You can often read or hear that the Pharisees and their predecessors surrounded the 10 Commandments with 613 other laws – laws which strike us as odd when we encounter stories of Jesus healing on the Sabbath and the authorities respond quite negatively, challenging Jesus to keep holy the Sabbath. In our modern and Christian sensibilities, we cheer Jesus on as he “battles” for the Law of Love expressed in today’s Gospel.
How did 613 more laws get added? I have a little bit of empathy for the Pharisees on that point. They come about when good people ask questions such as: “Hey Father, as long as we get to church before the Gospel is read, it still counts for the Sunday obligation, right?” Or how about, “Hey Father, I know we are supposed to fast before receiving the Eucharist, but are we supposed to fast for an hour before the start of the 9:00 am Mass, or since Communion is not until about 9:45 am, is that when we mark the hour fast? I mean, can we finish a happy meal at the McDonald’s by 8:45 am and be ok?” Many folks like rules and the distinctions that can be made.
It is part of our human response to Law and all its synonyms: command, canon, covenant, demand, dictate, edict, injunction, ordinance, precept, decretum, regulation, and suggestion. “Suggestion” you say? Think about our highway habits: “The speed limit of 70 is a suggestion, right? We’ re allowed up to 9 mph above the ‘suggestion,’ right?”
Consider the first reading, today from the Book of Ruth. There was no law, command, etc. that asked Ruth to return to Palestine with Naomi. But it seems to me that Ruth saw the woman – husband and sons passed away – a stranger in a strange land – returning to her own place where people might or might know her – or accept her. It seems to me that Ruth saw with the eyes of love. Ruth understood that we love the people who we do see in order to more fully love God who we don’t see. Ruth understands the two great commandments.