The Greatest Commandments

If you look up the word “love” in a dictionary, you will find something like this: Love means having an interest in and a warm regard for another, and wishing good for the other. That definition is satisfactory, though a bit flat and dull. This Sunday’s Scripture readings can help us fill out the dictionary definition and deepen our understanding of the biblical concept of love.

In today’s reading from Matthew 22, Jesus is challenged to choose the greatest among the 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). He names two: love of God (Dt 6:4-5) and love of neighbor (Lv 19:18). These commandments cover two dimensions of the biblical concept of love. The third dimension—God’s love for us—is even more basic.


God’s love for us is the fundamental presupposition of the entire Bible. God has loved us first, and so we can and should love God in return. God’s love has been made manifest in God’s gift of creation, in the choice of Israel as God’s people, in sending Jesus to us and in giving us life and the promise of eternal life. The theological virtue of love has its origin in God. Those who have experienced God’s love can love God and others in return.

The excerpts from Psalm 18, today’s responsorial psalm, express dramatically the experience of someone who has encountered God’s love and loves God in return. The psalmist proclaims, “I love you, O Lord” and describes the experience of God as the ultimate source of security and hope with a long list of images: strength, rock, fortress, deliverer, rock of refuge, shield, horn of salvation and stronghold. The key to keeping the two commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor is the recognition that God has loved us first.

The commandment to love God, which is known as the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”) and is a quotation of Dt 6:4-5, was (and is) part of Jewish daily prayer. The text suggests that our love for God must be total, involving all aspects (heart, soul and mind) of our person. The theological virtue of love has God as its object.

The commandment to love one’s neighbor (Lv 19:18) is part of what is known as the biblical Holiness Code. It challenges us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. While lack of self-esteem is a serious problem for some today, most of us are pretty good at taking care of ourselves (or at least we think we are). The challenge of the second love commandment is for us to take something of the care and concern that we instinctively show for ourselves, and to apply it to others.

Whom should we love? Who is our neighbor? Today’s reading from Exodus 22 provides us with some examples. The neighbor includes not only family members and friends but also aliens or strangers, widows, orphans, the poor and the very neediest in society. In the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan and other texts, Jesus pushes the definition of neighbor to include even enemies. In this framework the neighbor is not necessarily someone who can offer us repayment or provide some advantage for us. Love of neighbor is not simply enlightened self-interest. Rather, we should love our neighbor because God has loved us first, and in loving our neighbor we respond to God’s love for us and repay that love.

Jesus ends the conversation with the Pharisees by claiming that the whole Law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. The idea is that if we truly observe the two love commandments, to love God and love the neighbor, all the other commandments will be carried out naturally, as it were.

In addressing the Thessalonians, Paul notes that these recent converts from paganism to worship of “the living and true God” have become famous for their faith wherever the Gospel is preached. They had come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, in the saving power of his death and resurrection and in his glorious second coming. As his letter proceeds, Paul urges the Thessalonian Christians to express their faith through even greater displays of love for God and for one another. Observing the biblical love commandments is in the final analysis an expression of faith. The biblical concept of love is far richer and deeper than any dictionary definition can supply.

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