30th Sunday ay in Ordinary Time
At the time of Jesus, all rabbis, at one time or another, had to face the ticklish question, “What is the most important of all the commandments?” Jewish teachers were frequently asked to summarize the Law in a brief statement. The Jewish “canon lawyers” had meticulously dissected the Law and had distributed its contents into 613 distinct commandments -365 prohibitions and 248 positive precepts. They were distinguished as light or heavy according to the seriousness of the subject. Rabbis had to be careful about their answer, because all the commandments were important for a pious Jew. In the presence of such an ensemble of precepts, we can understand the great need for a synthesis and a simplification of the Law. It is frankly difficult to see why Matthew says they were trying to “trip” Jesus with this question.
The Pharisees, then, sent one among them, a specialist in the Law, to question Jesus about this problem which was the subject of endless discussions among scribes and teachers: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus’ answer is sharp and unambiguous: Love is the answer. His summary of the law consists of two commandments that encourage love of God and love of neighbor. These two commandments are the threads on which the entire law hangs. Obviously, Jesus gave priority to love of God. Love for one’s neighbor comes “second”. But this does not mean that there is a chronological sequence between these two expressions of man’s love. Nor does it mean that love for one’s neighbor must be a “second class” love. What it means is that man’s love for his neighbor must be grounded on man’s love for God and enlightened by it. God’s love comes first as logical necessity, and as an inspiring principle to love man as he is supposed to be loved. True love for man is, at the same time, love for God.
Jesus’ answer would not have immediately struck his audience as very original. Other rabbis before him had pointed out that love of God and/or love of neighbor were basic to the Jewish Law. Jesus’ originality comes from showing the interdependence between love of God and love of neighbor. You cannot have one without the other. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Dt 6,5) and “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19,18). When Jesus says, “the second is like it,” he shows his originality. The bond between love of God and love of neighbor is absolute. There is no way out. There was no precedent in Jewish rabbinic tradition for linking these two commandments in so striking a way. Nor had anyone ever said, “On these two commandments hang all the teachings of the Law and the Prophets.”
God teaches us how his love for man should be expressed. We do not see God; the neighbor is nigh. God, who loves all his children, judges the love we say we bear for him by the manner in which we act towards brothers and sisters. According to St. John, man cannot love God if he does not love his neighbor; but of course, the sense of direction and motivation of love for man comes from one’s love for God, and not conversely. Doing what is contrary to our neighbor’s good, in any domain whatever, never corresponds to God’s will, to the love we owe him.
There is no alternative plan. To love God, we must love our neighbor. Loving God is loving neighbor, and loving neighbor means loving God. In his answer, Jesus reaches vertically up to God and horizontally out to human beings. God wants love from me, but he wants a love that is as all-embracing as his own. The vertical and horizontal must go together in sound Christian religion. The followers of Jesus are called to live at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. That is where Jesus lived and died, for the cross is itself the literal intersection of the vertical and the horizontal.