In today’s gospel, we find the Pharisees returning once again to Jesus in order to trip him up. Having failed in their previous two attempts, they make sure that this time they will succeed. And so, they send a scribe, an expert of the Law, to test Jesus about the Law. They clearly foresee in this encounter a heavily lop-sided mismatch.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” the scribe asks Jesus.Considering that there are 613 precepts contained in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and each of them is held as equally important and necessary to obey, the question is carefully contrived to corner Jesus and expose him as either ignorant of the Law or disrespectful of its parts if he chooses one over another.
Without hesitation, Jesus answers by saying, “You shall love the Lord, your God,with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And without pausing, he continues, “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.”
Jesus combines two precepts from the Torah, one on the love of God (Dt 6:5) and the other on the love of neighbor (Lv19:18) as one commandment within the context of the Covenant of God with his People. The first part (love of God)echoes the Shemawhich the Israelites recite every morning as a constant reminder of the Covenant. The second part (love of neighbor) alludes to the Covenant Code (Ex 20:22-23:33) which affirms that one cannot adhere to the Covenant if one violates those whom God has personally taken under his protection. Who are these? They are the familiar triad of the widows, the orphans and the strangers, society’s most defenseless and deprived members. (first reading)
Again, Jesus comes out of the snare unscathed, leaving the Pharisees and the scribe,simply stunned and speechless. But more importantly, the encounter once more provides Jesus with an occasion to inculcatehis most central teaching about love on which “the whole law and the prophets depend.” Note that the scribe asks Jesus for the one greatest commandment, and Jesus gives two. This simply means that the two are but one and the same commandment. Love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor.
When we truly love God, we love all that he loves. And God has such great love for humankind that “he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) In fact, God identifies himself with every man and woman whom he created in his image and likeness. That is why Jesus considers as done to himself whatever is done to the least of his brethren.
The ultimate proof then of our love of God is our love of neighbor. St. John puts it bluntly: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1Jn 4:20)
Commenting on today’s gospel, Pope Francis has this to say: “In the middle of the dense forest of rules and regulations — to the legalisms of past and present — Jesus makes an opening through which one can catch a glimpse of two faces: the face of the Father and the face of the brother. He does not give us two precepts… He gives us two faces, actually only one real face, that of God reflected in many faces, because in the face of each brother, especially of the smallest, the most fragile, the defenseless and needy, there is God’s own image.”
The story is told of an old rabbi who asks his disciples when one can tell that night has ended and a new day has begun. “Is it when you see an animal from afar and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” asks on disciple. “No,” replies the rabbi. “Is it when you see a tree from afar and you can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” volunteers another. “No,” is the rabbi’s same reply. “When then?” the disciples press. “It is when you look atthe face of any man and see a brother. If you cannot, no matter what time of day it is,it is still night.”
Taking the rabbi’s answer a notch higher, it is when you look at the face of a brother or a sister and see the face of God that the kingdom of God has finally dawned on you.
Although it was only towards the end of his life that Jean Valjean (of Les Miserables) was able to articulate this great truth, he had long learned from the time he experienced the kindness of Bishop Myriel that “to love a person is to see the face of God.”*