“TEACHER, WHICH COMMANDMENT IN THE LAW IS THE GREATEST?”
- There is a natural, logical kind of loving that loves lovely things and lovely people. That’s logical. But there is another kind of loving that doesn’t look for value in what it loves, but rather creates value in what it loves. Like Rosemary’s rag doll.
When Rosemary was three years old, she was given a beautiful little rag doll, which quickly became an inseparable companion. She had other toys that were intrinsically far more expensive, but none that she loved like she loved the rag doll. Soon the doll became more and more ragged and less and less like a doll. It also became more and more dirty. If you tried to clean the rag doll, it became more ragged still. And if you didn’t try to clean the rag doll, it became dirtier still.
The sensible thing to do was to trash the rag doll. But that was unthinkable for anyone who loved Rosemary. If you loved Rosemary, you loved the rag doll too – it was part of the package. “Love me, love my rag dolls,” says God, “including the one you see when you look in the mirror. This is the first and the greatest commandment.”
Today is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time and just as we enter into the final phase of the Ordinary Time, the Scripture Readings of today remind us of what is most important. It is the commandment to love. The First Reading from the Book of Exodus assures us of the Lord’s compassionate stance for the needy and vulnerable. He cares for the foreigners, the widows and orphans, and the poor. He defends them because of his merciful nature as God. Just as the Lord is kind and merciful to the poor and needy among us, so must we be. The Second Reading from St Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, illustrates the dynamics of love at work in the early Christian community in Thessalonica. Having experienced the saving love of Christ preached and witnessed to them by St. Paul and his companions, they opened their hearts to the Gospel and imitated their Christian example. Moreover, the life that they lived by the power of the Holy Spirit enabled them to spread their loving faith in God to surrounding places. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, Jesus is asked for the greatest of the commandments. He does not say that it is ‘love of God’ alone, but adds ‘love of neighbor’ to it. Jesus gives them both. He is asked for one commandment and answers with two. Perhaps an indication that he saw them as one and the same thing. To love God is to love one’s neighbor. One cannot claim to love God and not care for others. By radically connecting the love of God with the love of neighbor, Jesus brings in a new teaching.
COMPASSIONATE STANCE OF THE LORD FOR THE VULNERABLE:
The First Reading from the Book of Exodus, tells us of the loving relationship that the Israelite people ought to have towards those under-privileged and vulnerable. The three issues touched on here concern groups of people who would have been particularly vulnerable in the socioeconomic system of the tribes following their settlement in Canaan. Resident aliens, widows and orphans, as well as the poor who had to borrow to survive, were all ‘at risk’ populations within a social milieu in which one’s welfare and security depended upon being a property owner or at least being or having a breadwinner to provide for the household. Of particular note is the way the text connects its social policy imperatives both to Israel’s own history and to the very nature of God. The Israelite people had been treated compassionately by a God of love in their times of vulnerability. No less would be demanded of them now, if they were to remain faithful to their covenant relationship with that same God of mercy. Concern for the poor and weak is a distinguishing characteristic of God, and He in turn requires His people to refrain from exploiting the vulnerable. Jesus in the Gospel Reading of today will pick up and develop this teaching by demanding love for one’s neighbor, and he will then link such love to the supreme command of the Law, the love of God above all else.
A LIVING MODEL OF FAITH:
The Second Reading from St Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, illustrates the dynamics of love at work in the early Christian community in Thessalonica. Having experienced the saving love of Christ preached and witnessed to them by St. Paul and his companions, they opened their hearts to the Gospel and became their imitators. Even through persecution, they persisted in their faith, receiving the Word of God with joy. St. Paul tells them that the joy in their faith during persecution is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and true imitation of Christ. Further, he praises them wholeheartedly for abandoning their idols to serve the true living God and thus becoming living model of faith for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. These were the communities where St. Paul was residing when the good news about the Thessalonians reached him. Moreover, the life that they lived by the power of the Holy Spirit enabled them to spread their loving faith in God to surrounding places. Finally, St. Paul asks them to eagerly await for Christ’s return who rescues all from future wrath.
