“When you love Christ’s members you love Christ himself. When you love Christ you love the Son of God. When you love the Son of God, you love the Father. Love cannot be split up. Begin loving somewhere, and the rest will follow” - Saint Augustine (On the Letter of John 10, 3).
In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus, having been on the way to Jerusalem, has now reached the holy city. He has very quickly become somewhat embroiled in controversy. Various persons have tried to trap him. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks a meaningful (if slightly contentious) question about the greatest commandment.
It is good for us to remember that Jesus was a Jew among Jews with 12 Jewish followers — all of whom would have been grappling with similar concerns. By this time Judaism had formalized 613 laws or “commandments,” and it was natural to ask which among them was the most important.
Don’t we do a similar thing ? At times when it seems as if we are pulled in 613 different directions, or that we have to make a choice from 613 different options, or that our choice may have 613 possible ramifications — doesn’t it make sense to ask “What is the best choice ?
Who or what among these many do I give my time to? What do I do in this case or that, and how will I do it ?
Drawing deeply on God’s word spoken in Israel’s history, Jesus answers by citing the book of Deuteronomy and utters the Sh’ma. This prayer is the pinnacle of Judaic faith, a prayer which devout Jews still say daily, a prayer which contains all that Israel has to say to itself and to the world:
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone ! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.Sh’ma
While this prayer contained all that Israel had to say to itself and to the world, Jesus took it one step further — quoting as well from the Book of Leviticus: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
What was Jesus trying to do — have a little fun ? The scribe didn’t ask for a “second” commandment. Was Jesus trying to confuse or trick the scribe? Was Jesus trying to dance around the question? I think not. There is no reason to doubt that the scribe was most sincere and, clearly, Jesus emphasized his response by saying: There is no other commandment greater than these.
What Jesus did was introduce an “equal-sign” between the supreme love of God and the supreme love of neighbor. Any of us who have studied math knows what that equal-sign means: A = B and B = A (which, coincidentally, spells ABBA).
A = B : to love God equals loving neighbor!
B = A : to love neighbor equals loving God!
Therefore, two questions emerge for us — as they did for those listening: who is my neighbor and how does such love (for God or neighbor) become a lived reality in my life?
The second commandment Jesus quoted was nothing new – any good Jew would have heard it many times before. However, it had never been linked to the Sh’ma. As in all things, Jesus added a new dimension of understanding and enlightenment in his teaching; he took an old law and filled it with new meaning.
For the Jews of that time, love of neighbor meant love of other Jews. For the Jews, neighbor did not include non-Jews. Jesus made it clear, however, that neighbor included all persons. As we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made it clear that love of neighbor included love of even those who may be hardest for us to love!
Hence the question that St. Augustine pondered when he famously asked “What will love look like?” It is not enough to claim to love God; it is not enough to claim to be a Christian; it is not enough to go through the rites of initiation into a club or a country or a church and then to limit one’s involvement to one hour, or 45 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 15 minutes a week, or less! We cannot know the love of God unless we are awakened to it and we cannot love God unless we actively enter into caring for that relationship — working at it, nurturing it, making it real in our lives !
WE CANNOT LOVE WHO OR WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW
As Catholic-Christians, then, we need to ask ourselves, how do we define “neighbor?” Who are the ones in our neighborhood, in our world, in our society, in our churches, even in our own family that we would prefer to forget or to ignore? Can we profess to love our God and then turn our backs on others who are in need — on those whose ethnicity, or color, or language, or sexuality, or living conditions are different from ours? Can we profess to love our God and then ignore those who are the outcasts or the forgotten members of our society? Can we forget those who have no one to love them, those who suffer the stigma of a disease which does not discriminate among its victims, those who are most in need?
ITE MISSA EST: TAKING IT OUTSIDE
It is always easier to let ritual take the place of love. It is always easier to let worship become a matter of what we do in a church-building instead of a matter that should permeate our whole life. To love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength is to love God with the wholeness of who we are. In his willingness to go to Jerusalem, to die on the cross for all of us, Jesus surely foretold us what this commandment meant for him.
The question for us today is this: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR US? Let us ask our God to grace us as fully as possible that we may respond with the wholeness of who we are. Let us ask God to help us understand that in today’s gospel Jesus tells us that these two loves, (1) LOVE OF GOD and (2) LOVE OF NEIGHBOR, contain all that Christianity has to say to itself and to the world. In the power of God’s grace, let us always love boldly !