First reading: Exodus 22:20-26 Responsorial: Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51 Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10 Gospel passage: Matthew 22:34-40
No one likes bad economic news. When times get tough, news reports speak of markets that have lost “value.” Even those who do not have a direct stake in such markets feel the pinch as we discover that the economy is an organic whole. As boats of every size rise and fall on the same tide, people of every economic level find themselves affected by the rise and fall of the values of markets and currencies.
In ancient cultures and economies, there was no source of a “bailout” in hard times. In fact, there was no social “safety net” of any kind: no hospitals, no insurance, and no help from government. The only security in the ancient world was found in family ties. People needed their immediate and extended families and clan relationships to provide them with assistance in starting out or in enduring sickness, old age, famine, and other calamities. The focus on the importance of such family ties was so powerful that there was a concomitant cultural hostility to the stranger, the one outside the family or clan. The stranger was dangerous when strong and to be exploited when weak.
Such is the context for the words of the Lord in today’s reading from Exodus. The widow and orphan, the stranger from another land, and the man so desperate enough to borrow outside the family are the most vulnerable in a society dependent upon family for survival. They lack protection and assistance and they are easy targets for exploitation by others. Into the breech before them steps the Lord Himself. The Lord claims such vulnerable ones as His own and pledges to protect them. The effect of this claim by the Lord is dramatic for Israel. Israel may not act towards the helpless as the culture of the day would suggest. They cannot look only to family and clan and ignore or exploit the outsider, for the Lord has made it clear that such belong to His family. If Israel too wishes to enjoy that relationship with the Lord, to call the Lord “my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,” then Israel must welcome into its family all those who have no one else to defend and care for them.
Jesus draws upon this ancient summons to unselfish compassion in His response to the “scholar of the Law.” The scholar has asked a dishonest question. He wishes to trap Jesus by asking Him to give priority to one of the more than 600 laws observed by the Pharisees in their pursuit of holiness. But as we have seen before, Jesus does more than merely avoid the trap; He asserts a remarkable and innovative interpretation of the law. The cardinal tenet of Israel’s faith and identity is the fidelity to the One God. Jesus rightly asserts this universally agreed priority. He then speaks of the care of neighbor, another priority in Israel’s life and one that draws upon traditions such as our Exodus passage today. Israel has learned that it must act as one great family, caring for the most vulnerable in its midst. But as Jesus speaks of these ideas, he introduces two important innovations. The first is the manner in which he links love for God and love for neighbor. He presents them as aspects of one commandment. The second innovation comes from the larger context of Jesus’ ministry where we learn what Jesus means by “neighbor.” While the Exodus passage teaches Israel to care for the vulnerable, even the outsider, these are those who live within or among Israel. Jesus’ ministry makes it clear that the neighbor is every member of the human family.
As Paul begins to address the Thessalonians in today’s passage, he takes a moment to compliment the Thessalonians for their faith. Paul is pleased that their ready reception of his example and preaching has made them models for others. They have turned from idols and embraced the faith and bring others to faith by their example.
As we often find ourselves in uncertain times, worried about the “value” of our savings or property, the Scriptures remind us of eternal, limitless values such as compassion, faith, and above all love. We are reminded of the “economy of salvation” where the only currency is love. We see that every kind of love belongs to an organic whole; that love for God and love for neighbor rise and fall together. It is upon this value, the highest law and the only lasting wealth, that the law and the prophets depend. Now is the time for Christians to share this value in word and example so that we may all turn from idols to the worship of the Living and True God.