The first of all the commandments
November 4, 2018
THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The Shema, the daily prayer
Ps 18:2-4, 47, 51
The Lord is my rock, my deliverer
A high priest higher than the heavens
The first of all the commandments
The setting is the Temple courtyards in Jerusalem, in the final week of Jesus’ life. He has cleared the area of the merchants, and the authorities are not happy with him. He continues his presence in the Temple, teaching and debating with opponents. They are trying to trap him in his speech, but they cannot manage to do so. Finally, one last questioner, a scribe, asks him which of the commandments is first of all. His answer actually involves two commandments.
Both are famous passages from Scripture, but neither is from the Ten Commandments. The two passages that Jesus cites are from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. The first of these provide us with the Old Testament reading for the day. It is the “Shema,” or “Shema Yisrael,” after the first words of the prayer — “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” The prayer is an affirmation of monotheism, the one God. This is the great revelation, which they passionately affirm as the truth entrusted to their keeping. The passage continues, as we know, “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This is probably the most common prayer in Judaism.
It is also the source of the tefillin, the leather boxes that Orthodox Jews strap to their forehead and arms during morning prayers, containing scrolls with these verses, as well as the mezuzah, the scroll affixed to the doorpost. For the passage continues on to say: “Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9).
The other passage, from Leviticus, is part of a set of instructions that sound very much like the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. However, they vary, and contain other statements. Leviticus 19:18 reads: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That the context of the instruction is that of taking revenge is interesting.
The question about who qualifies as one’s neighbor has generated volumes of rabbinic commentary. Later on, the same chapter of Leviticus offers some clarification: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God” (Lev 19:33-34). However, the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, used by the Jews beyond the boundaries of Judea, including the writers of the New Testament, translated the word “alien” as “proselyte” — that is, a convert to Judaism. Not just any stranger among them. In Luke’s Gospel, the answer to this troubling question is answered by the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
The passages, then, are not new. What is new is putting them in combination, where they comment on one another. It is another way of saying that proper worship of the one God is to do what God wants —namely, love your neighbor as yourself.
The scribe understands, and responds, and answers that Jesus’ recommendation “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus approves his answer: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
For reflection: How do you see the combination of commandments working?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.