The Old Testament reading at this Sunday’s mass is drawn from a long passage of the Book of Exodus which recounts the giving of the Mosaic law at Mount Sinai. At first the words of Exodus are reassuring, reminding us that God is a faithful protector of the innocent and the vulnerable: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien…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” (Exo 22:20-22). This is the image of God many of us cherish in those moments when we feel pinched by life, and it is absolutely true, for God is indeed the shelter of the helpless.
If we read on, however, we find that the Lord’s discourse takes an unexpected turn; to those who oppress others he says: “My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans” (Exo 22:23). How do we reconcile these seemingly disparate images of God? The question is not simply a pious exercise; many people who depart from the Judeo-Christian traditions of faith today do so on account of the apparent contradiction presented in the Bible of a loving yet vengeful God.
The key is found at the end of the passage, where the Lord concludes: “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Exo 22:26). To be compassionate is to give oneself over to the experience of another’s suffering, not out of necessity but out of love. In other words, compassion is both the root and the flower of love.
With this in mind we turn to the Gospel reading from a section of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus is facing a series of questions intended to trap him. As one group after another of those seeking to destroy him were stymied by his wisdom and virtue, yet another challenge rose up as a scholar of the law tested him, saying: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36).
Jesus response is simple and it is drawn from the Bible—the greatest commandment is love. To be specific, he says that the first and greatest commandment is that “You love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37, 39). Our Lord takes the first commandment he cites from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5) and the second from the Book of Leviticus (19:18).
In a beloved passage of scripture the Psalmist today reflects the same confidence, saying of the Lord: “I love you, Lord, my strength, my rock of refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!” (Ps 18:2-3).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.