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The Two Greatest Commandments

Today’s Gospel passage continues the verbal sparring that has gone on between Jesus and the various factions intent on discrediting him in the eyes of the people.  Over the past four or five Sundays, Jesus has had words with the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees and Herodians, the Saducees (although that contest did not appear in our Sunday readings), and today with a scholar of the Law.  The question posed is not all that out of the ordinary.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, various writers have tried to distill the 613 commandments contained in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy down to an important few.  You are probably familiar with some of those lists such as the ten commandments of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the ten commandments of Psalm 15, the six commandments of Isaiah, the three commandments of Micah, etc. 

Jewish literature is replete with people trying to summarize the commandments.  However, while the question is innocent enough, Matthew reports that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus in his words.  Once again, Jesus skillfully maneuvers out of the trap and summarizes the commandments in what is by now a famous pairing: love God, and love your neighbor. 

In the Gospel of St. Luke, this lawyer challenges Jesus further by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”  The question gives rise to the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.  That parable is firmly entrenched in our own culture.  We even have “good Samaritan” laws enacted by our legislatures.

A few years ago, a Catholic magazine, I believe it was “America” which is produced by the Jesuits, conducted a survey in which it asked people to specifically cite examples of how they express their love for God.  In over 90% of the answers, the respondents would almost immediately veer off into the notion of “love of neighbor.”  “I show my love for God by being kind to others, by helping those who are less fortunate, by volunteering for a good cause,” etc.  When pressed to cite examples that did not involve other people, most of the respondents were at a loss for words.  How do we express our love for God?

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is simply to ask how we show our love for a spouse, for a parent, for a child.  The answer becomes far easier in those situations.  We express our love for these significant people in our lives by spending time with them, by engaging in intimate conversations, by making sacrifices for them, by placing their desires ahead of our own, by thanking them and complimenting them, by apologizing when we do something that we should not have done.  Using these examples as our guide, it becomes clear that loving God is not all that different.  We express our love for God if we nurture our prayer life by spending time with and by engaging in intimate conversation with God.  We love God by making sacrifices and by placing God’s will ahead of our own.  We show our love for God by taking the time to remember to be grateful for all we have received, by praising God for the wonders of creation, and by expressing sorrow for our faults and failings. 

While this may seem overly simplistic, engaging in this kind of behavior can be very difficult for those of us who are so taken with ourselves.  So much of our culture reinforces the notion that we need to take care of #1, that we should be all that we can be, that we should go for the gusto.  Advertisers know this about us.  They promote this kind of thinking by playing upon our need for self-promotion.  This is precisely why we find the principles which Jesus espouses in the Gospel so difficult for us to embrace.  It is also the answer to why the Hebrew Scriptures contain 613 commandments, 365 of which are “Thou shalt not. . .”  While Jesus’ two-fold formula might appeal to us because of its simplicity, the hard truth of the matter is that loving God and loving our neighbor flies in the face of our human weakness for self-aggrandizement.  Some of us even find it difficult to say the words, “I love you,” and have been taught to think that such words are a sign of weakness. 

Attempts to distill the commandments down to the most important have continued down through the ages.  Perhaps one of the most famous to do this after Jesus was St. Augustine who wrote: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love of God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld. O.F.M.

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