Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with the first reading from Moses’ Book of Exodus in which we see God’s concern for widows, orphans, and the poor. Then we move to the second reading, which is a continuation of the study we began last week from 1 Thessalonians. We conclude with another of Jesus’ discussions with the Jewish leaders from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, this time with the infamous Pharisees.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from Chapter 22 of the Book of Exodus. This is one of the first five Books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch and was written by Moses. The Book is an account of God’s sovereign rising of Moses as a leader to shepherd the Israelites out of their captivity in Israel. The Book also contains the chronicle of the giving of the Law to Moses including the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Anytime that the biblical texts use the term “Law” they mean the whole canon of the Jewish Law, including the Ten Commandments and the other several hundred laws contained in the last four books of the Pentateuch: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Chapter 20 contains the Ten Commandments and opens as follows. “Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1-2). God, who calls Himself “I am” in verse one, meaning the “self-existent One,” led the Israelites out of their bondage under the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt through His ordained leader Moses. God gradually revealed the entire Canon of the Law to Moses during his wanderings in the desert.
Understanding today’s reading requires some considerable insights into the cultural and religious milieu of Jews in the ancient near east. Foreigners were not the only downtrodden class of people to whom God afforded special protection in the Law. In those days there were three classes of people that were as low in the socioeconomic strata as foreigners were. These were widows, orphans, and the poor, although the first two certainly shared the characteristic of being poor. These groups of people had almost no rights in the secular kingdoms that surrounded Israel. However, we find throughout the Law God’s special protection provided for these groups of people. The fact that God provides protection for the lower classes of people through the Law is an insight into God’s very nature. We see in the Book of Psalms God’s care for the poor. God says that He is “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows” (Psalms 68:5). The Psalmist said, “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor” (Ps 140:12). “The LORD performs righteous deeds And judgments for all who are oppressed,” the Psalmist said (Ps 103:6). God made special provisions for the protection of these classes of people throughout the Law. In Lev. 19:9–10 God provided special protection for strangers and the poor in providing for them through the gleanings in the corners of the fields. In Deut. 14:28–29 God provided special Laws for strangers, the fatherless, and widows. The Prophet Isaiah gave God’s call to the Israelites to repent of their sin in the opening of his Book. God said, “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). This admonition appears multiple times throughout the Old Testament, and is in fact what James in the New Testament called “basic religion.” He said, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
As you read the text of the first reading, try to imagine what it would be like to have absolutely nothing along with no social standing in the ancient world. Note: Verse 27 was included for the context.
Exodus 22:20-27 NAS95 20 "He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed. 21 "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 "You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 "If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. 25 "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. 26 "If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, 27 for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.
The reading opens in verse 20, we find the often-repeated warning about idolatry. “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 20:20). In the next verse, God introduces new teaching on proper treatment of aliens. God said, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:21). This time God gave a reason for treating foreigners properly, because the Israelites were once foreigners under the rule of the Pharaoh.
In the reading we see God’s concern for widows (v. 22), orphans (v. 22), and the poor (v. 25). God said that He would hear the cries of the widows and the orphans and answer with judgment by allowing the people to be killed by their enemies with the sword (v. 24). This is something that was repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament, especially in the era of the Judges. When times were good, the people would begin to oppress the lower classes, then God would allow an alien nation to overtake the people. Then they would repent, God would raise up a deliverer (for example, a judge like Gideon in Judges 6), the people would again return to prosperity and the cycle would repeat. God’s instruction about not oppressing the poor continued in verses 26-27 as neighbor took his neighbor’s cloak as collateral for a loan. This person was so poor that the only thing that they had to pledge was their clothing. God knew that this was a dire situation and provided a clear principle that such essential items were not to be taken as collateral in loans among fellow Israelites. The principle is that when the poor neighbor is taken advantage of by being forced to pledge his essentials in order to survive that God will raise up a deliverer against the more prosperous man to bring judgment upon him for his unrighteous action. Instead, God said in Leviticus something that we shall study later in the Gospel lesson, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Loving your neighbor in the case of what God said about not taking your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge instead meant sharing in your abundance and that of the community.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
As we move on to the second reading, ask yourself what it means to act in full conviction of the Holy Spirit in response to the biblical precepts about serving Jesus and others? The Jews knew the Laws about not oppressing aliens, orphans and the poor, yet they didn’t practice what was preached. You may have heard the cute acronym “J-O-Y” which means to consider our lives in light of the hierarchy of Jesus, others, and you. We should, as the teaching goes, consider Jesus first, then others, and finally ourselves. See what you can uncover from Saint Paul as you read his admonition on this subject of literally taking the Word to heart.
