Today’s Gospel is famous, rightly so. The question put to Jesus, “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” was an attack, another attempt to catch Jesus out. But he refuses to have a fight. His answer is straightforward. This is a serious matter, souls are at stake. And by his answer the Lord brought a new clarity and a new power into the world.
Answering the question of the Pharisee, the Lord puts together two quotations from the Law of Moses (the Torah). The first is from Deuteronomy about loving God with all one’s heart and the second from Leviticus about loving one’s neighbour as oneself. The Lord acts as a kind of distiller here. He extracts the essential liquor, blends them, bottles them and presents them. “On these two commandments, he says, hang the whole Law and the prophets.” He has brought everything together.
Let’s now rewind to the other readings.
In the 1st, from Exodus, there’s a brief unpacking of what it means to “love our neighbour”. The first belongs to a certain social context, not exactly ours. But it can be translated into ours, if we used words like the elderly and children, migrants and refugees, the marginalized and disadvantaged. Don’t abuse them, don’t exploit them, says the Law of Moses. This is a first step.
Then came the Psalm, definitely a Psalm of David himself. David is singing his love of God. He has experienced, perhaps in battle, his presence, his protection, his power, his providence and he has to give voice to his emotions. “I love you, Lord, my strength, my rock, my fortress, my saviour”. It’s so direct and passionate, so Davidic.
Then came the 2nd reading, where St Paul is singing the praises of the new Christian community in Thessalonica. He saw the love of God come to birth in them, leading them to break with idolatry and dedicate themselves to the service of the “real, living God.” And then he tells them how their faith has touched others too. There’s no greater love of neighbour than sharing the Gospel with them.
So, after the Law of Moses, the Psalm of David and a Letter of Paul we come back to the Lord himself, the summit of revelation. He intones, as it were, the two great commandments, puts them in lights and gives them to his listeners. We remember that this happened during Jesus final days in Jerusalem. He will shortly embody these two commandments in the Holy Eucharist and live them out on the Cross where he offered his whole self, heart and soul, mind and strength, to the Father out of love for us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not just resolving a Jewish debate. He’s making a gift to the whole world. He’s not just giving us the heart of the Law, he’s addressing our common humanity. It’s a huge moment. He’s saying that love is our vocation. We are made for love. St John Paul II expressed it magnificently: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor Hominis 10) We’re not failures as human beings if we fail to make a lot of money or fail an exam or a driving test. The only real failure is to fail to love (That is, in the sense these commandments call us to. Not everything that sails under the flag of ‘love’ is real love, as we know). We remember what Jesus said to the sinful woman: “her sins, her many sins, are forgiven, because she loved much” (Lk 7:47) showed such love for him, the Lord her God. Yes, love saves us. And at the end of our lives, said St John of the Cross, it’s on love we will be judged.
But what is this love of God we’re commanded? Not a gooey, sexy feeling, but neither something cold or abstract. It involves the whole of us, heart and soul and mind. It’s a commitment, an engagement. It’s a relationship, and one for life. It’s a response to someone who has loved us first and is made possible by the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 4:19; Rom 5:5). It isn’t love for some vague or distant “God”. It’s love, we’re told, for “the Lord our God”. For a Jew that word “Lord” evokes something / Someone concrete: the “real and living God”, a personal Being, Someone whose intent is to engage with persons and with a people. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of “our fathers”, who has created everything and each one of us. “O Lord, you search me and you know me. You yourself know my resting and my rising, you discern my thoughts from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down; you know all my ways through and through” (Ps 139:1-3). This is the God of the Exodus who gave them freedom, the God of the return from the Babylonian exile, who gave them a law and a land and dwelt with them in the Temple, who gave them a future after every failure. “It is the Lord who forgives all your sins, who heals every one of your ills, who redeems your life from the grave…who fills your life with good things, renewing your youth like an eagle’s “ (Ps 103, 3-5). And for the Christian, it’s impossible hear that word “Lord” without thinking of Christ, the Son, the risen Lord, and of all that he is for us – so incomparably, so indescribably, so inexpressibly. The One who has come closer still, is risen from the dead, present in the Eucharist, the One we wait for to come again. This is the One we love with a heartfelt, lifelong, purifying, sanctifying love, a love we are commanded and empowered to live, fired by the Holy Spirit and fuelled by the Holy Eucharist.
And the proof and the overflow of this will be our love of neighbour. Again, a covenant, a commitment, a steady will in the heart to affirm the good of others, those the Lord puts on our path. A hard-working, realistic, nitty-gritty (not airy-fairy) love, a loyal and patient and forgiving love, a self-giving sacrificial love. It expresses itself in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and flowers in community and joy. This is the force the Lord has unleashed in the world. On it hangs every other commandment, it can integrate everything good in our lives. A bishop who had spent his life evangelising in Papua New Guinea, a country traditionally rent by inter-tribal warfare, was asked what difference Christianity had made. “Love”, he said. I’m not obliged to consider others as enemies. During the recent Synod when the homeless around St Peter’s were asked what they expected of the Church answered likewise, simply, “love”.
And if we feel we’re short on love of God and neighbour, St John Henry Newman said simply, Pray for it.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 29 October 2023