“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Ps 19).
It might have been enough for Jesus to get his disciples to keep the law. A world in which everyone observed the commandments would be just.
Today’s first reading from Leviticus 19 was probably well known to his followers. Moses’ teaching was called the “Code of Holiness,” and it was the goal of every Jew to fulfill it.
But Jesus wanted his disciples to grow beyond the law to the more challenging threshold of love, which requires more than obedience. Every step across the line of legal perfection into the territory of mercy is true discipleship, and it often involves risk and uncertainty.
This was the point of Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). A lawyer asked Jesus to define the limits of legal perfection. Jesus drew him into a story that compelled him to leap into the unknown demands of showing compassion to whomever he encountered in need. There is no rule book for this kind of response.
Jesus summarizes his daring invitation to practice compassion in today’s Gospel from Matthew 25, the parable of the Last Judgment. This teaching, like the Beatitudes, illustrates the realm of compassion that awaits the lawyer outside the safe limits of legal purity. And it calls all of us who want to be his disciples. What the Samaritan did spontaneously when he encountered the robbery victim lying naked and beaten on the road is what Jesus asks us to do in the Works of Mercy.
“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you covered me, sick and you cared for me.” What you do out of compassion, regardless of the law, risk of contamination, danger, the criticism of others, you do for me. This fulfills the whole law, to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Lent is our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Today’s readings alert us to what might lie around the next bend. Pray to be ready?