5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10)
Paul told the Thessalonians how impressed he was with them because they didn’t just do as he had told them to do (“word only,” v. 5), but that they also carried out those things that he had directed them to do through the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but they became examples to others (v. 7). The Thessalonians turned from the worship of idols as was the custom of their culture to the worship of the One True God (v. 9). Finally, Paul commended them for holding hope in the resurrection of the dead. When he said that Jesus “rescues us from the wrath to come” (v. 10) he was referring to the eternal punishment that was promised to the unbelievers in hell, not some sort of temporal deliverance or rapture (catching up) from their present circumstances. Later in the Book Paul did discuss how believers who were alive at the time when Jesus did return would be united with him in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17), which is the context of the books and movie entitled Left Behind (we will cover that in a future lesson). The key point that Paul was making to the Thessalonians was his commendation for them for living out their Christian lives in word and in action, something that the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospel narrative hadn’t learned.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
We saw in the second reading Saint Paul’s admonition to take the Word to heart and his commendation to the Thessalonians for doing so. In the Gospel lesson today, we will see how Jesus summarized the Law into two key points that revealed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees hearts who didn’t take the Word to heart. This lesson is another of Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish ruling authorities during His inevitable journey to death at Calvary, this time with one of the Pharisees’ best legal experts.
34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" 37 And He said to him, "'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)
First, a bit about the context. When Matthew said, “But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,” he was referring to the story that happened just previously. Here the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, had come to ask Jesus a theoretical expansion of the Levitical Law known as Levirate Marriage. They asked Jesus about the relationship in the resurrection between a certain woman and her chain of husbands afforded to her under the Levirate Law. Remember that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, but they were just trying to trap Jesus. When they asked Jesus whose husband the woman would be in the resurrection after being married to seven different brothers Jesus answered them as follows: 29 But Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: 32 'I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. (Matthew 22:29-33)
The short-term silencing of the Sadducees provided the Pharisees with the opportunity to test Jesus for themselves. They asked Him, “which is the great commandment in the Law” (v. 36), again addressing Him with the honorable title of Rabbi (teacher). When the Pharisees use the term “Law” they are referring to the whole of the Old Testament. During that era, a frequent debate among the rabbis was which elements of the Law held the most weight and which ones could be given less weight or even discounted. Jesus’ answer summarized the whole Canon of both the Law and the Prophetic writings. He answered them by quoting from the Levitical Law, “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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (vv. 38-40). Here, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 or the “Shema,” a phrase that religious Jews stated twice a day. He also quoted from Leviticus 19:18 that we mentioned in the discussion of the first reading.
What Jesus is saying is that a true follower of God is a unique whole being, one with a heart that is united in purpose (heart, soul, and mind) rather than compartmentalized theoretical knowledge that does not lead to action. Loving God naturally leads us to keeping the commandments of God. Jesus said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will obey my teaching. . . .” Saint John continued Jesus’ connection between love and action when He said, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with action and in truth” (1 John 3:18). And again, “We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:19-21).
This was the heart of the indictment against the Pharisees. They were a group about which it could be said, “do as I say, but not as I do” as the expression goes. Love demands concrete action, not just correct information about God. This means to give help your neighbor when he needs help, not offer him a loan by taking his cloak as collateral as we saw in the first reading. Loving your neighbor as yourself also means loving yourself as one that was created in the image of God. This means caring for our bodies both spiritually and physically as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
1. As you journey through the week, what does it look like for you to have a heart united in love and action for God? In our global society, what “neighbor” is God placing on your heart to help with a gift that doesn’t require a loan and payment of collateral?
2. Spiritually, we are all as helpless as the orphans and widows of the ancient society. How do you respond to God’s heart for you in your own spiritual poverty? What spiritual resources (see below) have you appropriated in your life? Which ones do you need to continue internalizing?
Spiritual Resources in Christ:
- I have been washed (1 Corinthians 6:11).
- I have been sanctified (set apart for special use) (1 Corinthians 6:11).
- I have been justified (pronounced “not guilty”) (1 Corinthians 6:11)
- I have been forgiven of my sins (1 John 1:9)
- When I sin, I have an Advocate – Jesus Christ, who speaks to the Father in my defense (1 John 2:1)
- I am a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- I have been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3)
- I belong, I have been adopted, I have a spiritual family (Ephesians 1:5)
- I have resurrection power (Ephesians 1:19-20)
- I have God’s grace that teaches me to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live a self-controlled, upright and godly life (Titus 2:11-12, 1 Corinthians 10:13)
3. Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-14. Unpack the meaning of verse 13 in light of the context of the surrounding verses. How does this spiritual truth help you to live your life as a Christian in light of temptation?