“How long will you straddle the issue?” (1 Kgs 18:21).
The thrilling account of the Prophet Elijah’s face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal shows how important biblical literature is to all of literature, including Shakespeare and all of what passes for contemporary hero stories, especially in film. Where can we find a superhero like this “Man of God” who challenges the people of Israel to stop straddling the question of their loyalty to God. He sets up the contest of the two sacrifices, giving the followers of Baal every advantage, then showing them once and for all that “the God who answers with fire is God!”
Jesus is in a similar face-off with fierce critics who reject his presentation of God as false and heretical. The establishment, represented by the high priests, the scribes and Pharisees, has reduced the Covenant to the letter of the Law. Their adherence to the rules has replaced the central commandment of love, and in their self-righteousness they have dismissed the poor and the outcasts as incapable of observing the rituals and rules they keep as the measure of purity and obedience. Jesus’ readiness to associate with sinners is regarded as contamination and clear evidence that he cannot be from God.
For Matthew, composing his Gospel for a primarily Jewish church in Antioch after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, answering the charge that Jesus was a law breaker was critical. By fulfilling the first commandment of love, Matthew affirms, Jesus fulfilled the entire Law and the prophets. Disciples who do the same are also keeping the law down to its smallest parts and teaching others to do the same.
In this season of Ordinary Time, we renew our own discipleship by listening to the Holy Spirit, poured out on the church to help us discern how to apply the law of love in our lives. This fulfills the basic commandment to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is no other God and there is no other reality.
Super heroes walk among us, not in capes, costumes and out-sized bodies, but in those who can call down the "fire of love" where it is most needed, to light the way for those in darkness and to warm the hearts of those who feel abandoned and forgotten by a world gone cold with fear. Let us be women and men of God, the face of mercy and the voice of truth in our own time, so in need right now of models of courage and compassion.