“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36
Which commandment is the greatest, the most important, the one I have to think of first? God Himself may be perfectly simple, but He has given us a number of commandments over the years. And when we search our consciences honestly, we find not just one, but many demands. Sometimes the various demands throw us into a quandary, and we don’t know what to do.
So we can see how someone might honestly pose the question. Teacher, help me sort out my conscience. Tell me which commandment to think of first.
But these Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel passage were not really asking a question, per se. Asking a question means having room in my mind for an answer. It means using the word ‘teacher’ with real respect. ‘Teacher, you know more than I do, so illuminate my mind with something I do not yet know.’
But these Pharisees had cleared out no such room in their minds. To the contrary: Their ‘question’ began with a trap. Word one had dangerous baggage attached to it.
“Teacher.” The subtext, for these Pharisees: Will this rustic carpenter continue to presume to know something? We know he has no real qualifications as a teacher of the Law!
Thick irony, of course. They posed their question not only to the most skillful of all interpreters of the Law of God, but to God Himself, Who had become a walking, talking man in order to interpret the Law by His entire beautiful life.
But that’s just the beginning of the loaded-ness of these Pharisees’ “question.” Do we think that political correctness in the realm of morals got invented in 1980? Ancient Jerusalem seethed with even more ‘political correctness’ in the realm of morals than we have now.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” hung dangerously in the air. Just as a question like one of the following might hang in the air today:
“Father, shouldn’t the Church emphasize love and welcoming rather than insisting on strict morality?”
“Father, doesn’t the Church need to stand firm against the messed-up world? Shouldn’t the Church support the people who are trying to do the right thing by teaching the truth unambiguously?”
“Father, isn’t it pointless to try to reach all the people who are going to hate the Church no matter what we say anyway?”
Is it more important to go to Mass or to help the poor? Is it more important to love the people in my family with a generous heart–or to pray for the sick, the imprisoned, the dying, the refugees all over the world?
Should I pray a lot, meditate, read, seek holiness—or should I get active in politics and social activism for Catholic causes? Which issue is more important, abortion-clinic restrictions or immigration reform?
When did you start beating your wife, Father?
Loaded questions. But why don’t we listen to what the Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees’ question. They did not ask it honestly, but we could. Teacher, which is the most important commandment?
Now, on the surface, it looks like Christ ducked the neuralgic issues of His day. He refused to weigh-in on the controversy about the importance of Temple sacrifice vs. worship in the home and in the synagogue. He seems to have punted on the question of ritual purity and dietary restriction vs. trying to draw pagans into the worship of the one true God of Israel. He simply refused to engage the disputes about how best to deal with the Romans, and the Greeks, and the Samaritans, and the Cypriots, and the Scythians, and the Medes.
But, in point of fact, with His answer to the Pharisees’ dishonest question, the Lord Jesus dealt with all this and more. He dealt with how to be faithful while being open. With how to find certainty, in the middle of an unfathomable mystery. With how to transcend all passing things, with our feet firmly planted on the ground and our eyes on what our neighbor might need.
Because He said: The first thing is God.
Who is not us. To Whom we owe everything. Who gave us hearts to love Him with, and minds to seek His truth with, and strength to spend for Him, He Who is the only thing ultimately worth spending our strength on.
God, Who is Lord, Whose total awesomeness makes Niagara Falls look like the drool of a sleeping dog, by comparison, and Mount Everest like a cracked floor tile.
The first thing is God. And loving God requires opening up our minds to His wisdom.
When we put a question to God honestly–ready to change, if we have to; ready to get swept away into something greater than we ever thought of before: If we can manage that; if we can manage humility before the authority of God–and we have to manage it, if we want to find wisdom. If we can actually humble ourselves religiously enough to pose an honest question to the true authority, Who is Jesus Christ; and then if we can then sit still and quiet for a little while, and want nothing but Christ’s will, no matter what it might be…We will get an answer. We will get a good answer—maybe a hard answer, but a good one. And the peace of living in the Truth will fill our hearts.