Deciding between good and evil is frequently not much of a challenge. But what happens when we have to decide between good and good? Jesus had to ask himself if he should heal someone on the Sabbath or refrain from doing work on that special day. Should I attend Mass on Sunday or take the day to visit an elderly mother in another town? This is the puzzlement addressed in the gospel today.
If there are too many laws, people get confused about what is truly important and what is secondary. The Jews had over 600 laws. One law might conflict with another law. Jewish moralists tired to figure out what laws are more essential, so people could know what laws enjoy a priority. The prophet Micah summarized the Law by writing, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?" A famous rabbi summarized the Law by saying, "What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbor. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary."
Perhaps the Scribe who engaged Jesus was experiencing conflict between the need to love the people in his life and the need to fulfill all the demands of Temple worship. Jesus resolved his problem by assuring him that practical love for God and neighbor comes before the need for ritual observances and worship. The Pharisees reversed the order. They absolved people from taking care of their old parents so long as they willed all their wealth to the Temple (Mark 7:11-12). In this way they became skilled in manipulating religious laws but deficient in what Jesus calls "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matthew 23:23).
Jesus is not looking at achievement but at attitude. He is not looking at the deeds themselves but the motivation behind them. Jesus is not interested in a barren religion – in only keeping the rules – but rather in relationships. He wants us to have a dynamic relationship with God and one another. Paul the Apostle recognized the responsibility to love when he said: "Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 8:10b).
Fr. Don Webber, C.P., is Provincial Superior of Holy Cross Province and resides in Chicago.