When my students are working on a paper, I always ask if they can summarize their thesis in one sentence. Similarly, when students are preparing a homily, I ask if they can say in one phrase what they are trying to convey. If they cannot do this, they still have much work to do to clarify what they are thinking and what it is they want people to take away from their paper or their preaching.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus which commandment in the law is the greatest. This episode is the third in a string of four controversy stories in Matthew 22, in which the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus. This is different from the accounts in Mk 12:28-34 and Lk 10:25-28, where the questioner is sincere and receives affirmation from Jesus.
In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees’ question tests Jesus in two ways. First, all the commandments are important and all must be kept. If Jesus were to say that some could be disregarded, they would have caught him. More likely, the Pharisees were trying to see if Jesus could match other famous teachers of the time who could summarize the law. Rabbi Hillel, for example, summed up the commandments thus: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” (b. Sabb. 31a). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made a similar statement: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). Now Jesus elaborates on that statement to bring into view the other side of the same coin: love of God.
The commandment to love God with one’s whole heart, soul and strength is found in Dt 6:4-9, the Shema, recited twice a day by Jews. The whole self is involved: the heart, considered the seat of emotions, the soul, the center of vitality and consciousness and strength or power. The command to love the neighbor is from the Holiness Code (Lv 19:18), which asserts that the way love of God is manifest is in love toward the neighbor. These are not really two separate commandments, then, but rather two faces of the same love.
What is not explicit in this text but appears in many other places in Scripture, is that God’s love is prior. Before one is able to demonstrate love of God and love of neighbor, God has taken the initiative in loving. When one has become open to God’s free, unmerited, unbounded love and has let the love sink deeply into one’s being, then one has the capacity to give love in return. When divine love overwhelms us, we are prone to ask with the Psalmist, “How can I repay the Holy One for all the good done for me?” (Ps 116:12). The response is one simple word: love. It has two objects, which are inseparable: God and neighbor.
Today, with our rise in eco-justice consciousness, we would include all creation within our notion of the “neighbor” to be loved. We would also include love of self, though this notion would have been foreign to people of the biblical world. They did not understand themselves in individualistic terms but rather as enmeshed in a particular family, clan and religious group and dependent on others for their sense of self-identity.
When the greatest commandment is to love, it becomes very difficult to spell out how to keep it. St. Augustine advised, “Love and do what you will” (Sermon 7 on the First Epistle of John). When tested on his knowledge and fulfillment of the commandments, Jesus passes with an answer that cannot be bested, but it can be repeated.