Thursday, August 18, 2016

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT


Homily for August 19th, 2015: Matt. 22:34-40.

          “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus is asked in today’s gospel. It was a standard test question in Jesus’ day. Studying the Ten Commandments and disputing about how they should be lived in daily life, the rabbis by Jesus’ day had developed 613 commandments: 248 positive laws, and 365 prohibitions. If those numbers seem high, they are modest compared to the 1752 laws in the Church’s book of canon law today.  

          Jesus answers his questioners by citing the command to love God completely in Deuteronomy chapter 6, and the command to love one’s neighbor in Leviticus 19. There was nothing novel about this response. Any rabbi would have approved Jesus’ answer. What was novel was Jesus’ insistence that the two commandments were on the same level. Up to then, the rabbis subordinated love of neighbor to the primary duty of loving God.

          Important for us today is understanding what Jesus means by “love” in his summary of the law. When we hear that word today, we immediately think of feelings. Not so Jesus. Feelings come and go. They are dependent on the weather, our digestion, our mood. In telling us we must love God completely, and our neighbor as well, Jesus is talking about an attitude.

          He is telling us that in every situation, God must come first for us. He must be at the center of our lives, not somewhere out on the fringe. And he is telling us that, in every situation, we must treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. That is the so-called Golden Rule. ‘Love others as you love yourself,’ Jesus says. Do we always have warm loving feelings about ourselves? Of course not. But (unless we are mentally ill) we always wish the best for ourselves.

          Though we often experience tension between our duty toward God and neighbor, Jesus tells us later in Matthew’s gospel that in reality there is no tension. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25:31-46) Jesus tells us: ‘Whatever you do for others – or fail to do – you do, or fail to do, for me.