The Talmud records a story about a young gentile man who approached Rabbi Shammai (a contemporary of Jesus) and promised to convert if Shammai could teach him the Torah while the young man stood on one foot. Shammai, who did not suffer fools easily, smacked him with a stick he happened to be holding. He must have thought, “The depth and breadth of the Torah in a few words? This is impossible.” The man then went to Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” Shortly thereafter, the man converted to Judaism.
Synthesizing the Torah was not unusual. There are traditionally 613 laws in the Torah. Rabbi Simlai (third century) taught that they represented 365 prohibitions given to Moses corresponding to the days of the year and 248 positive commandments corresponding to the limbs in the human body. Simlai taught that they could be reduced to doing right and keeping justice. Rabbi Akiva (first century) reduced the laws to just one: love thy neighbor.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus receives a challenge like that posed by the young gentile man. A scribe asks Jesus which of the commands is the greatest. This challenge is not simply to come up with the most important commandment, but to reveal the lens through which all the others, and perhaps even the whole of life, should be viewed. Jesus responds by quoting the lines from Moses that we also find in our first reading from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then Jesus adds, quoting Lev 19:18, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe is delighted, noting that such love “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
We should consider these two commandments as one, for love by its very nature has a unitive quality. To love God but not others is impossible, and to imagine loving others without cultivating a love of God—the very source of all love—is to make a colossal error. The First Letter of John puts both together: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Loving another fulfills the law (Rom 13:8); love is the one thing that is eternal (1 Cor 13:8), the new and complete commandment (Jn 13:34). Love then is both the means of union with God and the principal expression of what it means to be Christian (1 Jn 2:10). In short, Christian life is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
In my experience, my love for others (or lack thereof) is a telltale sign of the quality of my prayer life. When my spirit exudes a natural (or supernatural?) love and affection for others, I know that the Lord is deeply active in my soul, even if my prayer seems dry. And when my prayer seems gratifying, if I do not experience love for others, then I know I am in some kind of spiritual desolation. This is when I know I have to buck up and attend to others even if I lack feelings of warmth. I also remind myself that love is not merely emotional affection. Love expresses itself as service, generosity, care.
One of the most difficult challenges to our faith is to love those who are very difficult to love, especially those banes in our lives. Being grounded in God helps us to recognize their intrinsic value and change our spiritual posture toward them.
I was once living in a house with a very difficult person. Daily I raised him up in prayer. Picturing him and invoking the Lord, I asked that he be happy, be well, be filled with joy. I repeated these intentions for many minutes every morning. After a month I noticed that I was rooting for him and I genuinely cared how his day went. We never became friends, and my aversion did not vanish. But I think I started to love him. Who would have guessed?