In the beginning

Column: Both sides of the tablet interdependent, says Jesus

by Father Mike Stubbs

Pictures of Moses often show him cradling in his arms the two stone tablets of the Law.

They were the tablets which he carried down from Mount Sinai, the tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, the tablets which later on were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, enshrined in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. These tablets were preserved as a written document testifying to the special relationship between God and the people of Israel, much as we might keep an important contract in a safe.

Early on, the Ten Commandments were grouped into two sets, corresponding to the two tablets. The first set, made up of the first three commandments, outlines our responsibilities to God. The second set, made up of the remaining seven commandments, outlines our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. (Some traditions instead make the division between the first four commandments and the remaining six. It all depends on how the commandments are numbered.) So, we have one set for each tablet.

The Ten Commandments provide a good summary of God’s law. They are relatively easy to remember and keep track of, one for each finger on our two hands. At the same time, they were not meant to be exhaustive. During the time of Jesus, religious authorities listed 613 commandments in the Law. Even though each of those 613 commandments was important and expressed the will of God, still, the practicalities of daily life demanded a prioritizing. That led to the question: Which commandment was the greatest?

That is the question Jesus is asked in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 22:34-40. In his answer, Jesus includes two commandments, not just one. He responds with the commandment to love God totally and completely and the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself.

Jesus’ answer suggests that those two commandments are inseparably linked and cannot be observed one without the other. If the Ten Commandments offer a summary of God’s law, Jesus further reduces that summary to two commandments. Jesus goes to the heart of the matter.

At the same time, the use of the word “love” does not reduce our responsibilities to God and neighbor to a matter of sentiment or feeling. Ultimately, love always expresses itself through action. It requires a decision on our part.

Matthew’s Gospel makes that emphatically clear in its dramatic scene of the last judgment (Mt 25:31-46). The Son of Man separates the unjust from the just, like goats from sheep, based on how they treated the least among them. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners, we will show them love.

Indirectly, those actions also show love to the Son of Man and to God himself. We fulfill the commandment to love God totally and completely, and the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself, at the same time. St. Paul says something very similar when he writes: “The one who loves has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8).

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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