Living by the law of love in today's society
This Sunday, Christians who share the common lectionary will hear the response of Christ to the Sadducee who asked him, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" We are so familiar with the response of Christ that we often miss its genius. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
Jewish religious law, the Torah, was a code of some 600 laws, and their scholars debated endlessly which was the most important. Each Rabbi's choice indicated his personal religious philosophy. It was inevitable someone would eventually ask Christ, "Which is the greatest of all the commandments?"
The selection of Christ for the greatest commandment was not surprising. He picked the odds-on favorite, the Shema, which is the morning prayer of devout Jews: "Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone. Therefore, love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."
The originality of Christ's answer, his unique insight, was his choice of a second commandment and its essential connection to the first. "The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
The Sadducee did not ask for the second; he asked only for the first. Christ gave him the first and the second to make it clear you cannot understand one without the other. The first and the greatest commandment, love of God, does not stand alone. It is connected essentially to love of neighbor.
The most significant verse in this passage might well be, "The second is like it." Although this second choice of Christ, "Love your neighbor as yourself," was also from the Torah and high on every Rabbi's list, the bond between the two commandments was not yet evident. That bond is the new insight of Christianity. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable, two parts of one law. Love of God must express itself in love of neighbor, and in loving our neighbor we express our love of God.
Our modern czulture might wonder at a commandment to love. Many see love and law as mutually exclusive. But Christ commanded love three times: his double commandment to love God and our neighbor; his most challenging command, "Love your enemy;" and "A new commandment I give: Love one another, as I have loved you."
Love in Scripture is the love of commitment. It is the love of golden anniversaries, not the love of giddy adolescents. It is more about doing good than feeling good. Our pop culture sings, "All you need is love." Not Jesus. He saw a nexus of love and law. Love, as commanded by the law, comes first -- and second.
Father Earl Meyer is a Capuchin Franciscan priest at the Capuchin Center for Spiritual Life at Victoria.