Brief synopsis of the readings: In Exodus we hear God speaking to Moses. “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt.” God also demanded good treatment for widows and orphans and “if you are harsh with them, they will surely cry out to me, and be sure I shall hear their cry; my anger will flare and I shall kill you with the sword, your own wives will be widows, your own children orphans. In Matthew’s Gospel a Pharisee asked Jesus: “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus replied: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbor as yourself.”
You know, those Pharisees and Sadducees just haven’t gotten the memo: Don’t try to trip up Jesus. This isn’t in today’s Gospel but previous to this passage the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in life after death) tried to trip up Jesus and just ended up looking like idiots. The Pharisees then thought it was their turn and they could succeed where Sadducees failed. They thought they were bulletproof.
And so they asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment of the Law. Most of us reading this today may assume that they were talking about the 10 Commandments but they weren’t: they were talking about all the laws in the first 5 books of the Bible. Jews call these first 5 books the Torah and it contains 613 commandments. There are 248 positive commands (“You must”) and 365 negative commands (“You must not”) and both Pharisees and Sadducees spent hours arguing over the every one of them.
Last week I gave an example of this: they were prohibited from possessing graven images but the Romans demanded they pay taxes with coins that bore the face of Caesar. What should you do?
Also, Leviticus chapter 25 commands that farmers spend 6 years growing crops on their land, but on the 7th year “the land shall have a complete rest, a sabbath for the Lord, when you may neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard.” That’s fine if you’re a wealthy landowner with several fields. It’s called crop rotation. But what if you’re a subsistence farmer with only one field and can’t afford to miss a year?
If you asked a Pharisee of the time the question they asked Jesus that would have tied them up for decades and that’s what they hoped they would do with Jesus. They hoped he would get so caught up in arguing that he would look foolish.
But Jesus did something creative. He told them that all the commandments could be reduced to two: love God and love your neighbor. A quick note about loving your neighbor as yourself: the people of that time had no understanding of what we now know as depression and lack of self esteem. It was assumed back then that your love for yourself was a given.
It’s safe to assume that the Pharisees never saw that coming, but Jesus was right: all those 613 laws seek justice, seek a way to ensure that everyone is dealt with fairly. But here’s the rub: both the authors of the Torah and Jesus spoke about “all people” and they meant that literally. And that was unusual for the time.
Most societies then had different (if implied) rules and customs. Basic rights often depended on your wealth or station in life, and there’s case to be made that today your rights often depend on your skin color.
If you’ve been reading these homilies for any length of time you had to know I was going to make this point: in Exodus God specifically singled out the stranger for particular protection.
When a group of people rise above their past and live lives much better than their ancestors, it’s inevitable that some of them will forget where they came from. The grandchildren of immigrants proclaim that we should put the brakes on immigration because we can’t afford them or they come with evil intent. I’ve spoken about this before but two of my grandparents came to the United States as strangers. The left their homeland (Canada) not because of the allure of wealth, and certainly not to do harm, but because they saw the United States as their best way forward. They knew that if they worked hard (at jobs most Americans wouldn’t want) they could invest in their children and their grandchildren. And they did. And my gratitude knows no bounds.
In addition to the stranger, God railed against those who are harsh with widows and orphans. I’ve always suspected that when we see someone who is downtrodden we feel afraid, afraid that this may one day be our fate. Just as most immigrants come here fleeing poverty or violence, widows and orphans find themselves in a place that they didn’t choose (and we can often add people who are divorced). When they cry out to us many take the easy way out and build structure to insure we won’t hear them.
But God hears them. And make no mistake: God chooses sides: “[M]y anger will flare and I shall kill you with the sword, your own wives will be widows, your own children orphans.” In other words, if you avoid them out of your own fear, your very fears will happen to you.
These are harsh words and I’m not going to try to sugar coat them. We live in a world of great inequality. But we also live in nations of great inequality, and even neighborhoods of inequality. Generosity in the face of fear always comes down on the side of fear. But generosity in the face of faith allows us to see strangers, widows, and orphans as God does.
When the stranger, widow, and orphan is allowed the same generosity as we do, we bring the Kingdom of God much, much closer to us. Let’s do that.