by Father Mike Stubbs
Some words just go well together: salt and pepper, ying and yang, fish and chips. They just fit together.
Another pair of items frequently pops up in the New Testament: “the law and the prophets.” Specifically, these words appear in Mt 5:17, 7:12, 22:40; Lk 16:16, 24:44; Acts 13:15, 24:14 and 28:23.
This stock phrase occurs in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 22:34-40. Jesus has just presented his twin commandments of love: love of God and love of neighbor. He then informs his audience: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
At the time of Jesus, these words referred to the two categories of Scripture that constituted the Bible for the Jewish people. It corresponded basically to what we now call the Old Testament.
The law, or Torah, was made up of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The second category, the prophets, is fairly self-explanatory, except that it also included books that we now classify as historical books, such as 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings.
That is why the two figures of Moses and Elijah stood beside Jesus at the moment of his transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-10, Lk 9: 28-36).
Moses, who gave the Ten Commandments, represented the law. Elijah, who was the first prophet, represented the prophets. Their appearance with Jesus indicated Jesus’ continuity with the law and the prophets, with the Old Testament.
The point that was made visually and through action at the transfiguration now is made verbally through Jesus’ teaching: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Jesus is emphasizing the continuity of his teachings with the Old Testament.
In addition, Jesus is maintaining that the whole Bible depends upon his two commandments of love.
The whole Bible hangs upon these commandments of love, much as clothes might hang upon a peg. The many words of Scripture boil down to one thing. They express God’s will that we love God totally and completely, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. God is all about love.
The question that prompts Jesus’ answer, however, does not ask for two commandments but, rather, for one.
Jesus’ two-for-one reply underlines the fundamental unity of the two commandments. They are inseparable, like Siamese twins. Divide them into two, and they will perish.