A mountain of politicking and rhetorical maneuvering stands behind today’s short Gospel. The Sadducees and Pharisees are competing with each other and with Jesus. Just before this passage, Jesus silenced the Sadducees. The Pharisees, a social movement allegiant to Mosaic Law and bitter rivals of the Sadducees, were pleased at their dishonor.
Yet Jesus was a staunch critic of Pharisees, even though he had just spoken in favor of their beliefs. So, why not prod Jesus a bit more? Perhaps they could tap him further to their advantage, or even humiliatingly trap him. If he were to approve a hierarchical order of the ten commandments, they could manipulate his answer to justify their own hypocritical practice of authoritatively adhering to some while conveniently ignoring the rest.
To some extent the approach of Pharisees mirrors our own moral dilemmas. We are free to decide our behavioral norms and often cater to our own self-interests, seeking loopholes and generous interpretations of law. Absolute norms have become archaic, while opinion polls, political correctness, and social acceptance take priority.
Like Pharisees, we ask which commandment is more important: you shall not murder, or you shall not covet anything belonging to your neighbor, or something else? If we can rank their importance, we will have wiggle room for cherry-picking.
Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees is black and white: no commandment can trump another; there is no ranked order. He simplifies the ten commandments in terms of simple co-equal Christian laws—one concerning the Father in heaven, and the other for humans. Jesus’ commands are absolute and simple. They demand offering ourselves totally to God the Father, and treating others in the same way we would like to be treated. Both require a deep awareness of how we conduct our lives, our spirituality, and how we treat every human being.
Adherence to the law is never simple. Our intrinsic fallibility causes us to stray from perfect obedience, but always there is hope. The heavenly Father welcomes all who return with a contrite heart.
Harindra Joseph Fernando
Wayne and Diana Murdy Endowed Professor of Engineering and Geosciences