This reading is an excerpt from the “book of the covenant” (Ex 20:22-23:19). The materials in this book are akin to many legal codes of the ancient Near East, the most famous of which is the Code of Hammurabi (twentieth century B.C.E.). The biblical code was apparently crystallized in the ninth century B.C.E.
Today’s reading comes from a section of the code dealing with laws of social conduct. They inculcate a social ethic based upon compassion. Abstract justice is not enough, especially for the underprivileged. This lesson was obviously chosen to go with the summary of the Law that forms today’s gospel reading. The effect is to slant the summary in a social direction.
This is a royal psalm of thanksgiving for victory in battle, possibly written by David himself. The selected stanzas make an appropriate hymn of praise for any occasion, but it is difficult to discern any specific connections with the other readings here, except perhaps in the refrain, which takes up the thought of the love of God found also in the summary of the law.
This week we continue Paul’s thanksgiving for the progress of the Thessalonians in the gospel.
This passage is particularly important for the hints it gives of what Paul had preached at Thessalonica on his foundation visit: “you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” From this it may be inferred that Paul’s gospel to Gentile audiences would have comprised:
- an apologetic for monotheism;
- a proclamation for the deliverance wrought by Jesus through his (death and) resurrection;
- the prospect of Jesus’ impending return.
In his evangelistic preaching to pagans, Paul could take less for granted than when preaching to the Jews. He had to start with faith in the one God.
We shall see later how the promise of the parousia would lead to serious problems for the Thessalonians when some of their number died before it occurred.
The summary of the law is not original with Jesus. Its two parts represent a combination of Dt 6:5 and Lev 19:18. Nor is the combination itself original to Jesus, for it is found in at least one earlier Jewish work, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, an amalgam of wisdom and apocalyptic materials.
Jesus’ thought was similarly cast in both molds, wisdom and apocalyptic, and the summary of the Law represents the wisdom facet of his teaching. Jesus undoubtedly appeared not only as the final apocalyptic preacher but also as the authoritative declarer of God’s wisdom.
In the Jewish parallels, the two commandments stand side by side, as a convenient summary. Jesus understands the interlocking of the two commandments in a new and quite radical way.
You cannot have one without the other. Without the love of neighbor, the love of God remains a barren emotion; and without the love of God, love of neighbor is but a refined form of self-love.