“TEACHER, WHICH COMMANDMENT IN THE LAW IS GREATEST?”
In today’s Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, we have the last and final of the three questions put to Jesus to entrap him by his opponents – the first, regarding the payment of taxes to Caesar, about which we heard last Sunday; the second concerning the nature of the resurrection of the dead, asked earlier; and the third question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”which we hear in today’s Gospel Reading. The question seems simple, but it is really not. God, through Moses had given to the Jews the Ten Commandments; And by the time Jesus came into the world, their religious leaders had multiplied them to 613 or so. Now, for a devout Jew, all the commandments were to be observed with equal care. Surely to single out one commandment might suggest that the other commandments are not of equal weight, or of lesser importance. This is perhaps the trap that the Pharisees hope Jesus might fall into.
In response, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter – ‘Love,’ and answers the question on his own terms, splicing together two commandments quoting from the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus respectively – “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus answers the scribe’s question with a clarity that goes straight to the point and it is a succinct, triumphant, encapsulation of the Mosaic Law. He shows his mastery of the Scriptures in arriving at these two principles under which all the other laws and traditions may be subsumed. An attempt to entrap Jesus resulted in a profound synthesis of the Law in the Old Testament.
Clearly above Jesus is showing that these two commandments are not only inseparable but are in fact one commandment. However, there is in fact a third commandment implied in Jesus’ answer, namely, ‘Love of oneself.’ This third commandment is the one we often fail to notice and yet it is in some ways the key to the others. Jesus is here reacting against a one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in three dimensions. These three dimensions are (a) love of God, (b) love of neighbor, and (c) love of ,oneself. The first two are positively commanded; the last one is not commanded but presumed to be the basis of all loving. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you love yourself. What I am to myself becomes what I am to others and vice versa. And together we all go to God as he comes to us. In love.
Even though Jesus’ answer touched on all three dimensions of love, what is the emphasis, the point Jesus is trying to make? When one asks a question that demands one straightforward answer and the person answers his question and goes on to add another thing that he did not actually ask for, it is most likely that the person is trying to get his attention on the second element of the answer. So, the emphasis in today’s question about the greatest commandment is not on the obvious love of God but on the love of neighbor which the Pharisees were trampling upon. They, actually had great zeal and love of God, and were so conscious about its primacy and importance; but the point Jesus is making to them is that why then they are so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbor?
The error of the Pharisees is still here with us. There are still many Christians who try to separate love of fellow human beings from love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to love of their neighbor. We shall do well to heed the message of Jesus in today’s gospel: that true love of God and true love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a falsification of the message of Christ.
Today’s Gospel Reading is probably the best known and most memorized scripture passage in the New Testament. Love is at the center of Christian life. To love God with our whole being means to make God the center of our life. Once God is at the center of our life, the second commandment is easier to follow, to love our neighbor. It sounds as simple as that, but it is very challenging. It isn’t that easy as one may realize. We do not always love as we ought to and our failure to love is an indication that we ought to pray even more to discover and to fall in love with God.
Once an English journalist visited Kolkata, India to see the works of the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. He went to their old-age house at Kali-ghat Temple and watched an attractive young Nun dressing the wounds on a man with gangrene in his leg. The journalist was appalled by the very sight of the wound, but at the same time he was full of admiration for the young nun who seemed to show no disgust as she was cleaning the suppurating wound. “I wouldn’t do that for £1,000,” said the journalist. “Neither would I,” said the Nun, “I do it for love.”
Finally, it is God who first loves us and that makes us able to love ourselves and therefore to be grateful for the gift of ourselves. This awareness of life as gift is what we mean by loving God. We cannot love ourselves without being grateful to God, and it is this gratitude to God that sets us free really to love other people. Too often the value that we place upon others is tied up with what they can do for us – ‘What is their value to me?’ Truly loving one’s neighbor entails valuing them as gifts of God. Not only are we gifts of God, and our neighbors gifts of God, but the love with which we love ourselves and others is the expression of our love for God. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.