The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection & Dialogue: Good example. Christian life requires mutual support
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).
First Reading (Exodus 22:20-26). If you are harsh with the widow, the orphan, my anger will flare against you. This passage is part of the Book of Exodus known as “The Book of the Covenant”. Much of the Book of the Covenant deals with practices and crimes that have penalties attached according to Law, and which could be enforced by existing social institutions. The examples given in today’s reading concern weaker members of the community who have no legal redress or support but God alone. These are the “strangers”, at that time resident aliens in Israel without any property there, the widow and the orphan. With regard to the stranger, the resident alien, God reminds Israel to take a lesson from their own history. They, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt, which should enable them to understand the soul of the stranger, of persons now in the same circumstances. The practice of usury on poor people is also forbidden in this reading. The passage has a very understanding text with relation to the taking of pledge from a poor person. Their cloak was all they would have to keep themselves warm during the night, and the text stipulates that the person who takes such a piece of clothing in pledge should return it before nightfall.
The text is nicely chosen to go with to day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of the second great commandment of the Law: to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 17). I love you, Lord, my strength.
Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10). You broke with idolatry and became servants of God; you are now waiting for his Son. This reading illustrates the great difference conversion from paganism to belief in Christ made, and at the same time the great stress laid by Paul on good example in the preaching of the Good News. Jesus had told his apostles and his followers: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others so that seeing your good works they give glory to your Father in heaven”. This was a central principle for Paul in his preaching and in his teaching. He would not do anything that would impede or reflect badly on the preaching of the gospel. In today’s reading he reminds the church at Thessalonica that this was so, but he gives no example of what his behaviour was. He held it important that his churches follow his example, imitate him. This statement does not arise from any sense of pride, but as a reminder that all believers should give good example and follow the good example of others. It must have been less that a few months since Paul had founded the Church at Thessalonica, and in this reading he confesses that he is highly impressed by their example and reputation for a vibrant Christianity. He encourages them further by his fulsome praise. They have been an example beyond their own city to the entire Roman province of Macedonia in northern Greece where the news of their faith has spread, but also to the southern Roman province of Achaia (with Athens and Corinth), from where Paul is writing to them. The good news which had spread about them was the complete break they had made with paganism and its ways at their conversion to Christ, living a true Christian life here and now and awaiting the return of Christ, a belief in whose return in the not too distant future would seem to have been very much alive in their church.
The Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40). You must love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself. There was deep enmity between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the Phaarisees would have been very happy that Jesus had disconcerted them in the debate about the resurrection of the dead. One of their members, a lawyer, or “scribe”, put a question to him as to which is the greatest commandment of the Law. The Jewish scribes or lawyers were specialists in the Law of Moses, and Jewish traditional law, including that of the Pharisees, and many of them would have favoured the Pharisee positions, or even be members of the Pharisee party. The question this lawyer put to Jesus would be one that had been discussed by the lawyers themselves. Jesus replies by citing a text from the Bible, a well-known text containing what is known as the Shema, the Jewish profession of faith, and a prayer recited in the Jewish morning prayer in the Temple and Synagogue. Both Jesus and the Pharisees would fully agree on this great commandment, and in fact in the account of this episode in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) at Jesus’ reply the scribe (lawyer) comments: “You are right, Teacher”. The scribe had asked about the greatest of the commandments. Jesus instances the first, being the love of God, but adds that there is a second on the love of the neighbour. This text, too, is found in the Bible, but Jesus adds “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”. There can be no real love of God without love of God’s image, mortals, one’s neighbour. These two commandments are given as the summary of the entire Jewish tradition, the Law (of Moses) and the Prophets.
- Reflection & Dialogue: Good example. Christian life requires mutual support
In the second reading today, and in others places in his letters, Paul refers to members of his churches being imitators of himself. Paul regarded Christian living and good example as highly important for the mission of the Church. The followers of Christ were called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and this among other ways, by their good works. Another truth stressed in the Gospel and by Paul is the cohesion that should exist among members of the believing community, by mutual support rather than by placing obstacles and stumbling blocks. Jesus used strong words when speaking about this, saying to his disciples: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). The “little ones” are not children (there were no children among Jesus followers) but disciples whose faith in Christ might be in danger. Paul expresses a similar concern in his letters. There was a diversity of personalities within the church, some with “strong” faith, others weak; some with formed consciences, others with weak consciences, easily disturbed in their faith. But all had faith in Christ, and Paul urges members of his churches to welcome one another, just as Christ had welcomed all into the church. This internal cohesion in the church was regarded as essential. All were members of the one Body of Christ, called on to support and strengthen one another’s faith.
A question for us today is how make use of those basic truths in today’s world. It is necessary that believers’ good deeds shine before others, to give glory to our heavenly Father. There is, however, the danger that one seeks oneself, rather than God’s glory in one’s deeds. And Christ has warned against this too, good deeds done before others to be seen by them. And with regard to cohesion, mutual support, and lack of placing stumbling blocks, today stress is on the individual, rather than on the community, and we all know the danger of support for support’s sake, resulting in the covering up of scandals. There have been, and continue to be, scandals and shortcomings which must be revealed.
And yet, while granting all this, the teaching of the Gospels and the early Church with regard to cohesion and mutual support in the interest of building up the church still remains. We are all called to continue this work, and to have due attention to the “little ones”, to those with questions, scruples, and whose faith may be in danger. Christ has great concern for these; so should all believers.