In his Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul praises them, saying that they have become a model for all the believers in their area of Macedonia and Achaia. He goes further, declaring, “The word of the Lord has echoed forth from you resoundingly”; and now, “throughout every region your faith in God is celebrated.”
This high praise makes us wonder: what did these Thessalonians do? What sort of behavior made believers in the entire region report and celebrate their faith? St. Paul gives us a few clues, most of which are related to the fundamental steps of conversion: they turned away from idols, for example. They welcomed Paul and his missionary companions and received from them the word of God, even in the midst of severe trials. They experienced “the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit.” Paul says that they “became imitators of us and of the Lord,” which surely means that the Thessalonians were authentically living the faith they had received. But beyond this, we know no other details.
We do know, however, that the faith that was passed on to them is the very same as the faith we have received. They had heard and were living in accordance with the two Great Commandments, pronounced by Jesus in today’s gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, we know that, whatever the details, the Thessalonians were living the Law of Love; and it was their faith expressed in love that was so inspiring to other believers (cf. Gal 5:6).
Jesus’ amazing statement, in which he revealed love as the basis of the whole law and the prophets as well, came in answer to a Pharisee-lawyer who was not practicing love of neighbor. This man tried some legal gamesmanship with Jesus, to show him up in front of those who gathered to hear him. His question about the greatest commandment could surely only be answered by an educated student of the law, so Jesus would be exposed as a charming fraud who did not really know the Torah. There are many pages of detailed rules in the Old Testament. In today’s first reading, for example, we are given part of a very specific list of laws, details about how to treat aliens, widows and orphans. There are further rules about how to behave when lending money, or one’s cloak. Which one of these will Jesus select in answer to the Pharisee’s question? The trick does not work. Instead of embarrassing Jesus, the question gives him an opportunity to transform the entire teaching and way of life on which the Jews had built their culture. He answers that the whole Law can be summed up in Love.
What freedom we have in Christ and in his Law of Love! Our salvation is not based on scrupulous observance of rules and vigilance in every detail. God calls us simply to love him and live by love in relation to our neighbor. This freedom puts a different kind of responsibility on us, however. We can no longer be satisfied with the letter of the law, comforting ourselves that we have obeyed the details. The Law of Love is not a legalistic law, one in which we can use arguments about rules to justify our behavior. We are answering, not to lawyers and judges, but to God himself.
Later this week, on All Souls Day, we will read Jesus’ parable describing the end of the world (Mt 25:31-46). At that time, he will not question us about details of law. He will separate us into two groups – those who fed him and welcomed him, and those who did not. To clarify how he will identify who should be in each group, Jesus says that, “as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.” And, in a message that warns us about what truly matters, he also tells the “goats”: “As often as you neglected to do it to one of these least ones, you neglected to do it to me.” We will be judged according to our faithfulness to the Law of Love.
Our earlier question, then, about what exactly the Thessalonians did that made them models for the other churches in the region, can be answered simply and broadly. They loved God with their whole heart, mind and soul, and showed that love by acting in loving ways to others, by loving their neighbors as themselves. We are called to do the same!
How do I express my faith in love? Do I act as though my salvation is dependent on scrupulous observance of rules? How can I grow in my love of God and neighbor?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.