On two occasions, the religious leaders in Jerusalem try to trap Jesus and find reason to accuse and condemn him. First, they send a group of Pharisees and Herodians (an odd alliance of two opposing groups momentarily united by a common enemy) to question Jesus about taxation. Next, they send a delegation of Sadducees (who do not believe in the resurrection) to question about the resurrection. In both instances, Jesus comes out unscathed as he outwits his adversaries and turns the tables on them.
Now they make a third attempt and send a scribe to question Jesus about the law. At first glance, it seems like a mismatch between an expert of the law and a non-accredited preacher and carpenter from an unknown town of Nazareth. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” the scribe asks Jesus.
The question requires Jesus to interpret the law which refers to the the Ten Commandments and the 613 additional rules and precepts found in the books of Moses (the Pentateuch). Israel regards the law as its most important heritage and adherence to it as its highest expression of fidelity to God’s covenant. In gatherings of teachers of the law, debates on the ranking of the commandments are a favorite pastime.
Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe asks Jesus which one commandment among the more than 600 is the greatest. Jesus responds by giving him two. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 (You shall love God…) and Leviticus 19:18 (You shall love your neighbor…) and affirms that they are inseparable and that they constitute the greatest of the commandments. Moreover, Jesus asserts that on these two commandments the whole law and the prophets depend. For the Jews, the book of the Law (Moses) and the book of the Prophets comprise the whole scripture. In effect, Jesus declares that on this dual commandment, divine revelation stands.
On hearing the Lord’s response, the scholar of the law suddenly becomes silent. He must have been mesmerized by Jesus’ answer because he is literally dumbfounded. In Mark’s version of the same incident, the scholar could only affirm Jesus by saying, “Well spoken, Master, what you have said is true.” In Luke’s, the scholar is so overwhelmed that he tries to justify himself with a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?”
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In today’s gospel, Jesus reveals that love (of God and neighbor) is the fulfillment of the law. Indeed, love is the hinge on which the two tablets of the ten commandments are fastened and made one. As St. John remind us, we cannot love God whom we cannot see when we do not love our neighbor whom we can see. (1Jn 4:18) Love of God is made real in love of neighbor. St. Paul goes even farther in saying that the commandments are summed up in love of neighbor. (Rm 13:10)
Love is more than just a nice feeling or a warm sentiment. It is made concrete in action. Tired of words and endearments, Eliza Dolittle breaks out singing, “Don’t talk of stars burning above, if you’re in love, show me! Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!” (from My Fair Lady).
We show our love for God by caring for others, especially the aliens, widows, and orphans (first reading), who typify the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. It is interesting to note that when God commands the Israelites to be compassionate to aliens, he reminds them that they were once aliens themselves in the land of Egypt. When we reach out to the needy, God asks that we also empathize with them. That we put ourselves in their shoes. Then loving becomes easier and more doable. Perhaps this is the reason why he commands that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Fast forward. Jesus gathers his apostles on the night before he dies and tells them, “A new commandment I give you: love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34)
What’s happening here? Jesus has just raised the bar for loving. He asks us to love not just as we love ourselves but as he loves us. With the new commandment, we come full circle and enter the very life of God which is love. We love God by loving one another as God loves us. Is this possible? Yes, because God empowers us with his own love. Since God does not command us to do anything beyond our capacity, he enables us with his grace which he offers in abundance through the Word, the Eucharist, the sacraments, the magisterium, the community… all spiritual resources entrusted to the Church for our taking.
A final thought. If all the commandments are summed up in love, then all I really need to do in life is to love. It makes sense then when St Paul says that even if I have all the gifts of tongues, prophecy, faith, and intelligence but have no love, I gain nothing. All that matters is love because the truth is that “without love I am nothing.” (1Cor 13:3)*