The Gospel for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost — this week’s Gospel — is chock-full of dogmatic and mystical theology. It is amazing that some very deep lessons come out of what is essentially a hostile encounter between Our Lord and His enemies.
After the Herodians were bested on the question of paying tribute to Caesar, the Sadduccees failed to ensnare Our Lord in their sophistic conundrum on marriage and the resurrection. These Herodian and Sadducaical defeats were problematic to all of those opposed to Our Lord because it was for all of them a gigantic PR nightmare: “And the multitudes hearing it, were in admiration at his doctrine” (Matt. 12:33).
Then came the turn of the Pharisees, who had already unsuccessfully conspired behind the scenes with their enemies, the Herodians, in the coin-of-tribute question. The Pharisaical champion, a “doctor of the law,” asks Our Lord what constitutes the greatest commandment of the Mosaic Law. The Master’s answer — exactly identical to that of another “doctor of the law” — seems to have silenced the Pharisees, who could not find in it anything they could use against their august Enemy. Our Lord then seized the opportunity to ask them a question:
And the Pharisees being gathered together, Jesus asked them, Saying: What think you of Christ? whose son is he? They say to him: David’s. He saith to them: How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? (Matt. 12:41-45)
As if to put their bad will fully on display, the Pharisees neither attempted an answer nor — what is more amazing — did they ask Jesus for His own answer to this query about Psalm 109:11 (That answer would have been very illuminating indeed!) Instead, they kept a very cynical silence:
And no man was able to answer him a word; neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.
Was Our Lord’s topical shift from the greatest commandment of the law to David’s mysterious twofold relationship with the Christ an abrupt change in subject? Or, rather, are we beholding, at some deeper level, a larger continuum of thought wherein the Person of the Christ and the double precept of Charity are actually related?
I answer that we are indeed looking at a logical continuity of thought that teaches a profound lesson about Our Lord and the precept of Charity. The pivotal thought is what is expressed in verse 40, which is nestled between the revelation of the greatest commandment and the two questions about the Son of David:
On these two commandments, all the law and the prophets depend.
In his duobus mandatis universa lex pendet, et prophetæ.
ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.
Jesus says that these two commandments — the love of God and, what is “like to it,” the love of neighbor — are so important that the whole2 of the Law and the Prophets hangs or depends upon them.3 We know these as the two commandments of the New Law, but they were already stated in the Old Law (Deut .6:5; Lev. 19:18), which is why Our Lord could say that they are indeed the greatest commandments of it.
What were “the law and the prophets”?
The Mosaic Law was our “pedagogue” in Christ — so says Saint Paul (Gal. 3:24-25; cf. here for explanation). Its major burden was to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messias. The ceremonial law was full of types of the future Messias; the judicial precepts governed the Jewish theocracy in righteousness; and the moral law, which yet remains in the New Testament, transmitted the ethical core which constitutes the ultimate “ought,” the most fundamental of moral imperatives. Christ the Victim and Priest was foreshadowed by the ceremonial law; Christ the King was foreshadowed by the judicial precepts; Christ the Prophet and Master was foreshadowed by the moral law, which is now perfected by Him in the New Law.
As for “the prophets,” they collectively constitute the other half of that shorthand summary of the Old Dispensation, “the law and the prophets,” a summary which is found all over the New Testament. (Recall that Moses [law] and Elias [prophets] were there at the Transfiguration both testifying to Jesus.) While the prophets frequently had to recall God’s people to the observance of the Law and even the fundamental precept and doctrine of monotheism, this was not their major burden. Rather, their major burden was to prophesy of “the day of the Lord,” i.e., the times of the Messias.
Now we may consider that deeper lesson Our Lord is teaching: how the double precept of Charity relates directly to the very Person of the Messias. Jesus Christ is true God and true Man. Of “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), Saint Paul says that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead corporeally” (Col. 2:9). As God, the Christ is David’s “Lord”; as Man, He is David’s “son.” (Had the Pharisees possessed the requisite humility, they might have learned about Our Lord’s two-fold nature.) Moreover, as man, Jesus was the neighbor of those to whom He was speaking. This is a logical conclusion from John 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
We may take that idea further. Being “neighbor” to Jesus is not exclusively true of the first-century Palestinian Jews among whom Our Lord dwelt, but it remains true for us today in the Church. Jesus is “nigh”4 to us in His Body, Blood, and Soul, and Divinity in the Blessed Eucharist — that is to say, He is simultaneously both our God and our neighbor when we are at Mass or near the tabernacle. Moreover, all those who, by faith and Baptism, have been incorporated into His Mystical Body are to us “other Christs”; we love Christ in them, and we love them in Christ. Charity is that “bond of perfection” [Colossians 3:14] which gives us the unity of the Mystical Body.
Jesus therefore, as one Divine Person with two natures (human and divine) joins and fulfills, while also elevating and concretizing these two commandments. With the revelation of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the two-fold precept of love of God and love of neighbor is brought to perfection in the New Law. In the worthy reception of Holy Communion, these commandments are most intimately obeyed; in the Mystical Body, their social perfection is realized. In Heaven, they will achieve their ultimate consummation; for then, as Saint Augustine tells us:
Thus the end will be the one Christ, loving himself; for the love of the members for one another is the love of the Body for itself.5
To such heights and depths are we called!
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- This is Psalm 110:1 in Protestant translations and more recent Catholic translations. ↩
- The Greek word ὅλος — hólos — is the origin of our English word “whole.” ↩
- Both the Greek κρέμαται and the Latin pendet mean literally “hang,” and by extension, “depend.” In fact, we get the word “depend” from the Latin pendere. ↩
- A neighbor is one who “dwells nigh” (near) to us. ↩
- See here for translation, here for the entire sermon in a different translation. ↩