31st Sunday in Ordinary time

Perhaps you may be familiar with a version of the quip: ‘Two Jews have three opinions…’ Ostensibly it smacks of a negative remark that labels the Jews as quarrelsome. In fact, the quip is a source of pride for many Jewish people as it describes their mindset and attitude towards Truth with a capital T. The quip has a second line, which is usually missing in popular usage. The whole sentence goes more or less like this: ‘Two Jews have three opinions, all of which have merit.’ Rabbi Rick Sherwin explains that ‘The statement is based on an ancient Jewish text that conveys a serious lesson: consider another’s perspective not as right or wrong, but as offering merit, whether you agree with it or not. Ultimately, it is a statement of respect.’

It’s important to understand the Jewish mindset when we read the New Testament. Unfortunately, the gospels generally paint a quite negative, often confrontational, sometimes openly hostile picture of the Jews. We have to remember that the gospels were written from a certain perspective, in specific political and social circumstances. In that respect, the gospels are biased against Jews. But we have to remember that Jesus was born a Jew, grew up in Jewish culture and tradition, he collected a colourful bunch of followers all of whom were Jewish. Jesus preached to Jewish audiences and talked to individuals who were Jewish. One such conversation is described in today’s gospel.

The question put to Jesus ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ was part of an ongoing discussion amongst the Jewish intellectual elite of the time. In fact, pondering and debating the Law of the Lord was one of the primary ways of practising Judaism. We can find plenty of such remarks dotted throughout the Old Testament. The question wasn’t adversarial or combative; it was raised in the way quoted earlier on: ‘consider another’s perspective not as right or wrong, but as offering merit, whether you agree with it or not.’ We can admire Jesus’ clever response, seemingly avoiding falling into the trap of taking sides. But that’s not the point here. Jesus simply recalls the two foremost commandments of the Old Testament concerning the love of God and the love of neighbour. Indeed, Jesus refers to the Jewish prayer which is as important to Jews as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians; the Shema Israel – Listen, O Israel. So, Jesus is reminding the scribe that God and man respectively must be at the heart of any legal or religious deliberations. This attitude of Jesus’ echoes across the gospels in various encounters and situations.

Jesus seems to be ambiguous about laws, commandments, regulations and so on. When you think about it, the love of God and of neighbour as stated in today’s gospel is a really vague concept. What may be an act of benevolent love for one, can be perceived as an act of oppression by others. Many of you can recall situations when your children were young, and you barred them from doing certain things. You did this deliberately out of love and care for them; but from their perspective, at the time, you were just being a nasty old fogey. There’s at least one important lesson we can take away from today’s gospel, and it’s summed up by the scribe: ‘To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ In everyday life it’s easy to be dogmatic and judgemental, rigidly sticking to acquired or self-imposed rules. It’s easy, as a consequence, to lose sight of what really matters and what really must be behind any rules, attitudes and actions: the love of God and the love of neighbour. The main effort we are called to make as Christians is to find a way of carrying out such love in practical terms, in everyday life. Such efforts will not guarantee us an unblemished record of our interactions; but it will certainly increase our chances of that greatly.