Collect: Grant Thy people, O Lord, to shun the defilements of the devil, and with pure hearts to follow Thee, the only God.
As I write, it is the Jewish high holy day Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur falls in the Hebrew calendar on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month, which symbolically completes a “sabbath” of months. The Feast of Sukkot, Tabernacles, or Booths, follows closely, concluding the cycle of feasts. According to Jewish tradition, 10 Tishri was thought to be the day when Abraham was circumcised, and a covenant was established by God. It is also the day Moses descended with the second set of Tablets from Mount Sinai where he had sought forgiveness for the people who worshipped the Golden Calf. A foreshadowing of Pachamama in Rome? Who am I to judge? It was also thought to be the day Adam both fell in Original Sin and repented. And repented. Fell and repented. At the core of the solemn day of Yom Kippur, is repentance.
Our Gospel passage for this Sunday in Matthew 22 has its context. It is Tuesday of Holy Week, just before the Lord’s betrayal, trial and Passion. Two days before, the crowds waved branches, sang psalms, and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. They fully expected Him, as Davidic King Priest, to go to the Temple and ring in a new Messianic age. Instead, on Monday, at the Temple Christ said, “Hey, let the money changers and dove sellers hang out here! Sure, they block the Courtyard of the Gentiles so that the Gentiles coming here can’t also pray to the true God, which is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. Let’s engage in dialogue with them about not desecrating the sacred.”
Instead, without dialogue an angry Christ overturned the tables of the money changers quoting Jeremiah’s prophesy of the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 605 BC (7:11). Our Savior alienated the powerful but edified the lowly as He healed the blind and the lame, again revealing His divine character. He overturned everyone’s expectations. He is not just the earthly Messiah, he is God. This Messiah came as God had planned, not as they had imagined. God’s ways are not our ways. Bad things result when we try to force His ways into our expectations. Just watch the news.
Immediately before our Sunday Gospel passage there is a rapid series of exchanges between Christ and the Sadducees and Pharisees. These are the scholars of Scripture, experts in the Law, the nomikoi (law-guys, “lawyers”) in Greek. They try to trap Our Savior with questions. Instead, the Lord turns the tables on them, too, culminating in the teaching about the Greatest Commandment with an explanation of the true nature of the Messiah.
First, the Greatest Commandment, so-called by Christ Himself, mind you. Perhaps He should be heeded?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (RSV)
Not even venial sin and look always to the good of the other.
Our Lord connected – connected inextricably and irrevocably – what the nomikoi entirely expected, the Shema Israel prayer beginning from Deuteronomy 6:4, with something that they probably did not anticipate: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Shema is to be recited by Jews at least twice a day, morning and evening, and during the Kedushah service on Shabbat, and at other times. It is a powerful admonition against idolatry. The command from Leviticus – Christ says it is “like the first” – is in a chapter applying the content of the Decalogue.
Paul would write to the Galatians (5:14), “The whole of the Law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Not even venial sin and look always to the good of the other.
In His mercy, Christ continued to overturn the expectations of the nomikoi. He reversed their questioning of Him. Christ – the Anointed One – Messiah – asked them something meant to open their hearts and minds.
What think you of Christ? whose son is he? They say to him: David’s. He saith to them: How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word; neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions. (Douay-Reims)
I dare say we should use “durst” more often. I have an image of the nomikoi, scholars, official interpreters of Scriptures, hearing the English translation of this response by the Lord. After all, to put a Catholic twist on an old chestnut, “If the Douay-Reims Version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”
Christ quoted to the nomikoi Psalm 109 (110), which is a Royal psalm about the Messiah, “The Lord said to my Lord”, and then asked, “David, calls Him ‘Lord’, how is he his son?”
If – as I fantasized – the Lord is speaking in English, they wouldn’t have the slightest clue what Jesus is talking about, perhaps much as many bishops, priests or deacons when they read this.
Let’s unpack it. Christ asked these Scripture hotshots, who were trying to trap Him in hard questions, how David, author of the psalm, can address the Messiah as “Lord.” If the Messiah is David’s “son”, his descendent, then he is less than David, inferior to him. But David calls him “Lord,” making Him superior to him. It’s a contradiction.
Once again we have to go back to the original languages to get what is up with, “The Lord said to my Lord” and the disparity inherent in the father and son image.
Firstly, what’s going on with that word “Lord.” Our Latin doesn’t help us out any more than the English: Dixit Dominus Domino meo. We in the Latin Church sing this psalm nearly every Sunday at Vespers in the traditional Roman Rite. This psalm is deep in the marrow of every Roman Catholic priest and religious who say the traditional office with the Breviarium Romanum, who sing it with the Liber Usualis or Antiphonarium Monasticum.
