"Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22.34-40)
This Gospel, for this 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is of course one of the most beautiful of the teachings of Jesus and among the teachings in the Bible as a whole. These two commandments reach down to the roots of our faith and at the same time offer a teaching that is universally respected across the world and in resonance with every religious (and spiritual) tradition.
We should first of all take the question seriously. The expert in the law was asking a difficult question: of all the laws in the Torah, all five books of Moses, which is the greatest? This presumably did not mean “the one law that we should obey while dropping all the rest,” but that which comes first and provides the grounding for everything else that a religious person also does.
You could experiment with this. Try reading through the commandments given to Israel in the Torah and in the Prophets, and then narrow down those commandments to the most important ten or twelve. Then narrow that list down to five or six, and then three, and finally just one, the most important, the greatest. Which one is the most important? Not easy — even Jesus chose two commandments, not one. As Christians, we can do the same with the New Testament, or even just with the Gospels: list all the things Jesus commands us to do, and decide which among them is non-negotiable, essential to being a follower of Christ. Leave everything and follow me? Call no man your father? Pray with these words, "Our Father..."? Do not worry about tomorrow? Do this in memory of me? Or simply, "Love your neighbor as yourself"?
You could also more simply examine yourself as a 21st century person of faith: which passage in the Bible is the greatest — most powerful, most life-giving — for you personally, words that are your guide in life, refuge in time of trouble, the challenge that wakes you up? For myself, I might start with the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1), or the call of the apostles (John 1), or perhaps the Philippians 4 passage we heard at Mass several weeks ago. Or is there another text - a story, a poem, from any scripture or by any author - that is your go-to guide for life? Find your life-giving texts, re-read them, take them to heart, and then try once more, to love God and love our neighbors.
But if today we are commanded to love God and love our neighbor, we need to face the follow-up question: how actually to live out such commands? Surely the answer is given in practice, in what people actually do. If we recall that Jesus is answering the lawyer just several days before his death, we can say: see how Jesus lived out his ministry to the end, how he loved God and neighbor even to the giving of his life. Or as Philippians 2 puts it, see how he emptied himself, even to death, death on the cross - is that not love of God and love of neighbor?
As for the innumerable good Jewish people of the time of Jesus, what did it mean to obey these commandments? Surely the Torah texts Jesus is quoting would come to mind. First,
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Such words are to be woven intimately into the life of every pious Jew:
"These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6.4-8)
Loving God is not merely a good idea, or an isolated credal statement: it is rather a total love, a garment we wear, the visible sign of who we are as individuals and families and whole communities. It then overflows into a love in this world, with and for those around us.
As for loving God then by loving our neighbor: In the remarkable and quite difficult 19th chapter of Leviticus (read it for yourself, you will be puzzled, or shocked), these lines would surely jump out at readers, Jews or early Christians:
"Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord... When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19.16-18, 33-34)
Our first reading on this Sunday gets even more specific, by way of some verses from Exodus 22. Here too, foreigners and migrants, the poor and vulnerable, come to mind first:
"Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.
Yet there is more, since this is about concrete things such as money and clothing and a place to live:
"If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:20-26)
So what about us? In 2020, in our woeful year, amid pandemic, environmental disaster, the disease of endemic racial injustice, political warfare such as none of us has ever seen, and a week before a perilously important election: how should you and I love God and love our neighbor?
Our neighbor surely includes those nearest to us, family, friends, and the people living nearby. But it is also a matter of a wider vision of neighbor — think of the Good Samaritan parable in Luke — that includes the imprisoned, the migrant and the refugee, persons marginalized for all kinds of reason, be it race or religion, or poverty, or life choices, or sexual identity, etc.
How can we, in the dreary fall of 2020, find the energy and courage to love in practice, steadfastly, without discouragement? We need to look into our own inner depths, seeking God there, getting back in touch with the divine Spirit of love who makes love in action possible. St. Augustine is said to have said, “Love God, then do what you will.” This is true, since love begets love. God acts in us whenever we love as best we can. Grounded in love, we will be able to not give up trying to practice love body and soul, mind and heart, among neighbors old and new.