
You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake.
And 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
in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth
not only in Macedonia and in Achaia,
but in every place your faith in God has gone forth,
so that we have no need to say anything.
For they themselves openly declare about us
what sort of reception we had among you,
and how you turned to God from idols
to serve the living and true God
and to await his Son from heaven,
whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.
This week we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. In today’s reading, Paul sketches the route taken by the gospel message as it passes from one people to another, one group to another, one generation to another.
However, as important as the transmission of teaching may be, the gospel is really communicated by the example of lifestyle. In this passage, Paul develops that theme.
Brothers and sisters: You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit,
The process of transmitting the gospel through daily living begins with Paul and his missionary companions. Their manner of living among the Thessalonians converted them; now they too imitate God in the manner revealed by Christ.
Francis of Assisi taught a similar message when he exhorted his followers: Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.
“Those who, eager to believe, suffer insults and injuries from their fellows, are precisely those who may be called imitators of the apostles and of the Lord Himself. He suffered the same things from the Jews, as did the apostles who endured persecution as they pursued their faith in God.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles 1 Thessalonians 1:6]
so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
The conversion of the Thessalonians had such an extraordinary effect on their lives that they in turn made a comparable impact on the lives of others.
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.
The reputation of the Thessalonians has spread throughout Macedonia and Achaia, Roman provinces in the eastern part of Greece.
For they themselves openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you,
It seems that even the details of the conversion of the Thessalonians are well known.
and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God
Paul uses what may have been a creedal formula to describe how they turned from idols to the worship of the living and true God.
and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.
To the monotheism of the living God, christology is added. Jesus is depicted as the one who was raised from the dead by God, and the one who will come from heaven to save them.
That is: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.
Paul believes that those who are faithful amidst the tribulations of this life will be spared the final wrath of God. He is not painting a picture of doom, but rather giving meaning to the hardships the Christians are presently enduring. In doing so, he is assuring them of a hopeful future.
Gospel – Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“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 like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Last week we heard Jesus’ reply to the question of paying taxes to Rome – a question designed as a trap. Between that account and today’s reading, Jesus is approached by the Sadducees, a priestly and aristocratic group sympathetic to Roman occupation. They questioned him about the resurrection and whose wife the woman with seven husbands will be. Jesus reply was that in heaven there is no marriage because all are like angels, but there certainly is an afterlife because God had referred to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6) — and as we know, he is the God of the living and not the dead.
He successfully sidestepped the Sadducees and has again astounded the crowd. Now the Pharisees, a lay group that exerted significant influence among the people because of their knowledge and piety, set out to trick Jesus once again.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Some translations call him a lawyer. He is a scribe, an expert in the law of the Torah.
This question was an issue of considerable interest to rabbis at the time, about which there seems to have been little agreement. While the discussion in rabbinic circles was probably carried on for the sake of clarification, in the present hostile context the question is posed in order to put Jesus to the test (peiráō).
By this point in history, the Law included 613 commandments, 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year), and 268 prescriptions (one for each bone in the body). Although all laws were considered binding because they had been delivered by God to Moses, some were regarded as “heavy,” or very important, and others were looked upon as “less weighty.” Presumably the lawyer, whose very profession consisted of the interpretation of the Law, would have understood this better than Jesus, who was not a scribe.
Despite the fact that this was a disputed issue, whatever priority Jesus would proclaim would most likely be challenged by at least some of those present. Further, if it appeared he was annulling part of the Law, he would lose his status in the community as a teacher.
He said to him, “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.
Jesus’ answer is faithful to his own Jewish faith. He does not single out any particular statute but rather endorses the summons that constitutes the Shema, the most significant prayer of the Israelite religion (Deuteronomy 6:5). The Shema was both a prayer recited daily by faithful Jews and the principal Jewish confession of faith; however, it was not numbered among the commandments.
To the injunction to love God with all one’s heart and soul, Jesus adds “with all your mind,” probably for the purpose of emphasizing the total engagement of the person. This is his way of saying the love of God must occupy one’s entire being and not be simply a superficial allegiance.
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus was asked to identify one commandment, and he offers two. The second, which is said to be like the first (rather than second in importance), is a citation of Leviticus 19:18. It is also not numbered among the commandments.
Twice Jesus has reached into the biblical Law to answer the question posed to him. By bringing these admonitions together as he does, he shows that, though not identical, they are interrelated. Placing his answer within the context of the Shema, he makes the proclamation that “there is no God but this God” the controlling theme in his response. From this proclamation flows the responsibility to love God with one’s entire being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
With his final statement, Jesus demonstrates that singling out a dual commandment in no way abrogates the other commandments. He is not judging between the “heavy” and “less weighty” requirements. Instead, he is asserting that the entire religious tradition, identified as the Law and the Prophets, is dependent upon this commandment of love.
In other words, there is no genuine fulfillment of the Law that does not flow from the love of God and the love of others.
Connections and Themes
Created in love. Our religious tradition is founded on love. Actually, life itself is grounded in love, a love that is open and generous. We may not always feel this love, but if we are honest and we allow ourselves to reflect on life, we will realize this truth. We have been called into being and we are sustained in existence for no other reason than loving generosity. We are the recipients of unbounded generosity; for some reason, we are loved. It was out of love that we came from nothing or, as modern cosmology insists, that we came from reordered chaos. We certainly did nothing to deserve this love. All we can conclude is that we are loved because the source from which we came is loving. This is precisely what the Scriptures tell us again and again (Jeremiah 31:3; Matthew 10:31; 1 John 4:8).
The universe springs from this love; we have been called by this love; we will only be happy if we live in this love. Therefore, when we are directed to love God and love one another, we are not being asked to do something contrary to our nature. Rather, we are being told to live in accord with the nature out of which we have been fashioned. We come from God who is love, so it is in our very nature to love and be loved.
Love of God and neighbor. We may sometimes think it is easier to love God than to love others. It may actually be just the opposite. Other people are tangible. We can see and hear them, interact with them. Their influence on our lives can permeate our consciousness. That is not the way it is with God. Like Moses on the mountain, we can only see the traces of divinity as God passes by (Exodus 33:23). However, we show we love God by loving what God loves; we show we love God in the way we love our neighbor. Our religious tradition goes so far as to say we really do not love God if we do not love others (1 John 4:20).
It is true that we love God when we love those who are an intimate part of our lives, but love like God’s love must be more expansive than this. If our love is open and generous like God’s love, we will care for the widows, the orphans, and the aliens; we will feed the hungry and visit the sick; we will alleviate the misery of those suffering with AIDS or mental illness; we will open our arms to those who have been forced to the margins of society. If our love is open and generous like God’s love, we will do what we can to provide decent living conditions for people trapped in the prison of poverty; we will work to ensure clean water and air and a healthy world for those who will come after us. If our love is open and generous like God’s love, we will treasure God’s word and God’s people within it.
The witness of love. Love, which is the foundation of the reign of God, is contagious. When we love others, the reign of God spreads throughout the world. It was the goodness of their lives that made the Thessalonians renowned in the neighboring territories. The compassion that we show toward others is a form of evangelization. It proclaims much louder than any words could ever do that the reign of God has been established. When we love like this, we truly love with the openness and generosity of God.