If Latin doesn’t help, does the original Greek of Matthew? No. Again, we have “the Lord said to my Lord… eipen ho kyrios toi kyrioi mou”.
However, when Our Lord and the hotshots conversed, they spoke in Aramaic and quoted Scripture in Hebrew, not in English, Latin or Greek. In the Hebrew of Ps 109 (110) we find “Yah’weh” said to “la-do-ni”, or clearer, “Yahweh said to Adonai.”
Just as singing Dixit Dominus is in the bones of the Roman priest, “Ne’um Yahweh ladonai” would have been in the bones of the Jewish nomikoi. They would have heard Christ’s point: the Messiah is not just the Davidic King Priest, He is God in their midst. They stand there, speechless, not because they don’t get His meaning. They understand what He was aiming at. Their notions about the Messiah were being overturned.
To put an exclamation point on it, the Lord then healed people, restoring sight to the blind and making the lame walk, a bare week after He had raised Lazarus from the dead.
How subtle and many-layered are the gentle teachings of the Lord. He moves from triumphant (transcendent) to humility (immanent), and from interior (heart mind) to exterior (treating others well).
Note also how, in dealing with those who would do Him harm, on Christ’s last day of public teaching He treats them in just the way He answered the Pharisees’ sneaky question. Of course, this also applies to what He says to some of them later. For the rest of Matthew, Christ addresses the crowds. The only other time he directs words to the Pharisees, He doesn’t enter into fruitless dialogue with them. He blasts them as hypocrites in the next chapter, 23. By slamming them he gave them a mirror to look upon, not for revenge at their machinations against Him (against Leviticus 19:18), but so that they might have a change of heart. What they needed in charity was severity. Charity always considers the true good of the other. The Lord knew their hearts and knew the best way to treat them.
St. Augustine (+430), writing of the two-fold giving of the Holy Spirit, wrote of the Greatest Commandment,
“Duo sunt enim praecepta, et una est caritas… One love and two precepts; … it is not one charity which loves the neighbor and another which loves God. Hence, there is not another charity: we love God with that same charity with which we love our neighbor. In spite of the fact that God as one object of love and the neighbor as another are loved with one love, those who are loved do not constitute only one object of love. The love of God, therefore, must be granted the first place in our esteem; the love of neighbor, the second place. Yet, we must begin with the second love in order to arrive at the first, ‘for if you do not love your brother whom you see, how can you love God whom you do not see?’” [1 Jn. 4:20]
True pastoral love does not mean endless dialogue and perpetual tolerance of sin and error.
Paul wrote to Timothy the shocking image of turning Hymenaeus and Alexander, “over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). In another place, Paul addresses the situation of a man cohabiting with his stepmother. Paul commands the Corinthians: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). By this image, “deliverance to Satan,” Paul means that they should be cut off from the community, excommunicated as it were, and given over to suffering apart from the life of the Church. The punishment is not revenge, it is for the sake of the good of the other, according to the two-fold Greatest Commandment.
If that was Paul’s remedy for a man sleeping with his stepmother, “turn him over to Satan,” excommunicate him, what might be his prescription for a man or woman of the ecclesial community who, year in and year out, promotes same-sex unions or the industrial-level slaying of the unborn? Paul, of course, would say, “Sure, admit him to your Eucharistic table! Dialogue with him. Accompany him in his discernment. After all, not everyone can live up to the ideal.”
The Gospel had its context, and so does this poor offering. We are seeing a Church sorely divided and falling into confused disarray. We have our parts to play in the division and also in the revision. Thinking back to the two-fold Greatest Commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t only about avoiding doing him harm, as the first part of Leviticus 19:18 says. It is also about doing positive works of mercy. We can sin also by omission, not just commission. Loving God means action.
Perhaps we who are on the more traditional side of sacred liturgical worship might reflect on what we can do, positively, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and growing resentment.
The night before Yom Kippur, Erev Yom Kippur, Jews fast and make a confession of their sins and ask others for forgiveness. On Yom Kippur in synagogues, the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel!” is sung as the climax of the fifth or Ne’ilah (“closing”) prayer service before the end of the Day of Atonement, when the gates of heaven are being “closed.”
I’m reminded of Paul’s wisdom in the Letter to the Ephesians about conflict with our neighbors: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (4:26-27).
Adam fell and repented on the same day. Same-day repentance. If it was good enough for Adam, it’s good enough for us. Go to confession.
Our Lord taught clearly when He answered those fancy scholarly lawyers. Using the lens of the two-fold Great Commandment, the Shema and its perfectly intertwined compliment Leviticus 19:18, we might gaze in the mirror and ponder its application to many of the problems we see in the Church today. Maybe it could be summarized in these two action items:
Not even venial sin and look always to the good of the other.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz