The Gospels often paint the Pharisees in a negative light. We encountered an example of this last Sunday, where we were told that the Pharisees were conspiring to entrap Jesus (Matt 22:15). The same theme of entrapment repeats in today’s Gospel (22:34), and next Sunday’s Gospel will begin with Jesus criticizing the Pharisees (22:1-7). This negative presentation of the Pharisees has contributed to a long history of anti-Semitic beliefs and readings of Scripture throughout Christian history. The animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees that we often see in the Gospels is likely a reflection of much later disagreements and tensions. This negative portrayal does not truly show us who the Pharisees were or how they acted.
Jesus had much in common with Pharisees. His views on the afterlife, the immortality of the soul, the hope for a coming redemption, ethics, and his teachings on love are shared with and come from Pharisaic teachings. This is part of what we mean when we say that Judaism is the foundation of our Catholic faith.
Perhaps in no other place in the Gospels is this clearer than today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. The commandments that Jesus cites represent two central teachings from Judaism that are also very important in our tradition. The first is what is called the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Here, the Israelites are instructed to love God with all their hearts, all their beings, and all their strength. It is this call to love God that prefaces Moses’ giving of the Law in the Book of Deuteronomy. The other is from the book of Leviticus (19:18), where the Israelites are commanded to love their neighbor. To put it succinctly: the Israelites were called to love God and love neighbor. Jesus ensured this teaching remained significant for his followers. As such, this command was passed down the line of Jesus’ followers and is now a part of our own call from God.
Sometimes our call to love our neighbor means getting them groceries when they are struggling financially. Sometimes it looks like rejoicing in good news with them. Other times it means sitting with them in their grief and despair, or standing beside them when they are being mistreated. Loving one’s neighbor does not always refer to interactions with individual people. It can also mean taking care of our shared home, the Earth. Teaching one’s children about systemic injustices, making sure they are aware of the world around them, is another way to love one’s neighbor.
All the examples listed above are relatively small gestures. They may seem insignificant, especially in our very broken world. But God’s plan is not known to us. It is like an embroidered image from a stitchery kit. The back side is a complete mess of thread and knots. This is the only side we can see. The other side is something like a beautiful scene from nature. This is what God can see, but we cannot (at least not yet!). Who can say that our small acts of loving care for our neighbors are not integral parts of the image? Perhaps that is why these two commandments carry such weight in Judaism and in our own faith. It is the everyday love we show to each other, whether anyone sees it or not, that can transform the world.
Kate Oxsen, PhD
Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies